ROYAL WEST INDIES
BACK OF BEYOND
THE RENAISSANCE ON GRACE
The Islands of the Turks & Caicos are often
described as a brilliant chain of pearls scattered in an endless sea. It
is true that these lustrous isles appear luminescent from afar, but it's
the setting that adds sparkle to these gems. Framed with a fringing lace
of reefs submerged in emerald colored seas, the surroundings set the stage
for the splendor of these jewels.
Metaphorically speaking, this analogy
symbolizes more than just a descriptive connotation. Undeniably, it is the
watery realm that enchants the eye and captivates the crowds here.
Although the land has its own indelible attributes, it is the lure of
ocean life that attracts most people to these shores.
For there is nothing ordinary about them. Our
waters contain one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world--the coral
reef. The tiny archipelago coined the Turks & Caicos is laced and
studded with countless miles of fringing and patch reefs. A haven for
multifarious troupes of water borne treasures, the reefs are a vital
component in the complex ecology of the ocean
But for most humans, it is merely a wondrous
playground, filled with colorful fish and curious looking creatures. In a
world that craves to be entertained, the reef is quite possibly one of the
greatest shows on earth! The simple act of snorkeling can bring one face
to face with all of life's dramas on one seemingly simple stage. Like a
soap opera in full swing, there are murder and mayhem, courtships and
caresses, and countless other acts unfolding before your eyes with a
single flip of your fins. And the costumes are to die for! In this watery
realm, every act is purposeful and perfectly choreographed to orchestrate
the balanced cycle of life that brings death and death that gives
Unfortunately, the growing audiences are
beginning to play a part in the demise of the reefs, disrupting nature's
fragile balancing act. The most offensive actions are those that impact
the corals, the cornerstones of this impressive undersea empire. Corals
are living organisms; architects and artisans in their own right. They are
responsible for creating the massive coraline framework from which a
multitude of other creatures can make their homes. As with almost
everything in the marine environment, corals also play a part in the
intricate food web. Once consumed, their remains take a role by turning
into the sands beneath our feet.
An Undersea Drama Unfolds
The many miles of reefs that adorn
the waters off of the Turks & Caicos Islands have taken millions of
years to become the massive structures that we now see. Layer by layer,
these minute organisms have laid down their lives to become the foundation
for the next generation's growth. In the process, they have perpetuated
the existence of much of the tropical marine
As if these magnanimous efforts were not
noble enough, the corals also act as a natural barrier, protecting the
land from stormy surges and waves. And as an aside, they have become
center stage for our burgeoning tourism industry, attracting thousands to
see the age-old reenactment of life in the undersea world. Millions of
dollars are generated annually to see nature's free production, yet few
are spent in the protection of its sustainable
Of most concern are our nearshore patch
reefs--meaning those that can be accessed from the shore without use of a
boat. On Providenciales, the tourism hub of the Turks & Caicos,
Smith's Reef and the Bight Reef accommodate most of the pedestrian
traffic. This is apparent in more ways than one. The effects of snorkeler
impact are finally taking their toll. The corals appear literally battered
and bruised with great gaps of dead white skeletons where once there was
living tissue. Although still considered a snorkeler's paradise, these
reefs are on the decline. Little by little, the cancerous process is
crippling the growth of the reef system, resulting not only in fewer
corals, but less of all the creatures that depend upon them.
Efforts have been made to try and slow this
debilitating drama. In 1997, underwater snorkeling trails were installed
on both reefs. The purpose of the trails is duo-fold. The series of
markers act to educate the snorkelers on the rules of reef etiquette while
steering them on a path that has the least potential for damage to the
reef. By following the trail through deeper waters on the outer rim of the
reef, snorkelers are less likely to traumatize the corals. This also tends
to localize any impacts to a given area, protecting the more shallow
Although these efforts may have
assisted in slowing the initial decline, the problems continue to increase
as more and more tourists arrive each year to snorkel these same two
reefs. Another option has emerged on the scene in hopes of deferring the
impacts. The alternative is the construction of an artificial reef in a
nearshore area that is easily accessible for beachgoers. The alternate
reef site should take some of the attention away from the other sites,
thereby decreasing the potential number of impacts to the original reefs.
