Beneath the sea in the Bahamas

Performing AGRRA surveys (rapid ecological assessment of the reefs) off the coast of southern Abaco. Photo by Alannah Vellacott.

Performing AGRRA surveys (rapid ecological assessment of the reefs) off the coast of southern Abaco. Photo by Alannah Vellacott.

The Bahamas recognized early on the need to protect and preserve its marine resources. Since 1892, they have established 35 marine protected areas (MPAs). A recent report found that these marine protected areas and the ecosystem services they provide are worth more than 6 billion dollars. This value includes not only local benefits like providing nursery habitat for spiny lobsters, protecting shorelines from storm damage, and supporting tourism, but also benefits to the international community such as the carbon sequestration in these areas that protects against climate change impacts.

When I dive in the Bahamas, the benefits of these protections - like the crystal blue waters themselves - are exceedingly clear. Fish abound, often in much higher numbers and greater sizes than I ever see in south Florida. Large predators such as sharks - including threatened species like the great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) - congregate seasonally off Bahamian coasts in numbers rarely seen anywhere else. In many areas, coral cover remains relatively high compared to the rest of the Caribbean, having escaped most of the devastating impacts of human activity, land-based pollution, overfishing, bleaching, and disease. Huge, centuries-old coral colonies still create complex 3D structures that sustain teeming communities of fish and invertebrates.

Though it certainly isn’t perfect, in many ways the Bahamas sets an example for other countries around the world struggling to halt the decline of their coastal ecosystems. I feel extremely fortunate to conduct a significant portion of my research in the Bahamas, and to be able to witness its stunning marine resources firsthand several times per year.

Here are some of the images I have captured since my first trip to the country in April 2018:

Elkhorn coral ( Acropora palmata ) on a reef near Abaco.

Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) on a reef near Abaco.

Reef spider crab ( Mithrax spinosissimus ) near Eleuthera.

Reef spider crab (Mithrax spinosissimus) near Eleuthera.

Caribbean reef shark ( Carcharhinus perezii ) off the coast of Nassau.

Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezii) off the coast of Nassau.

Mountainous star coral ( Orbicella faveolata ) off the coast of Abaco.

Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) off the coast of Abaco.

Close-up of mountainous star coral ( Orbicella faveolata ) near Eleuthera.

Close-up of mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) near Eleuthera.

A bluehead wrasse ( Thalassoma bifasciatum ) swims by a colony of elkhorn coral ( Acropora palmata ) near Nassau.

A bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) swims by a colony of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) near Nassau.

Close-up of pillar coral ( Dendrogyra cylindrus ) polyps near Eleuthera.

Close-up of pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) polyps near Eleuthera.

A green sea turtle ( Chelonia mydas ) comes to the surface to breathe near Nassau.

A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) comes to the surface to breathe near Nassau.

A southern stingray ( Dasyatis americana ) rests in the sand off the coast of Abaco.

A southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) rests in the sand off the coast of Abaco.

A healthy  Dendrogyra cylindrus  (pillar coral) colony off the coast of Abaco.

A healthy Dendrogyra cylindrus (pillar coral) colony off the coast of Abaco.

Christmas tree worms making their homes atop a brain coral.

Christmas tree worms making their homes atop a brain coral.

A healthy reef off the coast of Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

A healthy reef off the coast of Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

Diploria labyrinthiformis  off the coast of Abaco.

Diploria labyrinthiformis off the coast of Abaco.

Great star coral ( Montastraea cavernosa ) polyps.

Great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa) polyps.

A queen triggerfish ( Balistes vetula ).

A queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula).

A flamingo tongue snail on a gorgonian.

A flamingo tongue snail on a gorgonian.

A diver swims above a colony of  Acropora cervicornis,  commonly known as staghorn coral, in Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

A diver swims above a colony of Acropora cervicornis, commonly known as staghorn coral, in Eleuthera, the Bahamas.

A maze coral ( Meandrina meandrites ) colony near Eleuthera with tiny blennies along its side.

A maze coral (Meandrina meandrites) colony near Eleuthera with tiny blennies along its side.

A diver swims by a nursery tree growing coral fragments off the coast of Eleuthera.

A diver swims by a nursery tree growing coral fragments off the coast of Eleuthera.

Flamingo tongue snail ( Cyphoma gibbosum ) near Eleuthera.

Flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum) near Eleuthera.

A Christmas tree worm ( Spirobranchus giganteus ) makes its home atop a coral colony near Eleuthera.

A Christmas tree worm (Spirobranchus giganteus) makes its home atop a coral colony near Eleuthera.

A colony of tunicates clings to a gorgonian near Abaco.

A colony of tunicates clings to a gorgonian near Abaco.

A red lionfish ( Pterois volitans ) hovers in a cave off the coast of Grand Bahama. This species is invasive in the Altantic/Caribbean.

A red lionfish (Pterois volitans) hovers in a cave off the coast of Grand Bahama. This species is invasive in the Altantic/Caribbean.

A southern stingray ( Dasyatis americana ) near Eleuthera.

A southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) near Eleuthera.

A Caribbean reef shark ( Carcharhinus perezii ) swims by a wreck off the coast of Nassau.

A Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezii) swims by a wreck off the coast of Nassau.

A diver swims over a reef of mainly mountainous star coral ( Orbicella faveolata ) near Eleuthera.

A diver swims over a reef of mainly mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) near Eleuthera.

A juvenile nurse shark ( Ginglymostoma cirratum ) near Bimini.

A juvenile nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) near Bimini.

A large pillar coral ( Dendrogyra cylindrus ) colony off the coast of Abaco.

A large pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus) colony off the coast of Abaco.

Wreck dive with photographer Josh Liberman off the coast of Nassau.

Wreck dive with photographer Josh Liberman off the coast of Nassau.

Intricate patterns and textures on a green sea turtle’s ( Chelonia mydas ) shell near Nassau.

Intricate patterns and textures on a green sea turtle’s (Chelonia mydas) shell near Nassau.

A Caribbean reef shark ( Carcharhinus perezii)  cruises past the wreck of a barge near Nassau.

A Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezii) cruises past the wreck of a barge near Nassau.

A green sea turtle ( Chelonia mydas ) glides through the clear water near Nassau.

A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) glides through the clear water near Nassau.

A reefscape off the coast of Nassau.

A reefscape off the coast of Nassau.

Southern stingray ( Dasyatis americana ) in Eleuthera.

Southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) in Eleuthera.

A Christmas tree worm ( Spirobranchus giganteus ) near Eleuthera.

A Christmas tree worm (Spirobranchus giganteus) near Eleuthera.

Photographer Josh Liberman checks out the marine life off the coast of Nassau.

Photographer Josh Liberman checks out the marine life off the coast of Nassau.

A mountainous star coral ( Orbicella faveolata ) colony surrounded by reef fish near Eleuthera.

A mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) colony surrounded by reef fish near Eleuthera.

Intricate details of a sea fan ( Gorgonia ventalina ) near Eleuthera.

Intricate details of a sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina) near Eleuthera.