If you ever want to enter a magical new world, head under the waves. Holly, my nephew Jack and I went to the Cayman Islands recently for an absolutely fascinating trip diving with spawning groupers.
We were invited by Dr. Guy Harvey, a Cayman resident, conservationist and artist who has done a huge amount to raise awareness about the plight of groupers and to protect them. In the past, fishermen would fish spawning aggregation sites, hugely harming the populations of endangered Nassau Grouper. After a 10-year effort to protect the spawning sites, numbers rising to healthy levels once again. By protecting the sites, the number of fish to be caught sustainably is growing, alongside the number of fish for divers to see on the reef.
We had the great pleasure of diving in the spawning site and seeing the remarkable spectacle for ourselves. To me it was one of the top 20 wonders of the world. We went down to a ledge at the bottom of the ocean, which then dropped off thousands of feet. We floated amongst thousands of groupers.
It was like being on the maternity ward of the ocean, with thousands of fish mating together. The whole of the sea became like a giant cloud and the ocean looked like sky. The odd shark would appear on the scene and it was incredible seeing the grouper swarm together to see off the predator.
This amazing spawning season, normally in the first few months of the year here, has sadly all but disappeared in many parts of the Caribbean. I remember diving with massive groupers in the BVI 30 years ago – I haven’t seen any since. Sadly, the same applies to most of the islands in the Caribbean.
I’ve come back to the BVI determined to see if there’s’ any chance of reinvigorating groupers here. A grouper puts out particular mating sounds when it's looking for a mate in the same way that humpback whales do. We will be using hydrophones to see if there are any spawning sites left in the British Virgin Islands as well as diving old spawning sites to see if any are alive.
It's a little bit like looking for treasure. If there is a spawning site still alive and it gets protected, with some education outreach and luck, the numbers should get back to normal within a decade. I hope we can get them back to the wonder of the Cayman Islands.
I just hope it not too late.