Dedicated coral gardeners are bringing back Jamaica's coral reefs, piece by piece

Fish and coral have a codependent relationship, the fish rely on the reef to evade danger and lay eggs.


Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of colour for hints of what lies beneath. Emerald green indicates sandy bottoms. Sapphire blue lies above seagrass meadows. And deep indigo marks coral reefs. That’s where he’s headed.

He steers the boat to an unmarked spot that he knows as the “coral nursery.” ″It’s like a forest under the sea,” he says, strapping on blue flippers and fastening his oxygen tank before tipping backward into the azure waters. He swims down 25 feet (7.6 meters) carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate.

Dedicated coral gardeners are bringing back Jamaicas coral reefs, piece by piece


Everton Simpson untangles lines of staghorn coral at a coral nursery inside the White River Fish Sanctuary. image credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

On the ocean floor, small coral fragments dangle from suspended ropes, like socks hung on a laundry line. Simpson and other divers tend to this underwater nursery as gardeners mind a flower bed — slowly and painstakingly plucking off snails and fireworms that feast on immature coral.

When each stub grows to about the size of a human hand, Simpson collects them in his crate to individually “transplant” onto a reef, a process akin to planting each blade of grass in a lawn separately.

Even fast-growing coral species add just a few inches a year. And it’s not possible to simply scatter seeds.

A few hours later, at a site called Dickie’s Reef, Simpson dives again and uses bits of fishing line to tie clusters of staghorn coral onto rocky outcroppings — a temporary binding until the coral’s limestone skeleton grows and fixes itself onto the rock. The goal is to jumpstart the natural growth of a coral reef. And so far, it’s working.

Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson, who lives in a modest house he built himself near the island’s northern coast. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times but always made a living from the ocean.

Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, Simpson started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago — part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink.

Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter.

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