From a distance, Grand Cayman has never appeared more serene.

In the days after the island closed its borders, drone footage captured stunning images of clouds of blue and emerald water surging towards a thin line of fresh white sand, barely touched by human footprints.

The coronavirus crisis is causing turmoil for people across the globe, including in the Cayman Islands.

But for the planet, the temporary lapse in human activity is providing much-needed respite.
NASA satellite imagery has illustrated a rapid decline in fumes from traffic and power plants as production has shut down across the developed world.

And with more than a third of humanity in lockdown, wildlife is beginning to reclaim some of the urban spaces we have temporarily vacated.

Wild boar have been seen in the city centre of Barcelona. Mountain goats walk the streets of Welsh towns. Monkeys swarm once-busy highways in Thailand.

In the Cayman Islands, the most obvious  change is on the coast.

Though the Easter weekend has seen heightened activity, prompting a temporary closure of public beaches, the broader effect of the COVID suppression measures has been a reduction in human impact. The absence of boat traffic in the water and of tourists on the beach, has revealed once again the stunning natural beauty of the island.

Photographer Morne Du Plooy captured this image with his drone just after the airport closure.

In Little Cayman, in the days before a boating ban was expanded to cover all marine activity, shore divers observed a rarely seen hammerhead shark on a popular dive site.

On the roads of Grand Cayman, agouti, feral chickens, even blue iguanas, have been spotted. The constant din of construction has been replaced by the calls of Cayman parrots.

Such small consolations will provide little succour to those impacted by the terrible reality of COVID-19. The ever-present danger of the virus and the havoc it is wreaking on Cayman’s economy rightly dominate the national conversation.

But there is little doubt that the slowing of human activity across the Earth, however temporary, will be a good thing for the natural world.

“Anything that takes the pressure off natural systems and gives them the opportunity to rejuvenate is a good thing for them,” says Gina Ebanks-Petrie, the director of Cayman’s Department of Environment.

“It might not be a good thing for us,” she added, “but if our natural systems get a break through this, then that is a small silver lining to this coronavirus cloud hanging over us.”

A break from exploitation of the ocean

The principal impact in Cayman will be the lack of activity on the water. It’s not just about the boating ban, which is likely to be temporary if Cayman comes through the first phase of the coronavirus crisis.

The longer-term shutdown of the tourism industry means fewer divers, less fishing and less activity on the water in general.

“Our reefs are getting a bit of a break from over-use and over-exploitation,” says Ebanks-Petrie.

She said it was unclear at this point whether there had been a measurable change in wildlife behaviour as a result of the shutdown.

More sightings may simply be a consequence of people slowing down and noticing the natural world more, in the few moments each day they are allowed to spend outside.

“It is early days. We are very interested to see whether there is any measurable impact. It is something we can try to decipher when we get back to research and monitoring.”

New outlook

Jessica Harvey, of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, wakes up every morning to the sound of parrots and whistling ducks in the wetlands near the condo complex where she now spends most of her time.

As a nature lover, it is something she has always paid attention to, particularly now that it is mating season for Cayman parrots. But with the island on lockdown and the noise of construction and traffic absent, she is finding more and more people are also tuning into the rhythms of nature.

“The fact that people are noticing it is wonderful,” she said.

Parrot song has replaced the sound of traffic across Cayman.

The curfew restrictions, Harvey believes, have given people a new appreciation for the value of their environment.

Going to the beach, swimming in the ocean, snorkelling on the island’s reefs are no longer things that can be taken for granted.

Riding a bike down an empty road during her 90-minute exercise allocation, Harvey found herself reflecting on the rapid growth of the island and the chance that may emerge on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, to re-evaluate how the island manages its future development.

“I really hope this time gives us an opportunity to appreciate what we have here and what we were starting to lose by growing too fast,” she said.

For the planet in general, she believes, a new outlook on our relationship with the natural world would be a good thing.

“We have needed a reset for so long,” she added.

Human activity is literally slowing down

Globally, there has been a measurable impact from the shutdown of travel, industry and all forms of human activity.

NASA and European Space Agency satellites show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide fumes – from cars and power plants.

The average number of ‘good quality air days’ in China increased by more than 20% in February, according to a Chinese government report cited by CNN.

Meanwhile, scientists have recorded a measurable decrease in ‘seismic noise’ – vibrations of the planet – that they believe is associated with transport networks and other human activities being shut down.

Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, told the British journal Nature that the measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had caused human-induced vibrations to drop by a third.

Though no one is recording emissions or air quality in Cayman, Ebanks-Petrie said it was evident that pollution from traffic – one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases – was down.

A new reverence for nature’s power

Such emissions have a knock-on effect on the oceans.

At the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman, researchers already keep track of the impacts of this pollution on ocean acidification.

Director Carrie Manfrino warns the pause in industrial activity will likely be too short to have any meaningful impact on climate change.

But she is hopeful that one good thing to come out of the crisis may be a new respect for science and a new reverence for the power of nature.

If warnings about the threats posed by global warming, deforestation and unsustainable growth were heeded with the same urgency as the warnings over COVID-19, she believes the world would be in better shape.

“I would like to think that science is going to be much more prominent than ever,” she said.

“People have a better understanding of how we use science to prevent and to control these kinds of natural disasters.

“I hope this is a profound realisation for society that we are capable of change and that it is not too late.”

But she fears a return to business as usual through economic stimuli without regard to the environment could result in further suffering.

“If there was ever a chance for us to change the course of humanity, now is the time,” Manfrino said.

“Our governments and corporations have an opportunity to press a reset button that could bring about the changes needed to control climate. With trillions of dollars stimulating our economies, why not focus on technologies that can lower emissions? Why not ramp up renewable energy and opt out of fossil fuels?”

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now