Eventually, the escalating numbers of tourists may continue to overwhelm
the limited reef accesses, but efforts to spread the tourist pressures may
help to offset a more rapid decline.
Giving Mother Nature a Helping Hand
Artificial reefs are man-made
structures that provide surface area for corals and other encrusting
organisms to grow while offering protective habitat for beautiful tropical
fish and other prized species. In essence, they give a jump-start on
nature's natural processes by supplying what would take many years of
biological growth to accomplish otherwise in terms of structural
What are they made of? Many people think that
almost anything tossed into the ocean will eventually become an artificial
reef. This is not necessarily true. Lightweight debris usually just ends
up back on our shorelines. Substances that are corrosive will eventually
break down, usually long before a natural hardened surface can be formed
around the original structure. A number of products actually leach toxic
chemicals into the surrounding environ, doing more harm than good. A final
consideration is aesthetics. Few people are interested in diving or
snorkeling on a site that resembles the local landfill or junkyard.
Today's technology advocates the use of
prefabricated mold systems that utilize a concrete based product. Aside
from maximizing surface area for sessile organisms and providing refuge
for mobile animals, considerations for the design of these reef structures
include stability, longevity and chemically balanced concrete.
The Reef Ball Development Group has devised a
patented fiberglass mold system for the construction of artificial reefs.
Reef Balls are hollow, dome-shaped structures designed to imitate the
natural reef formations.
Each Reef Ball has its own
unique hole sizing and placement, with the surface textured for enhancing
settlement of marine life. The units are made with marine friendly
concrete which has been combined with additives to create a super-strong,
abrasion-resistant structure with a pH similar to ocean waters. They are
engineered for underwater stability and longevity, and cause minimal
impact to the surrounding areas.
A New Attraction
Once deployed, the Reef Ball will
begin to come to life through various natural processes. Almost
immediately, fish and other mobile marine creatures will migrate into this
new habitat in search of safe havens. Primary growth, consisting of a
myriad of marine algae, will flourish within the first few months,
nurtured by the inputs and outputs of the more mobile species. Corals and
other invertebrates will begin to take hold soon thereafter, creating a
coraline castle for its colorful inhabitants. Each structure will be a
unique creation, each array a community of individuals, and the whole
environment a balance of its parts.
reefs have been used for a number of purposes worldwide. With the decline
of our natural coral reef systems, reef restoration has been one of the
primary objectives. Other applications include using the structures to
build more naturally productive and aesthetically pleasing breakwaters, or
for enhancing fisheries production in a given
Here in Providenciales, we have used them as
the base mounts for our underwater snorkel trails which provide
educational information regarding coral reef ecology as well as
conservation ethics and stewardship for reef communities. We have now
expanded our use of the Reef Ball structures to furnish an alternate
snorkeling site in an attempt to divert impact pressures from the other
natural nearshore reefs to allow these systems to rebuild and flourish.
The Reef Ball Coalition, http://www.reefballcoalition.com/a
non-profit organization, has taken the Reef Ball concept a step further.
As with almost all things in this world, it costs money to build an
artificial reef. The Coalition has come up with a plan that not only
finances the construction of the reef, but provides the needed labor
through educational programs that teach participants about the importance
of conserving our coral reefs. It is in this manner that the new
artificial reef is being constructed on Providenciales. The only cost to
the Turks & Caicos is the use of the "Queen's Bottom" as they call it
(or is it Princess Alexandria's?), where the fabricated Reef Balls are
making their debut.
The Latest Release on
new artificial reef is located just offshore from the beach access area
known as Sculpture Junction at the intersection of Pratt's and Bight Road.
This site was chosen due to its proximity to the upcoming Visitor's Center
that will be directly across from the park entrance. Officials felt that
the location was opportune for maximizing both public awareness about the
reef and to educate visitors on reef conservation protocols. Once the new
Visitor's Center is complete, reef educational information will be
highlighted as part of the National Park interpretive display sections and
actively promoted through the Center's education programs.
