The Heroic Reef

The corals of Varadero have endured five hundred years of human conflict, but they may not survive Colombia’s fragile peace.


January 19, 2017

By David Baker | Photos by Darryl Lai and David Baker

This story is also available in Spanish.

Valeria Pizarro releases air from her vest and breathes from her scuba regulator as she sinks into water the color of pea soup. Though the sea floor lies only a few meters below, she can’t see it. Sediment and algae give the water a brownish-green hue. Through the murky gloom, she can’t even make out the shape of her dive fins. She is on the hunt for corals, but she knows these fickle creatures prefer pristine waters and optimum conditions; her hopes aren’t high.

It’s 2013, and Pizarro, a Colombian biologist specializing in marine coastal ecosystems, is diving at the mouth of Cartagena Bay, one of the most polluted in all of South America. It’s busy, crowded and filthy, one of the oldest seaports in the hemisphere. Its waters are turbulent from the constant traffic of massive freighters. Visible in satellite photos, the plume of the discharge from the Canal del Dique spills into the bay leaving a brownish smudge that fans out into the brilliant blue of the Caribbean. It’s the last place you’d expect to find corals.

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Coral macro image
Varadero's corals, including this close relative known as a zooanthid, show surprising vigor and resilience.

Photo: David Baker

After a stint in academia, Pizarro hired on as a contractor for a firm planning to dig a second shipping channel to serve the bay’s booming ports. The plan was to move what few coral colonies she came across out of the way of progress.

However, Pizarro and her employer are in for a surprise. What they discover leads to the development of a small yet passionate and far-reaching coalition to protect a reef that flourishes in such an unlikely place. Scientists want to understand how these corals have adapted to pollution that is linked to the demise of reefs around the world. The team includes Colombian researchers, local fishermen and coral research heavyweights from major American institutions such as Penn State and Oregon State University.

During her fateful dive, as Pizarro sinks through the murk, the water suddenly clears up. The cloudiness clings only to the top layer, and as she descends, she is greeted with a vista of massive coral colonies. She finds herself in the middle of a thriving reef that stretches as far as she can see in all directions.

After exploring the reef, Pizarro surfaces. “We have a problem,” she tells her boat driver. “There is not just one coral, there is a reef here.” He checks his charts. They are right where they are supposed to be. Pizarro reports her findings to the company. She says that there was no way to proceed. There is a healthy coral reef in the way. Relocation of so many colonies is impossible. But the firm tells her to continue her work anyway.

Pizarro continues the assessment with reluctance. And when a contract for further work is offered, she declines. A short time later she’s not surprised to find herself working for Ecomares, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of biological diversity. Her main project is protecting the reef she has just discovered.

What Pizarro found opens a new front in the global fight to save and protect the world’s vanishing corals. Half of them have disappeared in the past fifty years, and no region has been hit harder than the Caribbean. Pizarro’s discovery could provide clues to how reefs might survive the onslaught they face from the multiple threads of human progress.

The corals of Varadero are unusually massive, especially for a reef that faces so many human pressures.

Bounty for Diversity

The reef is known locally as Varadero. And while it may be a startling to scientists, fishermen have long known of its existence. Such reefs are hubs of biodiversity. Corals are polyps, tiny animals that form colonies and secrete skeletons made of calcium carbonate, the compound that over geologic time can turn into limestone and marble. In a reef, it grows into massive structures, building habitat that attracts a mindboggling array of life: crustaceans, mollusks, sponges, octopi and algae. And of course fish. Lots and lots of fish.

For generations, fishermen from the nearby village of Bocachica have been plying these waters, perhaps unaware of the colorful landscape below the layer of murk, but absolutely certain that something down there attracts fish like a magnet.

Bocachica is located on the lip of an island next to the main shipping channel into the bay. It’s tucked next to the 17th century fort of San Fernando, which guards the entrance. The town’s streets are made of mud and studded with broken glass. The houses are ramshackle, but coats of vibrant paint, the carefully restored fortress and a glorious stretch of palm-lined beach give it the thin veneer of a tropical paradise.

There are few services you’d expect to find in a modern city: no paved streets, no garbage disposal, limited access to health care. The arrival of electricity is so recent that even the children remember it.

