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Virgin Island corals in crisis

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Fast-spreading coral disease ravages reefs of St. Thomas

A coral disease outbreak that wiped out nearly 80% of stony corals between Florida’s Key Biscayne and Key West during the past two years appears to have spread to the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.), where reefs that were once vibrant and teeming with life are now left skeleton white in the disease’s wake. The fast-spreading disease—believed to be Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD)—has marine scientists scrambling to understand what’s causing the outbreak and how or if it can be contained.

The disease is affecting a variety of reef-building coral species—many of them long-lived—and appears to be spreading from reef-to-reef throughout southwestern St. Thomas,” said Amy Apprill a marine ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It’s the worst multi-species coral disease we’ve ever seen in the Caribbean, and most of the corals that get it die.”

Rapid response
St. Thomas and the other U.S. Virgin Islands depend on corals for tourism and food, and to buffer coastlines from storms. With funding from a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant through the National Science Foundation, Apprill, along with colleagues from the University of the Virgin Islands, Rice University, Louisiana State University, University of Texas at Arlington, and Mote Marine Laboratory, are conducting a task-force style investigation to learn more about the disease’s pathology, how it may be spreading through the ocean, and how coral immune systems are responding to it. The researchers are also trying to determine if the outbreak can be stopped before it completely decimates reef ecosystems throughout the region.

At this point, there’s no end in sight,” said Apprill.

According to Dan Holstein, a coral reef ecologist at Louisiana State University, it’s unclear how the disease has spread from South Florida to the U.S. Virgin Islands. “We don’t see an immediate link or reason it would have travelled south,” he said. But he suspects that it could be spreading through the region from boat ballast water or ship hulls. “One reason we’re looking into this is that the first observation made of the disease in the Virgin Islands was very close to the port of St. Thomas, where ships drop their ballast water,” he said. “Based on this hypotheses, we’re creating hydrodynamic models to predict where the disease might move next now that it’s established in the region.”

Similar signs to Florida outbreak
Regardless of how it got to the Caribbean, the researchers feel that the disease they’re seeing is the same one that caused the loss of nearly 100,000 acres of corals in Florida over the past five years. Most of the U.S.V.I. corals that have been affected so far—brain corals, pillar corals, and other stony species—have exhibited the same types of large, stark-white lesions as those affected in Florida.

At Apprill’s lab in Woods Hole, Mass., she and her team are analyzing samples of corals from a recent experiment that took place in the Virgin Islands to try to confirm that it is in fact an SCTLD outbreak, and to better understand the pathogen and other microbial responses to the disease.

Our collaborative team conducted an experiment where we held affected corals next to healthy ones to track the spread of the disease, and to test to see if there are immune functions that certain stony coral species have that others do not,” said Apprill. “We are also looking to identify a bacterial pathogen, and understand how changes in how the coral microbiome may impact disease susceptibility.

‘Natural disaster” for reef ecosystems
Marilyn Brandt, a coral disease ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands who is leading the investigation, has seen many coral diseases come and go throughout the Virgin Islands but says this one is unprecedented. “The rate of spread is much faster than diseases we’ve known in the past, and what’s really devastating is the number of corals it’s killing,” she said. “A lot more are being affected than we’ve seen in previous outbreaks, and whereas other diseases tend to burn themselves out, this one continues to march down the reef.”

Despite the persistence of the disease, attempts to mitigate it are underway. When possible, researchers surveying the reefs are removing affected colonies to try to curtail the disease’s spread. And the public is being encouraged to report sick or dead corals to the U.S.V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources and to avoid impacted reefs. The public is also being asked to disinfect any gear that may have come in contact with water in an affected area. But according to Apprill, containing disease outbreaks like this could become more challenging if microbes become more pathogenic in the future due to climate change.

This particular outbreak is indeed a ‘natural disaster’ for reef ecosystems that’s going to require us to work fast and collaboratively to understand it and fight it,” she said.

This research is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Biological Oceanography program, and is a collaboration between Marilyn Brandt and Tyler Smith (University of Virgin Islands), Amy Apprill (WHOI), Adrienne Correa (Rice University), Daniel Holstein (Louisiana State University), Laura Mydlarz (University of Texas at Arlington) and Erinn Muller (Mote Marine Laboratory).

