Egad, it’s been a month again. Just thought I’d drop a note to let concerned readers know that I am indeed still alive. For the last two weeks, I’ve been pedal-to-the-metal doing field research in the Caribbean, around the island of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles to be specific (the previous three weeks, and for that matter the last several months, require a more prosaic excuse, with which I will not bore you). For some reason, it’s always very difficult to convince people that I have been working my you-know-what off on a tropical island. They invariably jump to the conclusion that we’re sitting around drinking fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Which is not true at all — we never use those little umbrellas. I do realize that this does not qualify me for hardship pay. Hence the title of this post.
Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not complaining. If you’re going to be working somewhere, a tropical island is a favorable place to do it. Our team was on Curacao as part of a research project, supported by the National Geographic Society, studying the ecology and biogeography of symbiotic Caribbean shrimp, which I have alluded to before. This may sound a bit obscure (OK, it is obscure) but we argue that the high diversity and clearly definable habitats of these shrimp, which inhabit living coral-reef sponges, makes them an ideal group for studying general questions about the origin and maintenance of coral-reef biodiversity. And, since the Carmabi Research Station where we set up shop is surrounded by hotel beaches and tiki bars, we got a lot of practice honing this argument for the constant stream of mildly amused random passers-by who were wondering what on earth we were doing so intently while they lay all day in a state of sun-and umbrella-drink-induced torpor. I hope I don’t sound like an ingrate.
So (as the old explorers’ tales go): there we were. Very interesting place, Curacao. Quite different than anywhere else I’ve been in the Caribbean. Looks more like Texas. I’m told that the name Curacao derives from a Portugese term that translates roughly as “wasteland”. And it surely must have seemed so to exhausted 16th century sailors looking for decent food, water, and precious metals. The island is very arid, with a negligible layer of debris that passes for soil covering the limestone rock and supporting a burnt-looking vegetation of vicious thorn scrub (Acacia of some sort) and saguaro-like cacti. Not much good for anything other than goats. And lizards of several sorts, which are ubiquitous. Those enterprising colonialists did manage to find a use for the place as a hub of the slave trade, which they would no doubt be happy to forget. Nowadays, however, it’s a bustling place with a population of 150,000 people supported mainly by the massive oil refinery that processes the fruits of Venezuela’s wells a few miles away on the South American mainland.
For our specific purposes it was an equally interesting place. Great diving: clear water, and lots of the magic coral rubble that produces shrimp, in relatively shallow water. Indeed, the reef at Eastpunt, at the windward eastern end of the island removed from much human influence, had without a doubt the highest coral cover and diversity of any place I’ve seen in the Caribbean in the last few decades. Easily 80-90% cover of live coral. And small but healthy thickets of the formerly dominant shallow-water Caribbean corals Acropora cervicornis and Acropora palmata, which have long since succumbed to disease and various other stresses elsewhere. Very strange — like a visit several decades back in time. A rare and much valued ray of hope in a bleak outlook for Caribbean reefs. It is a tremendous relief to know that these reefs exist at least somewhere. Hope springs eternal.
To be continued . . .