Monday, 13 November 2017

Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate: 4 Horsemen of the HURRICANES APOCALYPSE hit underwater too

Storms impacted the reefs and wrecks of the Caribbean

Grand Cayman's Kittiwake-smashed-by-tropical-storm photo by Jason Washington iDive Global Ltd and  Ambassador Divers

Hurricane Hell's Fury, Irma-geddon and the current nom d’jour, Hurricanes Apocalypse, are terms scuba divers use to describe what it looks like underwater in 2017’s Hurricane Alley.  This fall’s storms have devastated several states in the US and whole countries in the Caribbean. Unseen by most is the damage done underwater. The hurricanes carpet bombed coral reefs, dumped sand and debris on fish spawning grounds and pushed shipwrecks on their sides.
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) moderate hurricanes can help the underwater world, but Hurricanes Apocalypse have inflicted damage that could take a century  from which to recover.
“Small hurricanes can provide fast relief during periods of thermal stress, whereas waves from large hurricanes can reduce a reef to rubble,” reports NOAA. “Coral reefs have experienced these effects of hurricanes and survived for millions of years; however, in light of the rapidly changing climate, the ability of corals to recover from severe storms, while facing the combined effects of increasing thermal stress and ocean acidification, could be extinguished.”
 The dive community has just begun to get back in the water. What they are finding is really luck of the draw. Not all reefs have been hurt, but yes there are underwater tracts that have massive destruction of coral heads, the deforestation of sponges and coral beds smothered in sand.

In the rubble of a broken reef a ray looks for food - sweirsweir

In the Florida Keys their 360-mile long Reef Tract is the continent’s only coral forest and is the earth’s third-largest barrier reef. Surveys found large areas of the coral beds near Key West are heavily damaged.
According to the Florida Keys News, Force Blue, a coral-restoration organization of diving veterans hit the water after Hurricane Irma “performing some triage on the priority coral species like staghorn and elkhorn,” reports the paper. “They’re helping turn some massive coral heads upright that could be hundreds of years old. This stabilizes the corals and gives them a better chance of survival.”
Similar reports are coming from all over the northeastern islands in the Caribbean Sea. I was told by the Dominica Government that “overall 35% of reefs at our dive sites are damaged, particularly sponges and softer corals above 45 feet. Currently all nine dive operators are closed for business and most will not be operational before January 2018. Upon resumption the number of dives per day will be reduced to ease the strain on the fragile reefs.”
Shipwrecks are favourite dive sites in the south. Usually scuttled near the surface to allow free divers to swim to the top of the ship and scuba divers to safely go deep on the vessel’s deck, there is a report of a large steel shipwreck lifted off the bottom, moved deeper and flipped on her side.
Hurricane Nate, the least famous of the Hurricanes Apocalypse, didn’t hit Grand Cayman Island, but her wind driven underwater surge did! After the storms ended, dive shop divers discovered that the purpose-sunk Kittiwake had broken free of her moorings and is now resting on her port side.
The 251-foot ship was sunk in 60 feet of water seven years ago. I took this picture of her shortly after her scuttling. I talked to Jason Washington, the owner iDive Global Ltd and Grand Cayman’s Ambassador Divers, who took this picture of the newly positioned Kittiwake! He says people are back diving her and enjoying the change in scenery.
Most of the dive shipwrecks in the Florida Keys have escaped major damage. The 510 ft. warship, the USS Spiegel Grove was once flipped by a hurricane. This year Hurricanes Apocalypse put a 5 ft. longitudinal gash on her bow.
Kraken: before and after sinking

It is all not bad news. Last week I contacted a British Virgin Island artificial reef project to see if their Kraken covered shipwreck was storm damaged. 
The Kodiak Queen survived Pearl Harbour but has long been decommissioned. In April, divers including Sir Richard Branson made the 25-metre trawler into an underwater art project. A giant sculpture of the  Kraken was welded to her bow and she was then sunk into the protected waters of the BVIs.
Before divers could start visiting her in large numbers, the British colony was devastated by the hurricanes. Last week there was an inspection and Project spokeswoman Alexiz Whitley told me "the BVI Art Reef is still stable after the hurricanes. There was little damage luckily so all is open for diving (once the BVIs recover)".
In a sea of bad underwater news, I join other divers in celebrating that even after Hurricanes Apocalypse this Kraken wasn’t released.

Story by Stephen Weir. Appeared on Linked In and other social media outlets. Originally written for my Huffington Post Blog

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