A small, naturally formed reef does exist in this
area with several little coral heads scattered about. The artificial reef
structures are being placed in arrays to the right of the main portion of
the reef, steering snorkelers around several of the existing smaller coral
Each array is made up of eight to ten Reef Balls clumped
together and within visual distance of each other. To date, 27 balls have
been deployed in the area in three separate arrays. Each ball is
approximately two feet in height and three feet at the base width,
weighing approximately 350-500 pounds. A total of 100 Reef Balls, clumped
in 10-12 arrays, is anticipated to complete the Reef Discovery Site.
Setting the Stage
Making Reef Balls
is fun and relatively easy, although certainly not what you would call a
glamorous job. The first step is to assemble the fiberglass molds. Reef
Balls' patented mold system provides all the necessary ingredients with a
step by step script to ensure all bolts, pins and wedges go in their
proper places. Tether balls are used to make the hole placements, with a
large polyform bladder for the center spacing. A simple solution of sugar
water ensures that the molds pull apart easily.
Once complete, the molds are ready for the
concrete mixture. This is where the job gets dirty and needs a bit of
brute force. Obviously, the concrete needs to be mixed first, complete
with special additives, and should attain a desired consistency of cake
batter. The specially formulated mixture then has to be cajoled into
place, usually by banging the sides of the molds with rubber mallets,
jumping on the pallet base or even a well placed kick or two in the side.
(Swearing seems appropriate, but is not necessarily very effective,
although the scene reminds one of an aggression therapy
Then it's intermission time. The molds can
usually be pulled off after about 12 hours, but another couple of days are
needed for curing before the balls can be put into the
Transporting the balls to the beach and down
to water's edge takes the real True Grit, as in gritting your teeth as you
strain to move the balls and ending up covered in sand and grit in the
Deployment is even more of a gas, literally
speaking. Amazingly enough, these massive structures float with the aid of
the center polyform bladders. They are pumped up with the use of a scuba
tank, then leisurely floated out to the site. Remove the bladder valve and
Whoosh!, they drop to the sea floor.
As soon as the first Reef Ball lands on the
seabed, fish head for it. And so the process begins--it's now Mother
Nature's time to take over. Minute organisms will settle into the cracks
and crevices of the textured concrete and the ball will begin to grow.
Although several years are needed for complete coverage, the Reef Balls
begin to draw an audience of organisms immediately and will go through a
number of transitional stages in their growth. The production itself is a
world class premiere on ecology and how the environment can change.
Writing the Script
As with most projects of this
nature, an enormous amount of time and effort was required to get it off
the ground and in the water. Initial contacts concerning the idea for
adding an artificial reef to the Princess Alexandria National Park were
made in November of 1998. The paperwork process then began to obtain
approvals from various Government agencies.
first step was to submit an environmental impact assessment on the area
under consideration. This study would ensure that no negative impacts
would result from the placement of the underwater reef structures.
Biologically speaking, the artificial reef acts to enhance the local
productivity, but in physical terms, we had to ensure that there would be
no erosion effects caused by the additional reef.
This report was then submitted through the National
Parks Advisory Council, the overall agency responsible for such proposals.
Two key personnel were actively involved in seeing the project paperwork
through: the Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP) Manager, Mrs.
Judith Lynn Campbell, and the Department of Environmental and Coastal
Resources (DECR) Chief Scientific Officer, Mrs. Michelle Gardiner. Their
efforts truly helped to expedite the process. Because the site is located
on what is considered the "Queen's Bottom," Executive Council approvals
were needed. The Ministry of Natural Resources very efficiently lobbied
for approval with final consent for the project given in May of 1999.
Behind the Scenes
The next step was
to organize the participant programs needed to finance the whole affair.
The Reef Ball Coalition launched a marketing program to solicit
individuals or groups interested in helping with the project. Their first
approach was to organize holiday packages that would include two working
days for fabricating and deploying Reef Balls. (The rest of the trip
would be spent enjoying the sites and activities of the
Unfortunately, this approach has not yet
been successful for the TCI to date, but their environmental education
programs have. In this scenario, schools or groups can incorporate a reef
restoration element into their programs. Reef Ball Coalition staff assist
in training students and teachers in the fabrication and deployment of the
A dress rehearsal of sorts was
held in June, 1999 to induct local partner, Marsha Pardee Woodring and
husband Mark Woodring, along with several volunteers, into the Reef Ball
fabrication and deployment process. CRMP Conservation Wardens assisted in
the project. Jerry Barber, father and co-founder of the Reef Ball
Development Group, and son Jason Seeley, the representative for Reef Ball
Coalition, directed the show. In this initial training program, the first
10 balls were deployed at the Visitor Center site.
