BVI Reef Checkers Observe Changes in our Most Precious Resource  –  At 7:50 a.m. on a Tuesday morning at Prospect Reef, I board the dive boat Virgin Sun accompanied by dive instructors Marc Lyng and Bettina Dittmar from Dive Tortola, Randy Kiel of Paradise Watersports on Peter Island and Arjan Stoof from BVI Yacht Charters. After gearing up the boat with tanks and such (they gear up the boat—I watch), we head over to Norman Island’s Soldier Bay to pick up divers from Serendipity, a striking 50-foot Beneteau, and head out to Pelican Island to participate in this year’s Reef Check.

On the ride over to Pelican, Serendipity captain and BVI Reef Check coordinator Trish Baily discusses the day’s plan with the divers, a group of volunteers from the States and elsewhere, including the owners of Serendipity, Carole and Mark Morrissey. Each diver is assigned a section along the reef, marked out by transect lines, and instructed to count the number of indicator species present in that section as well as to note impacts to the reef such as disease, bleaching or trash.


All images courtesy of Nick Seth-Smith. 

I observe the team both in and out of the water. While jovial, they remain serious about the task at hand. In between counting shifts, one of the Reef Checkers spots me snorkelling and shows me three iridescent Caribbean Reef Squid hovering nearby. I snap a few photos then head back to the boat.

After he finishes up an underwater videotaping session, Marc Lyng offers to take me down for a Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) experience, and I gladly accept. Once I get the hang of it, I understand why the Reef Checkers, all seasoned divers, choose to spend their holidays in the BVI. Marc points out several Reef Check indicator species, including a flamingo tongue snail (see front cover), a species that has been overcollected by snorkelers and divers who incorrectly assume the colourful mantle tissue that overlays the shell is on the shell itself, Rather, the shell is plain white, and when the creature dies, the mantle dies, too.


The BVI Reef Check process takes place over two weeks with resident BVI divers participating during the first week, and the team of ecotourists taking over the second week. “I don’t think of it as a vacation,” says Reef Checker Iain Catling of Brooklyn, New York. “With this, I think we take it seriously. We do so much preparation beforehand.”

“They are dedicated to it,” Trish Baily adds, referring to the visiting divers. “They buy all the [waterproof] paper beforehand and print out all the forms. They’ve also helped Reef Check with website issues, and they’re great with the data collection.”


“Once we get down [to the BVI], we start with laying the underwater transect,” Iain says, “making sure that we’re in the exact same spot every year. Then we do various different readings along the substrate—counting fish, measuring coral. We do it twice—once at three metres and once at ten. Then we get back to the boat, and I enter the data we’ve collected to be sent off to Reef Check. The day starts at 6:30 a.m., finishing up at 5:00-6:00 p.m. I’d say it’s half vacation.”

I ask Iain if he’s noticed any changes since he started doing Reef Check seven years ago. “You get so familiar with a reef; you remember the different rocks and the shape of it. This year, some of the reefs were doing better than others. At Bronco Billy [at the northwestern tip of George Dog], I spent a whole hour underwater and only counted two fish.”


“When I started,” he continues, “I didn’t have a baseline, but then by the second or third year, I noticed that there just weren’t as many fish. Then in 2005, there was a bleaching event after a really hot summer and a couple of hurricanes, and it was shocking to see the changes.”

Trish also mentions the 2005 bleaching event. “It was felt that the BVI, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries lost 40% of their corals. Spy Glass Reef was beautiful with boulder corals and is covered in algae now. The 10-metre substrate at Pelican was severely hit. Global climate change, development and poor sediment control are hurting the reefs. They can’t deal with the endless stresses that we’re putting on them. They need a break, time to recover. If we lose the reefs, we lose the fish, and the tourists. As the reefs die, we also lose the buffering effect of a reef to break down wave action—during tsunamis or surges. And without reefs,” she adds, “there is more coastal erosion, so the loss of beaches.”


“I find that I evangelize about it quite a bit,” Iain says. “I think it’s important to raise awareness. I worry about it, too, because I’ve seen the impact with the bleaching and so forth. I believe in it. I think it’s important. I love the diving and the marine life. I used to do lots of dive trips, but now I just save it for the BVI. I’ve gotten to know the BVI very well by sailing around and snorkelling. The beauty of the islands for me is driven by the reefs. You only have to go to St Thomas to see the difference. The BVI is a little gem in the Caribbean, isn’t it? All the other islands have been spent.” But the BVI could end up like those other islands. “Raising awareness in the BVI is important. Unfortunately, you’ll get people passionate about it, but then two years later they leave the BVI, so we have to start all over again.”


 “Dive Tortola and Dive BVI have contributed time, boats and staff,” Trish comments. “We raise money in the local community to pay back their fuel costs. Supa-Valu donated some food. In return, the participants who come down here support the economy as tourists—they flew in with Island Birds, they pay for dives beyond the Reef Check dives [including a night dive at the Rhone], they spend a lot of money on provisioning and restaurants. It’s true ecotourism because they are both helping the island and spending money here.”


Iain and the other Reef Checkers may not have had a relaxing vacation, but they contributed to important research. Reef Check conducted the first ever global survey of reefs in 1997. Thanks to Trish, the BVI participated the first year and has provided data every year since. According to Reef Check’s website, the data collected in 1997 “provided scientific confirmation that our coral reefs were in crisis due to overfishing, illegal fishing, and pollution.” In 2002, Reef Check released its five-year report which “concluded that there was virtually no reef in the world that remained untouched by human impacts, such as overfishing, pollution and climate change.” The report also cites success stories, showing that “with proper monitoring, management and protection, coral reefs can recover.” 

With the continued commitment of Trish, the support of the local community and the work of the Reef Checkers, BVI reefs might have a fighting chance. Next year I hope to participate as more than just an observer.  



Queen angelfish
French angelfish
Rock beauty
Great barracuda
Fairy basslet
Smooth trunkfish
Banded butterflyfish
Foureye butterflyfish
Sergeant major damsel
Yellowtail damselfish
Spotted goatfish
Nassau grouper
Bluestriped grunt
Spotted moray eel
Stoplight parrotfish (male)
Stoplight parrotfish (female)
Southern stingray
Spotted eagle ray
Caribbean reef shark
Yellowtail snapper
Blue tang
Bluehead wrasse
Green turtle
Hawksbill turtle
Giant Caribbean anemone
Christmas tree worm
Donkey dung sea cucumber
Brain coral
Elkhorn coral
Fire coral
Hard coral cover   
Hermit crab
Moon jelly
Spiny lobster
Flamingo tongue
Queen conch
Lavender tube sponge
Barrel sponge
Cushion sea star
Reticulated brittle star
Long-spine black urchin
Red rock urchin
Sea whip
Sea fan
Algae cover