Photos: Jamaica’s coral gardeners rebuild ravaged reefs, piece by piece

Everton Simpson squints at the Caribbean from his motorboat, scanning the dazzling bands of color 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. 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.

Updated On Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST 12 Photos
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Everton Simpson (R), on a boat in-between dives on the White River Fish Sanctuary in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Simpson 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Everton Simpson (R), on a boat in-between dives on the White River Fish Sanctuary in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Simpson 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Staghorn coral grows on lines at a coral nursery. Simpson swims down 25 feet carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate. 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Staghorn coral grows on lines at a coral nursery. Simpson swims down 25 feet carrying a pair of metal shears, fishing line and a plastic crate. 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Divers gather coral from a nursery to be transplanted. Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, always making a living from the ocean. Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, he started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago — part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Divers gather coral from a nursery to be transplanted. Almost everyone in Jamaica depends on the sea, including Simpson. The energetic 68-year-old has reinvented himself several times, always making a living from the ocean. Once a spear fisherman and later a scuba-diving instructor, he started working as a “coral gardener” two years ago — part of grassroots efforts to bring Jamaica’s coral reefs back from the brink. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Simpson removes snails from staghorn coral. Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter. Just 2% of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branching structures — shaped like everything from reindeer antlers to human brains — sustain a quarter of all marine species. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Simpson removes snails from staghorn coral. Coral reefs are often called “rainforests of the sea” for the astonishing diversity of life they shelter. Just 2% of the ocean floor is filled with coral, but the branching structures — shaped like everything from reindeer antlers to human brains — sustain a quarter of all marine species. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Divers Everton Simpson (R), and Andrew Todd bring staghorn coral from a coral nursery. Bits of fishing line are used 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Divers Everton Simpson (R), and Andrew Todd bring staghorn coral from a coral nursery. Bits of fishing line are used 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. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Fish swim past planted staghorn coral inside the White River Fish Sanctuary. Life on the ocean floor is like a slow-motion competition for space, or an underwater game of musical chairs. Tropical fish and other marine animals, like black sea urchins, munch on fast-growing algae and seaweed that may otherwise outcompete the slow-growing coral for space. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers — and vice-versa. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Fish swim past planted staghorn coral inside the White River Fish Sanctuary. Life on the ocean floor is like a slow-motion competition for space, or an underwater game of musical chairs. Tropical fish and other marine animals, like black sea urchins, munch on fast-growing algae and seaweed that may otherwise outcompete the slow-growing coral for space. When too many fish disappear, the coral suffers — and vice-versa. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Diver Lenford DaCosta cleans up lines of staghorn coral. After a series of natural and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85% of its once-bountiful coral reefs. Meanwhile, fish catches declined to a sixth of what they had been in the 1950s, pushing families that depend on seafood closer to poverty. The delicate labor of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef and the most straightforward at that. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Diver Lenford DaCosta cleans up lines of staghorn coral. After a series of natural and man-made disasters in the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaica lost 85% of its once-bountiful coral reefs. Meanwhile, fish catches declined to a sixth of what they had been in the 1950s, pushing families that depend on seafood closer to poverty. The delicate labor of the coral gardener is only one part of restoring a reef and the most straightforward at that. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Jamaica’s coral reefs were once among the world’s most celebrated, drawing the attention of travellers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of his James Bond novels on Jamaica’s northern coast in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1965, the country became the site of the first global research hub for coral reefs, the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, now associated with the University of the West Indies. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Jamaica’s coral reefs were once among the world’s most celebrated, drawing the attention of travellers from Christopher Columbus to Ian Fleming, who wrote most of his James Bond novels on Jamaica’s northern coast in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1965, the country became the site of the first global research hub for coral reefs, the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, now associated with the University of the West Indies. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Everton Simpson grabs a handful of staghorn, to be planted. Today, the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavors. Still, slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Everton Simpson grabs a handful of staghorn, to be planted. Today, the corals and tropical fish are slowly reappearing, thanks in part to a series of careful interventions. Convincing lifelong fishermen to curtail when and where they fish and controlling the surging waste dumped into the ocean are trickier endeavors. Still, slowly, the comeback effort is gaining momentum. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Peter Gayle has been a marine biologist at Discovery Bay since 1985. “Before 1980, Jamaica had healthy coral,” he noted. Then disasters struck. The first calamity was 1980’s Hurricane Allen, “Its 40-foot waves crashed against the shore and basically chewed up the reef.” That same decade, a mysterious epidemic killed more than 95% of the black sea urchins in the Caribbean, while overfishing ravaged fish populations. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Peter Gayle has been a marine biologist at Discovery Bay since 1985. “Before 1980, Jamaica had healthy coral,” he noted. Then disasters struck. The first calamity was 1980’s Hurricane Allen, “Its 40-foot waves crashed against the shore and basically chewed up the reef.” That same decade, a mysterious epidemic killed more than 95% of the black sea urchins in the Caribbean, while overfishing ravaged fish populations. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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That seemed like the end of the story, until an unlikely alliance started to tip the ecosystem back in the other direction, with help from residents like Everton Simpson and Lipton Bailey. Two years ago, the fishermen joined with local businesses, including hotel owners, to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a no-fishing zone stretching two miles along the coast. (David J. Phillip / AP)

That seemed like the end of the story, until an unlikely alliance started to tip the ecosystem back in the other direction, with help from residents like Everton Simpson and Lipton Bailey. Two years ago, the fishermen joined with local businesses, including hotel owners, to form a marine association and negotiate the boundaries for a no-fishing zone stretching two miles along the coast. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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Most of the older fishermen have come to accept the no-fishing zone. Some younger men hunt with lightweight spearguns, swimming out to sea and firing at close-range. These men — some of them poor and with few options — are the most likely trespassers. The patrollers carry no weapons and rely on negotiation. “Let them understand this. It’s not a you thing or a me thing. This isn’t personal,” Bailey said. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Most of the older fishermen have come to accept the no-fishing zone. Some younger men hunt with lightweight spearguns, swimming out to sea and firing at close-range. These men — some of them poor and with few options — are the most likely trespassers. The patrollers carry no weapons and rely on negotiation. “Let them understand this. It’s not a you thing or a me thing. This isn’t personal,” Bailey said. (David J. Phillip / AP)

Updated on Sep 20, 2019 11:13 AM IST
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