Still, the islanders are savvy survivors. In addition to fishing, Bocachicans also subsist on tourism, playing host to boatloads of travelers from nearby Cartagena who seek pristine beaches beyond the cloudy water of the bay. But after the recent widening of the existing channel increased shipping traffic, there has been a steady drop off in visitors. Development of a second channel could prove disastrous, reducing the numbers of fish and tourists.

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Hector Avendano in boat
Hector Avendano is one of the Ocho Hermanos or 'Eight Siblings,' who cobble together an existence on the shores of Varadero.

Photo: Darryl Lai

“What’s going to happen to us if they tear down the reef? Things are going to get more complicated. What will we live off of?” wonders Hector Avendaño. He is a stocky fisherman with a generous smile and a business sensibility. He’s one of the Ochos Hermanos, eight siblings who own a small fleet of boats used for fishing and shuttling tourist to the island. He owns a pavilion with a thatched roof near the beach that turns into a restaurant or even a makeshift school when needed. He’s always ready to sell a cold soda or beer or give you a lift to the ferry dock on the other side of the island for a few thousand pesos. He likes his life here.

“I like the tranquility we’ve always had. It is very calm and peaceful. For now. Even if we don’t know what happens from here on out,” he says, gazing at the freighters queuing up on the horizon to make a run into the bay.

For now, the Ochos Hermanos seem to be managing. Their boats are in good repair; their motors run reliably. And when they break down, Avendaño and his siblings have the knowledge to fix them on the fly with only a length of cord and a pair of pliers. But like the tough reef that they fish, they’re not so sure that they can withstand the forces of progress.

What would he ask the authorities planning to dredge the channel? “I’d ask them to put their hands over their hearts. Because how can they destroy something that’s been planted here for years?”

Valeria Pizarro teaches the island children of Bocachica about the reef off the shores of their village, their most precious resource.

Secrets of Varadero

Lately, the Ochos Hermanos have found new clients for their services, the growing number of scientists who are fascinated by Varadero’s survival in the face of an array of brutal human pressures. This reef’s endurance, indeed its exuberant vigor, defies everything researchers have learned about corals. Valeria Pizarro hypothesizes about why they’re thriving, “but right now I don’t have an answer,” she says. “I think that we have to study them to understand what is really happening.”

The greatest local pressures facing reefs around the world include development, excessive fishing and pollution. Varadero has faced this trinity for as long as any spot in the hemisphere. The bay saw Spaniards arrive in the 1500s and turn it into the hub of their expanding empire. The Canal del Dique was constructed in 1582 and began carrying sediment and waste into its waters. A few dozen yards from the reef, slaves built the fort of San Fernando. The builders were the ancestors of today’s Bocachicans who have survived by fishing these waters ever since.

But the two-fisted combination of human pressures is not limited to those local stressors. Reefs face a global punch from climate change. As much as eighty percent of Caribbean coral cover has declined, largely due to massive bleaching events that have been tied to rising water temperatures. Coral reefs are finicky when it comes to weather, and that’s why they’re clustered in a narrow band circling the globe close to the equator where temperatures remain relatively constant.

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Corals on Varadero
The corals of Varadero's tenacity in the face of five hundred years of human pressures baffles scientists.

Photo: David Baker

Varadero thrives despite human pressures and rising temperatures. Unlike other corals in the Caribbean, this reef has exhibited few signs of bleaching. Scientists are eager to learn why.

“For some reason these corals are doing well, and they are tolerating a lot of environmental insults,” says Monica Medina, a researcher from Penn State University who secured a “RAPID” grant (funds reserved for urgent research proposals) from the National Science Foundation to study this reef once it was slated for dredging. Colombian by birth, Medina seems at home under the thatched roof of Avendaño’s pavilion. She smiles at an old woman who wanders in shyly offering to sell bites from a tray coconut sweets melting in the heat. Medina buys some out of politeness but also to savor a taste of home.

It’s not only science that Medina has on her mind but conservation as well. “It’s not only important to study it, but it’s also important to protect it, because we’re trying to find relics of reefs that are sturdy, that are resilient, that are really robust against climate change and anthropogenic activities, and this seems to be one of them.”

Medina’s network is global. She’s partnering with Rebecca Vega Thurber of Oregon State, an expert in coral microbiology on another NSF-funded grant. Together they’ve been gathering data globally to map corals down to a microbial level to learn the secrets of what allows some corals to survive while others die in the face of human pressures. Vega Thurber has collected samples from all over the world to process at her lab back in Oregon, but she finds Varadero especially vital. “That’s a really important place to look,” she says. “If we can understand some of those mechanistic reasons why corals can survive in those habitats, then maybe we can help them in the future as different types of anthropogenic stressors get worse.”

