Jamaica: Volunteering to Help Save the Reef

Cleaning the Reef in Oracabessa, Jamaica

By David Peters

Ratty laying the mooring ball
Ratty laying the mooring ball. Photos by David Peters

I wondered what I was doing. Watching intently and photographing as three men surveyed their underwater garden, possessively cleaning coral and rocks with toothbrushes.

They do this twice a week in an attempt to re-build Jamaica’s damaged reef. I was in Oracabassa, a small coastal fishing town in the North-East of Jamaica. A unique and inspirational example of environmental re-generation within this bustling Caribbean island.

Oracabessa, Spanish for ‘Golden Head’ after the amazing sunsets in the bay was made famous as the holiday home of Ian Fleming.

Ursula Adress strutted her stuff in her white bikini just down the coast. Since then large parts of the town have been bought up and developed by Island Records owner Chris Blackwell – the producer of Bob Marley among others.


One of his most impressive projects was to turn Fleming’s beach house and the surrounding beachfront property into the exclusive ‘Golden-Eye Resort’. There are many other, far more affordable guest-houses, along the nearby coast and inland, starting from $10USD per night. Further down the coast in Boscobel is a huge all-inclusive Beaches resort.

Fishermen’s Bay

I was lucky enough to pull into Fisherman’s bay on a sailboat where we anchored for four days. Initially unsure whether outsiders were welcome in this small cove we were met by ‘Di Enforsa’ the patrol boat and advised where to anchor.

Ratty checking the coral garden
Ratty checking the coral garden

When we had paddled to land word had spread of the new visitors and we were given a traditional Jamaican welcome of ‘Wa-gwaan, where you from…’ and a unique handshake (which we are well practiced at after two months, and clearly boosts our street cred!).

The beach is small – just two hundred feet long, so littered with fishing boats there is barely an inch of space to leave our kayak. There is outward pride in one’s boat, garish paint jobs and uniquely Jamaican names. ‘Jah Bless’ sports the red, green and gold Rasta colors.

‘Legend’, ‘Oh’ Henry’ and ‘Marlin King’ all boast bright block colors and pictures of the fish they hope and dream of catching around the reef edge. The smaller boats, who cannot afford an outboard engine are forced to use paddle power, and have less time for a paint job.

Further up the beach is a container come office which is home to the ‘Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary’. One of nineteen fish sanctuaries around the island this organization has received substantial funding to set up a no fish zone around the Oracabessa bays to help re-generate fish populations and the reef.

Oracabessa is located in Saint Mary’s Parish on the island’s North Coast.

Fishing as Sustenance

This is one of the most notable issues and problems facing Jamaica. The island is surrounded by a small belt of reef and then a huge drop-off to several thousand feet. Coastal towns focus on fishing as a means of sustenance and because people often have few other employment options.This has meant line, net and spear fisherman catching more and more small, juvenile fish in ever-deeper water. Fish stocks are being depleted dramatically.At the same time a combination of past tropical storms, a disease that affected sea urchin numbers and other human related issues such as the discharge of wastewater and bleaches into coastal waters have meant the coral reef has sustained irreversible damage.

Just a few hundred miles away in the Bahamas and Cuba there are abundant reefs. Jamaica has little live coral; most of the coastal region is a blanket of dank, green algae.

Toothbrush for cleaning the coral
Toothbrush for cleaning the coral

Enter the Fish Sanctuary, managed by enthusiastic marine biologist Inilek Wilmot with the support of an American Peace Corps group they have established several schemes within the framework of a co-operative with local fisherman to protect their most valuable resource. My first day in the bay I joined Gore, Ratty and Scratchy – all of whom are, or have been,spear fishermen in their time, they are now spearheading the reef regeneration project.

On the edge of Fisherman’s Bay they have washing lines full of small pieces of staghorn coral – this is the coral nursery where sections are left to grow and develop.

When they reach a big and healthy enough size they are transferred to a designated patch of reef, the coral garden in front of the ‘Golden-Eye Resort’ and planted. At first sight you would not think you are in Jamaica – this project has been so successful in it’s two years of operation.

Coral Abundant

Coral is abundant; the divers have kept algae at bay, pruning their garden. Their weekly dives now focus on cleaning and maintaining the coral and attempting to eradicate the coral predators – small snails and larger fire worms which feed on the coral, and kill or bleach it.

