What is Pristine?
Aaron O’Dea’s time machine is a 20-foot aluminum tube. Beneath the waters of Panama’s western Caribbean, he drives it into the rubbly seabed with a 45-pound cylindrical hammer. The strenuous effort quickly depletes oxygen tanks and leaves Aaron and his team aching and breathless.
Although the dive site seems pristine, the scenery is deceiving. Surrounded by warm, emerald waters and untouched mangrove islets, Panama’s Bocas del Toro -like most coasts of the Caribbean- abounds in natural beauty. But beneath the surface, the seabed once blanketed in vibrant reef communities is now covered with grayish dead coral.
Like a detective on a cold case, Aaron O’Dea, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and collaborators Katie Cramer (Smithsonian MarineGEO post-doc) and Richard Norris (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), drill down hundreds of years into the seabed in search of clues to present day changes in marine ecosystems of the Caribbean.
Coral fossils are emissaries of the ocean’s past. Highly sensitive to environmental changes, they serve as indicators of ocean health. Though warming seas, acidification, pollution and overfishing are generally held responsible for the decline of coral reef communities, precisely when and why their deterioration began is unknown.
“The health of the oceans is like a patient with a complex medical history who falls ill in a foreign country. If local doctors treating the patient don’t have a full medical history, they may endanger the patient’s life,” says O’Dea who sees how baseline data will aid marine conservation efforts. “If we wish to diagnose and treat life in the seas, it is essential we know the ocean’s history.”
The health of the oceans is like a patient with a complex medical history who falls ill in a foreign country. If local doctors treating the patient don’t have a full medical history, they may endanger the patient’s life
“Once we demonstrate our aim in Bocas del Toro, we’ll expand both spatially and temporally throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Our findings will be used to direct the recovery of the seas.”