Saving corals has gotten more personal and poignant for Vega Thurber as she’s traveled the world gathering data. She’s been able to witness how dependent communities are upon their local reefs. “This has really made me want to understand how our work can help bolster the efforts that the locals are making to save their own ecosystems.”

Vega Thurber and Medina agree that it’s no longer just about science. It’s about human survival. That’s why Medina has taken pains to add a local contingent to her coalition. Valeria Pizarro manages the project. And she considers Hector Avendaño and the other Ochos Hermanos part of the team, not merely hired boat drivers ferrying researchers from Cartagena to the dive sites on Varadero. She considers their traditional knowledge and experience on these waters an invaluable asset.

Indeed, while the loss of Varadero so soon after its discovery would be a stunning blow to science, it is Avendaño and his siblings who stand to lose most — and first — if Varadero is dredged. They are the ones who fish its crags and canyons for red snapper and octopus. They are the ones forced to travel further, work longer and rely on more dangerous fishing practices to make ends meet. Their fledgling tourism industry will suffer if there is a doubling of the massive freighters entering the bay. For Medina, exploring this reef and meeting the people who depend on it has become a career defining moment.
“I always question, ‘why did I get a Ph.D?’” Medina confessed. But when she spoke at length with the fishermen in Bocachica, she found an answer to that question. “Yesterday, on the boat ride back, I thought, ‘this is why I got a Ph.D.’ It felt sincere, in my heart,” she said, swallowing emotion and turning to look at the children who had gathered on the rails of the pavilion, drawn by the interview lights and the strangers who had come back to their island by boat.

Bocagrande, the alternate option for a new shipping channel, avoids Varadero but takes ships past Cartagena's glittering high-rises.

The Unintended Consequences of Peace

There are global pressures and local pressures. And then there are national politics and civil war. All of these factors shape the fate of Varadero. Colombia is emerging from the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict. The tentative peace between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the central government is spurring development in the areas formerly held by the rebels. This in turn creates the need for expanded port infrastructure and shipping capacity, like the new channel through Varadero.

Pizarro understands her country’s troubled history well. Her uncle, Carlos Pizarro, was a founder of the M-19, a group of urban guerillas who waged an armed struggle against the government in the 1970s and 80s. Carlos Pizarro eventually traded in his combat fatigues for a politician’s smile, running for Colombia’s presidency after the movement laid down its arms and tried to integrate into the political process. But after leading in early polls, he was assassinated in 1990.

Valeria Pizarro’s family has always had a strong focus on social issues. “The discussions within the family have always been how to improve and how things should be done, and how you should solve all the issues of the country,” she explains. She believes protecting Colombia’s extraordinary biodiversity is vital to the nation’s future. She has carried her family’s fighting spirit to the cause of saving reefs.

After leading visitors on an underwater tour of Varadero so that it’s improbable magnificence could be seen firsthand, Pizarro takes them to meet with another member of their broad coalition. In a cozy apartment tucked behind the Cartagena airport, they meet Rafael Vergara. With long, gray hair pulled into a ponytail and a booming voice paired with a sparkling wink that suggest you shouldn’t always take him too seriously, he is a living slice of Colombian history.

Vergara’s apartment is filled with Amazonian art, small fetishes and a large felt painting of topless mermaids above his bed. One black and white photo on the wall shows Vargara in the jungle sitting next to the dashing Carlos Pizarro, who at quick glance you might mistake for Che Guevara with his beard and beret. Vergara was also an M-19 rebel. But now he’s channeled his revolutionary spirit into a role as an environmental attorney and journalist who uses his newspaper column to advocate for the Varadero’s protection.

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Rafa Vergara
Rafael Vergara is a former revolutionary turned environmental attorney.

Photo: Darryl Lai

“This is a heroic coral reef. It has resisted everything. It has resisted pollution. It has resisted sedimentation. It has resisted unclean waters. It has to continue resisting, but now it is our turn,” Vergara says, pounding his chest like a rebel commander firing up his true believers in the jungle.

