The story of Little Cayman’s coral population is one of survival. Much like reefs elsewhere, rising water temperatures, increasingly acidic oceans and other man-made factors have placed this ecosystem under immense stress.

Many predominant coral species in Little Cayman, such as staghorn and elkhorn corals, are critically endangered and have been red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Despite a constant barrage of environmental pressures, the Little Cayman reef has managed to survive, explained the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, and understanding its resilience may help protect reefs elsewhere.

“It’s one of the few reefs in the world to recover after the 1998 El Nino year, which caused record-high sea surface temperatures around the world and took a huge toll on coral reef health (some countries lost 90% of their living reefs) due to the massive coral bleaching events which followed,” the institute said in an email.

Scientists would like to better understand how Little Cayman’s coral fares during bleaching events, and the public can help play a part.

CCMI is making a call for citizen scientists to participate in surveying Little Cayman’s coral population during its next expedition with the Earthwatch Institute on 1‑7 Dec.

An Earthwatch Institute volunteer takes data on coral in Little Cayman in 2017. – Photos: Submitted

“We need the help of citizen scientist volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute to survey our coral reefs for evidence of these now annual coral bleaching events. Citizen scientists also assist our research team with mapping surveys, which allow us to assess the different types of coral growing in specific locations and the environmental conditions that support or seem to degrade them,” CCMI said.

Earthwatch volunteers and CCMI scientists have gathered five years of data in Little Cayman, including more than 1,000 surveys on coral bleaching conducted throughout the year.

“This has enabled CCMI to have a large multi-year database outlining trends of stony coral health before potential coral bleaching events occur, during bleaching events (if they occur), and the effects of stony coral health whilst they recover after these events,” CCMI said.

Volunteers require no prior knowledge to participate, but they are encouraged to practise snorkelling as often as possible before arrival. Before work begins, volunteers are provided with a briefing that includes online tutorials to identify stony coral, fish species and invertebrate species.

For more information on the programme, visit https://earthwatch.org/Expeditions/Helping-Endangered-Corals-in-the-Cayman-Islands.

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