For more information visit the WHOI website by clicking here.

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Frontline workers honoured with free dive trip to Yap

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The remote island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia is among the few places in the world that remains free of Covid-19 thanks to its ocean border and a strict travel ban that has kept its residents safe.

Nonetheless, Yap has been affected, too. As one of the world’s premier, award-winning destinations for divers, this paradisiacal location in the western Pacific Ocean has had no outside visitors to its rich shores and reef for nearly a year. But while there may be no virus, the island hasn’t been cut off from the economic impact experienced around the globe.

Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers by A. Tareg

That didn’t stop Bill Acker, CEO and founder of the Manta Ray Bay Resort and Yap Divers, from doing something, though.

Last March, soon after the island went into lockdown, Bill began to realize the effect of the virus on daily life beyond the island. “Yes, we are closed, have no divers, had to send our employees home and prepare for difficult times,” he said. “But we’re lucky in that we have, for the most part, avoided the human suffering and death this pandemic has caused.”

Thinking about the problems faced by his family business, they paled when he compared them to those endured by the healthcare workers who have been fighting selflessly around the clock for months on end for the well-being and lives of others.

“One evening, while checking the news online, I saw pictures of frontline workers who were tending to desperately ill and dying people when families and friends could not be with their loved ones. It was heartbreaking,” he added.

The next day, a meeting was held with the resort’s staff and Bill invited suggestions for ways they could do something to honor healthcare workers. The result was the idea to award twenty divers who are working on the frontline to save other’s lives during this pandemic while risking their own, with a free week at the resort.

Manta ray, Manta birostris, gliding over a cleaning station in M’il Channel, Yap, Micronesia by David Fleetham

Divers around the world who had been guests at Manta Ray Bay in the past were invited to submit the names of candidates for the award by December 31, 2020. “We received nominations for 126 individuals from as far away as Germany, the U.S., Australia and Canada,” he said. “It was not easy choosing the winners but our committee of staff members took on the job and selected the 20 finalists.”

“While trying to choose the people to reward for their hard work during this Covid-19 crisis,” Bill added, “by reading the nominations we saw that every one of the nominees was doing things above and beyond the call of duty. Sadly, we don’t have the finances to offer over 100 free weeks in Yap, but we do want to recognize the contributions all of them are making to our world. So, we are offering the rest of the nominees a free week of diving in Yap which includes room, hotel tax, airport transfers, breakfast, diving and Wi-Fi.  The only requirement is that they travel with at least three other people and stay in two rooms or more.”

“We do not yet know when Yap will open its borders,” said Bill, “but when it does, we will welcome these important guests to Yap to relax and dive with the manta rays and the other beautiful denizens of the ocean surrounding our island home. They are the true heroes of this devastating, historic time and we look forward to honoring them with a well-deserved dive vacation.”

Watch out for our exclusive trip report from a healthcare worker from the UK who is one of the 20 to have been awarded this amazing dive trip!

For more information on Manta Ray Bay and Yap Divers visit their website by clicking here.

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Dive Training Blogs

Dream Dive Locker Build Out. Part I: Demolition (Watch Video)

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It’s finally here! Time to start building the greatest dive locker the world has ever seen! Part I: Demolition! #dreamdivelocker

This is the first of a series of videos showing the evolution of building out my dream dive locker. My dream dive locker needs to be dive gear drying and storage, dry storage, workshop, office, editing suite, You Tube studio and classroom. That’s a lot of functions for a small space!

The first step is planning out the space and demolishing the laminate flooring. Then I taped up the walls to get a feel for the space. We have a lot of work to do!

But finally we will have a purpose built space to house all of our dive equipment! Subscribe to our channel to follow our progress! 

Thanks for watching, Team!

James


Subscribe here: http://bit.ly/DiversReady

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Jump on board the latest addition to the Emperor fleet and enjoy diving the famous sites of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer. This itinerary takes in the wonderful South & St Johns from 26 February – 05 March 2021.  

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Call Diverse Travel on 01473 852002 or email info@diversetravel.co.uk to book your spot!

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