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Bahamas offers a world of natural wonders

By Greg Goodsell
March 22nd, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The Bahamas offer far more than just Nassau and Freeport, according to National Geographic corespondent Florence Williams. There are more than 700 islands, mostly uninhabited, that offer the visitor a rare view into the workings of coral life.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) According to Williams, there are very real concerns that the area's fragile ecology is threatened. For some inexplicable reason in the winter of 1983, long-spined black sea urchins died a mass death. The death of the urchins left a hole in the coral food chain, and now algae is growing unchecked in many areas.

"This all helps explain why a suddenly missing link is cause for hand-wringing—algae has indeed begun overtaking some coral reefs—and why, in more polluted, populated places like the Florida Keys and the coasts of Brazil, the reefs are in big trouble," Williams says.

There's still a lot of the visitor to enjoy in the meantime, however. Andros, the largest of the 700 islands, offers guided tours of many of the nearby reefs by the Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute. "A coral reef is like an art museum, you can still enjoy it if you don't know anything about art, but you'll like it better if you do," a biologist says.

For $99, tourists can get three guided snorkel trips over two days, take-home field books and a marine-ecosystem slide show. In "Andros, what you see is like a chaotic forest, full of life," Williams says. She notes the "purple, green, and yellow coral shaped like antlers, cactuses, ferns. We follow, past schools of elegant yellowhead wrasse and blue tang ...I can make out the rounded, olive-shaped polyps and their tiny hairlike tentacles. Then I bolt for the world of oxygen."

Williams also regretfully notes that much marine life has been unknowingly trampled by tourists, and some areas have been irreparably damaged. A touch can kill algae that live in the tiny coral polyps like pimentos in an olive. These beneficial, symbiotic algae ... process waste, create food, and help produce calcium carbonate, which builds up the reef over millennia. They also give the coral its rich, lively colors. If stressed, polyps may expel the algae, and the reef ends up looking like a sorry pile of limestone. You see this fate in parts of the Virgin Islands and Hawaii," Williams says.

A high pointy of Williams' trip is a visit "to a shallow dive site called, fittingly, Aquarium. In bathtub-warm water, calm and clear, we floated above an enchanting, colorful forest of corals ... We swam among slender trumpetfish and cornflake-flat angelfish, damselfish and sergeant majors, and heart-stoppingly colorful parrotfish."

According to Williams, the opportunity to investigate the Bahamas' teeming coral reefs is not to be missed. "I never get bored here. If you look closely, you see the real beauty and complexity. You can look forever. It's like a fine wine. When you savor it slowly, the different layers, the fruits and what-have-you always reward your effort," a tour guide says.

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