Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Paloma on Cayman Brac, staff of the Department of Environment conducted an assessment of the damage to the reefs and forests.
An island-wide in-water survey of the nearshore environment of both the Sister Islands revealed that damage to the marine environment could have been much worse; limited to the occasional removal of soft corals, sponges and algae in shallow areas and associated sand and rubble movement as a result of heavy wave action.
‘The lagoon on the south side of the Brac contained a sunken vessel and some housing and structural debris’, said Tim Austin, director of Research. ‘This will require a clean up effort.’
Damage to the Bluff forest was more severe. The once almost impenetrable greenery of the forest was laid open. Hardly a leaf was left in the canopy. In places, 99 per cent of cover was lost. The tallest trees – those whose crowns emerged above the canopy, and those exposed to the full force of the winds by the developing roads network on the Bluff, bore the brunt of the damage. In most areas, 5 per cent to 20 per cent of trees sustained severe damage, and it was noted that this damaged increased significantly towards the east end. Toppled trees included some well-known parrot nesting sites. Worst effected is the shrubland in the lighthouse area, suffering under the combined pressure of wind and salt-spray.
However, on a brighter note, many of these species are designed to survive extreme weather conditions. All the endemic flora of the Brac has been surveyed and all species have survived the storm, including Verbesina caymanensis – a species unique to the cliff face around Peter’s Cave.
Some 21 dead Brown Booby birds have been recorded, raising serious concerns that an even larger number may have perished in the storm. This represents a significant blow to the Brac’s Booby population, which will be surveyed again in December, in more detail.
Close examination of the forest, however, revealed that, in most cases, the fine branches of the trees remained largely intact. Additionally, the understorey vegetation was much less effected by the wind.
‘This is good news for the forest and its wildlife’ said Mr. Mat DaCosta-Cottam. ‘The trees which have maintained their fine branches should be quick to re-bud, and the maintenance of the understory vegetation will mean that most of the forest wildlife will have had somewhere to shelter, and ride-out the storm’.
Two weeks after the storm, new shoots are already visible on many of the trees. During the interim period, however, a temporary feeding programme has been established, until the forest is recovered, to see the Brac birds and wildlife through the lean weeks ahead.
Supporting the campaign of Cayman Wildlife Rescue, Tracy Galvin of the Department of Environment has been co-ordinating the collection and distribution of food for the relief effort. DoE Technical Assistant Chris Dixon has been collecting unwanted fruit, kindly donated by local supermarkets, from around Grand Cayman. Kirks, Fosters and Hurleys are all actively contributing. Cayman Imports is supporting the project, through use of their chiller facility, and Cayman Airways Cargo are delivering several shipments each week.
DoE Marine Enforcement Officer Robert Walton is heading up the Brac side of the project, with the help of his father, George, and a volunteer team of Brac residents. Together, they have constructed and placed a dozen feeding stations at strategic locations around the island. Areas known to support large numbers of birds are being targeted – the elevated constructions allowing the birds to feed without attracting rats and predators. Individual feeders have also been placed around the island.
Support from Brac residents from the project has really been overwhelming, despite the fact that most are dealing with the devastating repercussions of Paloma for themselves.
For further information on the plants and animals of the Cayman Islands, see www.CaymanBiodiversity.com or contact the Department of Environment on 949-8469.