His comments are a reference to Cartagena’s nickname, The Heroic City, which hails from the times that its fortressed walls resisted pirate invasions. Indeed the fort near Bocachica was built to protect the bay and the original shipping channel dug half a millennium ago. During invasions, slaves wound a turnstile in the fortress that dragged a massive chain across the channel, effectively blocking enemy ships from entering the bay. Varadero, with the rocklike crags of its calcium carbonate coral skeletons, served as a natural extension of these fortifications. The geography and biology fused together to become an integral part of the city’s proud history.

That the idealism of Rafael Vergara’s and Carlos Pizarro’s generation has given away to the pragmatic form of environmental activism of Valeria Pizarro’s and Monica Medina’s is part of a hopeful trajectory in Colombia. Once violent armed struggle seemed like the only solution to the nation’s woes. But Colombians now feel that they can work within the system. While Vergara’s language may still carry a martial tone, he is now fighting with words instead of weapons. “Now we have to come out in their defense because they cannot move,” he says of the threatened corals. “Their strength is their beauty in survival. Our defense has to be an ethical imperative.”

Cartagena is not only a flashpoint of the struggle to preserve Colombia’s astounding biodiversity but also the symbolic home to another massive shift: the signing of the peace accords between the government and the FARC. On Monday, September 26, 2016, president Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, both dressed in white, shook hands in agreement to end the five decades of civil war. The event was drenched in symbolism. With the thick walls of the old city in the background, the crowds of observers, also wearing white, watched as a cloud of doves swarmed the air while jets zipped overhead trailing the gold, red and blue colors of the nation’s flag as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy blared on outdoor speakers.

Valeria Pizarro was there. “For me, being there was very exciting and emotional — a little bit overwhelming,” she says. She was sitting with some of the victims of the conflict. “I couldn’t stop thinking on how great and difficult were the times to come.”

The times would be great because talk of peace after fifty years can only inspire hope — and difficult because such a transition is never smooth. And she is right to voice concern. A week after the signing, voters rejected the peace accord in a referendum. Many felt the terms of the agreement were too lenient on the armed guerillas that had waged the bloody struggle against the government.

“I was depressed for few days and weeks. It was the only thing I talked about with my friends and family,” Pizarro says.

The Colombian parliament eventually approved a revised peace agreement this past November, providing a new hope. Ironically, this stuttering end to the conflict may have aided the cause of preserving Varadero while investors wait and observe the oscillating progress of the peace process before committing to massive infrastructure projects.

Freighters slip past the village of Bocachica like a continually shifting skyline.

Alternative Shipping Routes

So Varadero’s future is still uncertain. Development has yet to commence, and there are other options. A longer route could be carved for ships through the Bocagrande section of the bay, but it would cost more to dredge the greater distance, and it would lead freighters past some of the city’s highest-priced real estate on a spit of land studded with glittering high-rises. At Bocachica, there are only the mud, block and stick huts of a small fishing village to consider.

Varadero still crouches below its cap of muddy water. Bocachican fishermen still drift over its corals, fishing from dugout canoes and small launches. Monica Medina, Valeria Pizarro and their broad coalition of scientists, villagers and even an ex-guerilla, perform surveys and transects, pen passionate editorials and document and photograph the spectacular corals in an attempt to map and explore the mystery that allows these colonies to thrive in such an unlikely location. They hope that having the eyes of the world on their nation as it stutters through its peace process might shed some light on their efforts.

The Heroic Reef has survived, largely hidden from view, alongside half a millennium of human exploitation and conflict. But Medina now believes it’s time to share the Varadero’s secret with the world. This reef gives scientists hope. At a time when corals are declining on a global scale, faster than ever before, with nearly half of the reefs on the planet vanished or massively degraded, Varadero offers promise that some corals may survive the onslaught. Given enough time, researchers may uncover breakthrough that will allow humans and coral reefs to coexist for another five hundred years.

But as the great freighters continue to rumble past Bocachica, the scientists and fishermen understand that, any day, the dredging on the second channel may start, and Varadero could become just a memory, an artifact, another part of the Heroic City’s beautiful and tragic history.

David Baker is a writer and media producer from Oregon State Productions. Along with filmmakers Justin Smith and Darryl Lai, he’s producing a feature documentary called Saving Atlantis, which follows the work of microbiologist Rebecca Vega Thurber and her team at Oregon State University, and colleagues around the world, as they search for clues and solutions to coral decline.

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