The next day Gore and Ratty were out diving again laying a mooring ball. The markers signal the edge of the sanctuary to help wardens and fisherman define the boundary more clearly. The way the co-operative functions is key to it’s success. 12 wardens work on rotation 1 month on three months off.

Funding has meant the wardens receive a basic salary. When they are not working with the sanctuary

Sunset in the bay.

many wardens are themselves fisherman, or are involved in construction around the town. All of the wardens and divers are extremely passionate about re-developing their fish stocks and have all noticed substantial improvements in fish size and numbers on the outer edge of the sanctuary since it was started.

One warden estimated a 97% compliance rate. This is far higher than in other areas where NGO’s dictate to fisherman what they can and cannot do – mooring lines are cut and sanctuary boundaries clearly flaunted.

Turtle Conservationist

On our second evening in Oracabessa Bay we were put into contact with Mel Tennant. A retired, British, school head-teacher turned turtle conservationist. 10 years ago, after re-locating to Oracabessa, he noticed strange tracks in the sand in front of his home. Late at night suspicious people walked the beach, it emerged they were fueling the local demand for turtle eggs – cracked into an un-appetizing milkshake, legend has it the eggs have the same effect as Viagra.

Sunset in the bayMel took it upon himself to limit this practice, which is highly illegal. And he

Baby Hawksbill turtles making their way to the sea on a beach in Jamaica.
Baby Hawksbill turtles making their way to the sea on a beach in Jamaica.

began monitoring the turtle laying sights and has developed a technique to predict when eggs will hatch. His project has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in the town, appealing to the human appetite to see one of nature’s wonders at work.

We looked on in amazement as 135 baby Hawksbill turtles were helped out of a small hole in the sa

nd, placed in a bucket and then set free down the beach. Their internal compass guided them into the surf and towards their new ocean home.

Through a collaboration with the fish sanctuary Mel has been able to extend his project to 4 beaches, and in the coming months he hopes to attract young and enthusiastic marine biology volunteers to help sustain and further develop his re-habilitation and tagging program and further increase turtle numbers around Jamaica.
My last day and last dive in Oracabessa was with two marine biology students from the University of the West Indies. They are undertaking a fish survey inside and outside the sanctuary boundaries.

They were unwilling to admit how effective the sanctuary has been until they have analysed their statistics, but to the untrained eye, andafter diving and snorkeling on a daily basis during my sailing trip around the island, the reef around the new coral garden is the most abundant I have seen in Jamaica.

Lots of Fish

Big snappers and jacks were darting around the coral, and juvenile parrot fish (one of the most popular fish in the local diet) were commonplace.

Locals are proud of their new marker keeping fishermen away from the reef.
Locals are proud of their new marker keeping fishermen away from the reef.

When I told the two wardens on the boat after my dive that it was the best dive and the most fish I had seen in Jamaica there was a real sense of pride. They said, ‘wow, thank you, thank you, so we are doing a good job’. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘a very good job.’

It is clear that fishing is an important trade for many people in coastal towns throughout Jamaica. However it is also clear that unchecked current fishing practices are not sustainable.

That is why organisations like the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary should act as an example. A responsible and reciprocal relationship between environmentalists and local fisherman, trying to make their living, has allowed areas of reef to re-develop and fish numbers to improve.

Oracabessa is accessible by the international airports in Kingston and Montego Bay. It is about 2 hours travel time from both. Mel Tennant’s turtle volunteer’s can stay in his guest house.

Other volunteers have a range of guest houses available along the coastline – all within 10 minutes of the fisherman’s beach, and Oracabessa town centre. It is a very small town with two supermarkets, a small farmers market and a couple of meat shops. Despite being small there are plenty of places to stock up on healthy and fresh local produce.

Getting There

Project Moana is a social enterprise currently on a photography, videography and fact-finding expedition around Jamaica. We are creating links with environmental groups and marine parks around the country and in the process of setting up volunteer programs.

Mel Tennant of the Turtle Rehabilitation Program is keen to attract volunteer help, and the Fish Sanctuary require help to increase their funding options and increase their internet presence through a website and social media marketing. Please visit www.projectmoana.com for more information.

David Peters was born in England. He lived aboard a 50-foot sail boat for 6 months. He is currently teaching Scuba Diving in the British Virgin Islands.

Watch the video about Project Moana

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