Like “snowflakes in reverse,” tiny bundles of coral spawn drift to the ocean’s surface. It is the moment of conception for new coral reefs that will form over hundreds of years in the waters around the Cayman Islands.
Amid concern for the future of reefs in George Town harbor and across Cayman generally, experts say the annual natural phenomenon provides hope for the future health of the islands’ marine environment.
At Ocean Frontiers dive shop in East End, scuba divers and photographers gathered last week to watch the show.
During a limited window of time, late at night in September each year, many of the corals on Cayman’s reefs spawn simultaneously, releasing eggs and sperm together to cross-fertilize and scatter in the current.
“It is comforting to know that new corals are ‘born’ every year, and we can only hope that some of them bond to Cayman’s reefs and form new coral colonies,” said Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers.
The dive operator has worked with marine biologist and photographer Alex Mustard over the past 13 years to predict when the annual spawning, connected to water temperatures and the lunar cycle, will occur.
Ocean Frontiers schedules late-night boat dives to see the show in action, and this year was able to predict the timing of the spawning within five minutes.
Mr. Broadbelt said some visitors had traveled thousands of miles to observe the phenomenon.
Mr. Mustard said the appeal of watching corals spawn is the thrill of seeing something that few others get to witness.
He added, “It is like diving in a blizzard, with the tiny fat-filled bundles drifting slowly to the surface like snowflakes in reverse.”
He said he and Ocean Frontiers had incredible success in predicting the timing of the spawning, though the exact triggers remain a mystery.
“This is nature and you can never be totally certain when chasing five minutes in a whole year. That, of course, is part of the thrill.
“As humans, we are too used to bending the natural world to our will, but to see coral spawning, we have to dive to nature’s rhythm.”