Reef recovery effort continues

Volunteers have spent nearly 1,000 hours working to restore a large section of reef damanged by a cruise ship anchor last year, but there is much work left to be done.

Volunteers with the Magic Reef Recovery project have spent nearly 1,000 hours working to restore a large patch of reef that was destroyed by a cruise ship anchor last year. They have cleared tons of rubble, built coral nurseries and painstakingly rebuilt pieces of coral, cementing pieces together, but there is still much work to be done, organizers of the recovery work say. 

In August 2014, the captain of the 1,000-foot Carnival Magic cruise ship mistakenly anchored in an unauthorized zone outside of Don Foster’s dive shop. The cruise line has maintained that it was directed to anchor at the site by Port Authority officials.  

According to volunteer Ralph Ariza, organizers had hoped to finish the restoration effort by October, but will likely continue to work until December.  

“Definitely by the end of this year, we will evaluate if it makes sense to continue going or if we just need to leave it alone,” Mr. Ariza said. “It’s pretty near and dear to us, so as much as possible, I think we’re still going to want to go out there even if the project is not officially going on.”  

Between coordinating volunteer schedules and waiting to receive necessary resources, “it’s taken us a long time to get things running the way we wanted to,” he said. 

Jo Bond, who has been volunteering with the project since it began, says they have been able to save “crates and crates” of live coral, but that she didn’t “really appreciate at first look just how much there was to do.”  

The recovery project is considered to be one of the largest volunteer-led operations of its kind, Mr. Ariza said. 

There have been larger reef restoration projects around the world, he said, but they have typically been funded by governments or universities. After Holland America’s Maasdam ran aground on Soto’s Reef off George Town in 1996, the cruise company financed the restoration effort, paying divers to work full time. Mr. Ariza estimates that recovery project took at least 9,000 hours of labor. 

The Magic Reef Recovery effort does not have the same type of backing. Its lifeblood has been community support, individuals volunteering their time and businesses donating their resources, from dive equipment, to boats to fuel for those boats. In the spring, the project was boosted by a fundraiser that raised nearly $30,000, as well as a $100,000 donation from Carnival Cruise Line, owners of the Carnival Magic cruise ship. With those funds, the group has been able to buy a boat and has begun to pay its regular volunteers. 

The group spent nearly $16,000 on a 24-foot Sportfish called the Honey Badger. Previously, volunteers had to either swim from shore, which limited their dive time, or depend upon donated boat time from local dive operators. The Honey Badger is launched from Don Foster’s dive shop, which has donated the use of its dock. 

The boat, which the group has been using since May, allows volunteers to go out more regularly, said Mr. Ariza. In the past few weeks, volunteers have been going out every Saturday and Sunday and sometimes another day during the week. The boat can accommodate six people, including the driver. Ms. Bond said the boat has allowed volunteers to make more dives per day. 

“We’re getting three times as much work done a day now,” she said.  

Volunteers have been salvaging live coral from the rubble and are now beginning the painstaking process of reattaching it to the reef using marine epoxy. 

Mr. Ariza said the project needs regular volunteers more than anything else. 

“As the months have gone on, we’ve had quite a bit of fluctuation in the number of people that have been coming out to help us,” he said. “In the first few months, there were times that boats were fully packed and you didn’t have enough space for people who wanted to volunteer, and you would have times where the boats wouldn’t run because you would have so few people.” 

The organization is now able to offer regular volunteers $30 per dive. The payment, which began at the end of June, has not led to an increase in volunteers, said Mr. Ariza, but it has made it easier for regular volunteers to continue their work. 

“We’ve all been juggling full-time jobs in addition to trying to go out there as often as possible, so now it’s a little bit better in that you can maybe take a day off work and go out there and dive,” he said. 

Individuals who wish to volunteer with the reef recovery effort need to be open water certified and have DAN (Divers Alert Network) accident insurance. Volunteers need to come out at least three times in order to be eligible to receive payment. Details of restoration dives are posted on the group’s Magic Reef Restoration Facebook page. 

Volunteers work to remove rubble and salvage coral as part of the Magic Reef Recovery project.
Volunteers work to remove rubble and salvage coral as part of the Magic Reef Recovery project. – PHOTO: myb777 photography

Volunteers on the Magic Reef Restoration project fill bags with rubble near the site where a cruise ship dropped anchor on the coral reef, wrecking 20,000 square feet of reef.

Volunteers on the Magic Reef Restoration project fill bags with rubble near the site where a cruise ship dropped anchor on the coral reef, wrecking 20,000 square feet of reef. – PHOTO: myb777 Photography


  1. The reef recovery effort sounds like the Government is doing this. Spend a great part of the money on boat, then is going to evaluate at the end of the year if it makes sense to continue. I don’t know how many reef restorations has Mr Ariza has done, but I think that he should know that you cannot leave broken coral laying on the bottom of the ocean for 1 year and expect it to be salvageable.

  2. The coral has not been left lying around on the ocean bottom for a year. It has been placed in a nursery environment and is thriving. Over 90% of the corals that have been reattached so far have survived. If nothing was done to the site and all the rubble left in place then every time there is a storm the damage would spread and continue to kill even more coral. Mr. Ariza and myself have not only studied coral restoration but have also participated on other projects such as the Masdam grounding in 1996. The site is continually monitored by DoE and as far as the cruise ship docks go… we will continue to work and save this reef for the residents of Grand Cayman until we are either finished the job or instructed to stop by DoE. At this point in the game people should be looking at saving every piece of coral we can.