Diving with a Purpose

Surveying the reefs of the Cayos Cochinos Natural Monument off the coast of Honduras

It was 7AM on Saturday morning at the Banana Republic Guesthouse in La Ceiba where I found myself with eleven other diving enthusiasts on the morning of the first day of our expedition. We had come together from various parts of the world to spend two weeks with Biosphere Expeditions to survey the reefs of the Cayos Cochinos Natural Monument in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Honduras (this part of the Meso-American Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest reef system, and has been identified by the Smithsonian Institute, The Nature Conservancy, the Word Wildlife Fund, and the World Bank as one of the key sections of the barrier reef system to preserve). The purpose of the survey program is to provide data on the current biological status and population levels of protected species of the reefs within the marine protected area for the Honduras Coral Reef Fund (HCRF), the managing agency responsible for the conservation of the islands. All this is part of an international coral reef research program, called the Reef Check monitoring program. The results from the Cayos Cochinos survey will be compared to other parts of the Meso American Barrier Reef System and worldwide in terms of the abundance and diversity of corals, algae, invertebrates, and fish.

Cayos Cochinos map

The scientific station

One of the cayes in the study

The team


Dive briefing

On the boa

We were met by the expedition leader, Katherine, and the local scientist and dive instructor, Italo, and then taken aboard the speedboat Baracuda – originally being a drug-running boat that was seized by the police from some Columbian smugglers and donated to the research project! We set off from Lagoon Marina, La Ceiba, to the southern end of Cochino Pequeno (the Cayos Cochinos are a group of two small islands, Cochino Pequeno and Cochino Grande and 13 small coral cays). Considered as part of the Bay Islands, the cays are the hardest to get to despite the fact that they are the closest to the mainland. Access to this island is restricted to research personnel of HCRF and its partners, so already we were feeling important and privileged. The journey took around 40 minutes to arrive at a paradise island covered in forest and encircled with empty white sand beaches. The HCRF scientific station that was to be our expedition base for the next few weeks was far from being a stuffy stark work-and-no-play setting; the communal dining area is set high on the mountainside with breathtaking views of the bay and surrounding sand cays.

The afternoon was spent with a mixture of fun diving, exploring the island, and relaxing with a piña colada. I was settling into the island routine very quickly. The diving was promising, even just swimming off the beach there were fish coming into the shallow waters. That night, four-year-old Nicaraguan rum appeared, Caribbean music played on the stereo, salsa-dancers in our team took to the stage, and we chatted the night away swapping dive stories in our open-air dining room set up in the hills. When it started to get late and some people headed for bed, the rest of us went in search of phosphorescence with a paddle on the beach and ended the evening sitting on the jetty watching the sea and the stars.

The next two days were for training, preparing for the fieldwork, and learning the research methods and goals. Open water dives are organized so that everyone could get comfortable in the water and put into action the fish, invertebrate, and other ID skills taught before the actual survey work began. We had an interesting mix of walls and shallow reefs to work on, swimming past a sunken plane at one site and around the side of a bowl-shaped reef on another. Everyone loved the abundant time in the water and really being taught about the ecology; I was beginning to feel like a real marine biologist. Our training included snapper and grunt identification, what the different “nutrient indicator algae” looked like, knowing exactly how slow we needed to swim down the transect line, what the different sorts of sea urchins looked like and much, much more. After the formal training and practices finished on the first training day, we were so enthused that we continued studying together in the dry lab. Everyone had their nose in a book and the few sounds heard were mutterings about stripes, fin shapes, and teeth.

On our first official survey day, we were up for breakfast at 7AM. We then suited up and boarded the Baracuda to leave the harbour by 9AM, at which time it was already warm and sunny and the blue waters enthusiastically called us to our first day of work. I would have no trouble starting my workday like this everyday of my life! While boating out to our dive location, underwater hand signals were run through, but not the normal ones that you see on tourist dive boats. On Baracuda, the array of signals can look very strange. The fish teams’ signs range from the parrotfish sign (hand sitting on shoulder) to grunts (fist held to the side of the head in a in manner of a salute given by a lowly private ‘grunt’ in the army) and the substrate team practicing the difference between sand and silt (fingers pointing downwards and waggling versus fingers pointing up and waggling) and soft coral (open fist) and hard coral (closed fist). To the uninitiated, we must have looked like a rather eccentric bunch.

We were divided into smaller dive teams to lay the transect lines along which survey pairs follow to record items such as substrate (for example hard and soft coral, sponges, silt or sand), fish and invertebrates, coral bleaching and disease. We had a wonderful dive at “Dickie C,” which was just off the neighbouring island with big towers of coral reef to swim over and between. We returned to the base at midday for lunch and were out in the water again in the afternoon when we experienced our most “interesting” dive. As we moored to a buoy at Cayo Timon, the wind started to build and the sea made the boat a little uncomfortable as we suited up. But, we got into the water to lay the transect lines and start the survey. Then, one buddy pair had to surface at the end as one member became temporarily blinded after a mask-flooding incident. Another of the pairs couldn’t find the start of the transect line. They and the cover divers spent an interesting half an hour looking for each other underwater with regular surfacing to ask the boat for directions to each other. Then another buddy pair had to surface quite a way from the boat after one of them became entangled in the transect tape. Finally, we all managed to clamber onboard the boat and laugh in amazement that so many unrelated things can happen to one small dive team! I guess it was our initiation dive. We were back for dinner at 7 PM and had a cool beer to toast our first hard day of work.

The days rolled by, dive after dive and are skills were truly becoming fine-tuned. We were collecting heaps of great data and seeing so many species it was astounding. The hot debate near the last days of survey work was, as you might expect, something simple: who has seen the biggest fish? There were claims to a shark, a six-foot barracuda, and a Nassau grouper – but all were sounding exactly like “big fish tales.” The substrate and invert teams retorted with their smaller but stunning sightings of lobster, flamingo tongues, and squid.

Green turtle


After the last survey dive, all the data was finalized into the computer spreadsheets with a final check from the scientists and our first submission to the central Reef Check database was made. The scientists have been very impressed with the teams’ professionalism and dedication to the work and were pleased to be able to submit all of the surveys in the knowledge that the data were accurate and complete. The HCRF office in La Ceiba said that the data looked very interesting and will help with the decision-making about future conservation strategies for the area. The submission to Reef Check will also ensure that the data from the reefs here are analyzed along with hundreds of other reefs around the world to get a good picture of the health of the world’s coral reefs and will help to inform global strategies on conservation.

It was with sadness that I spent my last day packing up to leave. It was a wonderful experience, living at the research base and sharing the lives of the people there. All of the team members have been great with a really strong commitment and wonderful team spirit. The Baracuda returned us to La Ceiba on Friday morning and we said our final farewells at the Banana Republic. It was an amazingly successful expedition – both for the research and for a personal feeling of accomplishment. I hope to be back out at Cayos Cochinos again next year. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?

For more information contact:

Erin McCloskey
Operations Manager North America
Biosphere Expeditions
Winner “Best Volunteering Organization”
First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards
PO Box 11297, Marina del Rey, CA 90295
T: 800-407-5761 F: 800-407-5766

Spotted Eagle Ray

Spotlight Parrotfish

Diver surveying the reef

Entering the data that was collected