The Coalition's marketing efforts finally came to
fruition in November, 1999. The Living Classroom Foundation (LCF), http://www.livingclassrooms.org/,
another non-profit organization, had been inspired by Reef Ball's efforts
worldwide in reef restoration. Located in Baltimore, Maryland, LCF
operates for the benefit of the community at large, providing hands-on
education and job training, with special emphasis on at-risk youth and
groups from diverse backgrounds.
provides experience-based educational programs emphasizing the applied
learning of math, science, language arts, history, economics and ecology.
Key objectives of all LCF programs are career development, cooperative
learning, community service, elevating self-esteem and fostering
multicultural exchange. Although the Foundation typically works out of
their Maryland campus headquarters, they felt that a marine education
program, complete with its reef restoration aspects, would fulfill their
key objectives and goals. Thus began the staging for the Summer 2000 Reef
A Stellar Performance
After many months
of planning and preparation, the show was finally on the road and in the
air. Students arrived on June 30, 2000 for first of two intensive marine
ecology programs. The Provo Marine Biology Center became home base for the
kids and their chaperones, as they explored and experienced island life.
Each program lasted for 14 days, with a total of 37 high school age
students participating throughout the summer. Four Turks Islanders,
sponsored by scholarships from Bank of America, Living Classroom
Foundation, the Reef Ball Foundation, http://www.reefball.com/, and
Coalition, and the Provo Marine Biology Center itself, had leading roles
in the programs, introducing their counterparts to life in the TCI.
The curriculum for the LCF Reef Restoration
Programs covered a number of ecology topics based on the local marine
environs. Although the focal point was coral reefs, students learned about
the importance of seagrasses, mangroves, biological, physical and chemical
processes and how they all interact to support our flourishing reefs. They
also learned much about man's interactions, most commonly seen as
environmental impacts, and what they could do as responsible citizens to
alter the negative responses.
"Learning by Doing" is
the motto of LCF's programming, and the students did just that. Beyond
daily snorkels, kayaking and sailing excursions, the participants
initiated an ongoing beach clean-up campaign for every site they
encountered. The students were also responsible for developing a project
geared toward teaching others about the importance of the marine
environment. As the project had to be interactive, many were produced in a
game format that will later be transferred to the Internet or published
for use in our local schools. The climax of their community
efforts was the additions to our artificial reef project. A total of 16
additional Reef Balls were added to the Visitor's Center Reef Discovery
Site during the course of the summer sessions.
in all, the LCF Summer 2000 Reef Restoration Programs were a grand
success, with stellar performances from all that participated. What will
they remember about these islands beyond being mesmerized by the colors of
the sea? Yes, the Turks & Caicos are truly beautiful by nature, but
even more, that they are a place where good things actually do come to
For all those that shared in this endeavor,
stand up and take a bow. You are the future ambassadors of this planet and
you deserve a standing ovation for your talented and heartfelt efforts.
The timing for
completion of the Visitor's Center Reef Discovery Site is reliant upon
obtaining more financial and physical assistance for the project.
Participant programs are a prime example of how people can become actively
involved in reef conservation efforts. The Reefball Coalition, in local
partnership with the author of this article, Marsha Pardee Woodring, is
actively pursuing the development of other such programs. Meanwhile,
Living Classrooms Foundation has already begun planning their Summer 2001
Proposals have been written to solicit
sponsors for local schools in short "workshop style" programs, where kids
can be literally immersed in reef conservation. Donors are also being
sought to finance trail markers that will add the educational component to
the underwater artificial reef. Those who wish to assist in any of the
above goals should contact the author via the information
Woodring can be reached at Phone/FAX 649-946-5578 or at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fall 1999: Not Just Another
Fall 1999: Whale Watching
Winter 1999/2000: A Tour
Back in Time on the Island that Time Forgot
Winter 1999/2000: I
Remember It Well
Heraldic Birds of the TCI
Turks & Caicos Islands, Beautiful by
Just A Beach