Plunder on the Spanish Main
Family on a boat next to a freighter

I’m getting ready to leave Caratagena, Colombia. I’ve been here with Darryl Lai on a shoot for the film Saving Atlantis, a documentary about the decline of the world’s reefs. It’s our first trip to Latin America. Here, like everywhere else, the loss of reefs impacts the local people first.

coral head in Varadero

We’re following the story of Varadero, a newly discovered coral reef at the mouth of Cartagena Bay. As the drainage of for a city of a million inhabitants it’s needless to say that the bay’s water quality is not so great. Still, this reef thrives. But its future is uncertain. There are plans to build a new shipping channel through the middle of it.

Some scientists from Colombia, Australia and the United States are scrambling to study and document this reef. Part of their team formed by members of the local fishing community of Bocachica, which, like 500 million other people in villages around the world, relies on the surrounding reefs as their primary source of protein.

Two fishermen in canoes

The scientists working on the reef team up with local fishermen and boat captains to cover the reef, sampling and studying its extent and assessing the environmental impacts of a new channel. The consequences would be dire.

As part of their work, they connect with the local Afro-Caribbean islanders who’ve been living here for centuries, surviving off of their close relationship with the sea. While we were with the team, the researchers gave an impromptu class to local school children about coral biology. The kids know this ecosystem as well as anyone, having grown up swimming, diving and fishing the reefs. Scientist Alberto Rodriguez said that he learned as much from them as they did from him.

Alberto Rodriguez teaches a class to island students

Santa Cruz del Islote is a tiny fishing village two hours by boat from Cartagena that covers every square inch of the island on which it’s perched. The houses stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and the only open space is a tiny plaza in front of the church and school about a quarter of the size of a soccer pitch. Their backyard is the spectacular water that surrounds the island. But the area’s coral reefs are disappearing. Sediment from a new channel in Cartagena could impact all the reefs on this archipelago.

Santa Cruz del Islote

Now it’s time to head back to the studio to edit our footage and assemble images and stories. We’ll want to spread the word about this place, where so many people, like the corals, are clinging to the edges of survival. The scientists, the islanders and, one hopes, others around the world who learn this story will watch closely in the coming months for what happens to the reefs of Varadero.

Corals on the San Bernardo archipelago

As always, when researching a story like this, I feel like I’m leaving with a chest full of stolen treasure. The stories and images are priceless, at least to me. And if we can connect them in such a way that they bring some awareness and understanding to the issues at play here, and around the entire planet where reefs are declining dramatically due the carelessness and nearsightedness of our economy and politicians and businesses that drive it, as well as that of our own fickle habits, then maybe Varadero can survive to become a treasure that we all can share.

David Baker by teslathemes