On Tuesday we had our first dive in Micronesia on Double Reef, an extraordinary world flourishing with marine life. This pristine dive site is seemingly untouched; we reached it by boat because it is not accessible by road and is several miles from Guam’s population center.  

Pictured: USC students encounter a discarded bulldozer in SeaBee Junkyard, Apra Harbor. Photo by Jim Haw.

After ten days of training on Catalina off the coast of Southern California in poor visibility and cold water, it was our privilege that this site was our first experience of tropical SCUBA diving. With mounds of coral forming castle-shaped forests all around, we had truly entered a new world that exceeded our wildest expectations.  Double Reef had amazing visibility, and we saw a great diversity of invertebrates, fish and coral species.

At each dive site, we record the number of specific invertebrates present and substrate type along a 100-meter belt transect. These include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, spider conchs and giant clams. These species, with enough data, can hopefully tell us the diversity and health of the specified reef ecosystem, and with enough data over enough time, tell us how the reefs are being affected by anthropogenic factors.

Left: Elephant ear sponge on Western Shoals Reef in Apra Harbor with USC student posing for scale. Photo by Jim Haw.

The next day we dove in Apra Harbor on Western Shoals, a reef that will be potentially impacted by the proposed Department of Defense buildup. In contrast to Double Reef, this site is in the heart of Apra Harbor, a populated area surrounded by development of both commercial and military complexes. Though we did not see as many invertebrates and reef fish as we did in Double Reef, the coral coverage and size was remarkable considering its location. We also saw an elephant ear sponge, a species common in Apra Harbor, but perhaps in no other place on Guam.  Western Shoals seemed like an oasis among all of the surrounding development.

Right: Justin Bogda poses for the camera on Western Shoals Reef, Apra Harbor. Photo by Tom Carr.

But this could all soon change. As part of the Department of Defense buildup, a large part of Apra Harbor must be dredged to base an aircraft carrier. This dredging would not only physically destroy coral reefs, but also indirectly impact surrounding ecosystems with sedimentation. While the Department of Defense uses silt nets to prevent such sedimentation, it has been known to be ineffective, and the sediment in Apra Harbor is so fine that once it becomes re-suspended in the water column it will remain there for a very long time. This sedimentation reduces the amount of sunlight available to coral’s photosynthetic process, and thus adversely affects the entire ecosystem.    

Left: Mareika Vandeveer swims a transect on Western Shoals Reef. Photo by Tom Carr.

Sasa Bay is another area in Apra Harbor that would suffer from dredging and increased activity. A marine-protected area (MPA), this site is a nursery or nesting area for a variety of fish as well as the endangered hawksbill sea turtle.  The buildup is likely to have detrimental effects on Sasa Bay. Because it is only a marine protected area under the local laws of Guam and not federal law, the military refuses to recognize the Sasa Bay MPA, and continues its plans for dredging.   

Our last dive in Apra Harbor was at a site called SeaBee Junkyard. At this site, ridden with bulldozers, construction materials and other military debris, we saw that even after more than 60 years of coral reef destruction, life is still struggling to come back.  This site showed us how a flourishing habitat can become irreparably damaged in an overwhelmingly short amount of time. This leaves us wondering what the fate of essential ecosystems such as Western Shoals and Sasa Bay preserve may be. Hopefully soon more people can realize that, if these habitats are destroyed, they will not come back.

About the Authors: Justin Bogda is a sophomore in USC Dornsife double majoring in environmental studies and international relations.  He hopes to pursue a master’s degree in marine environmental biology and a career in conservation of marine ecosystems.   

Mareika Vandeveer is a senior in USC Dornsife pursuing a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies with a focus on oceans, life and people. This is her first experience with scientific diving. After college she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in marine biology.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.