Reef Preservation in Mahahual

by Barbara Eller (March 2014)

Diving at a new site past our house one day, Luis and I found a very large fishing net with parts of it tangled in our beautiful reef. It was obvious that it had been there for some time because of the way it was wrapped around some of the coral and also parts of the net were embedded in the coral. Luis used his GPS to record the coordinates so he could return at another time and remove the net.

 A couple weeks later Luis told me about the fishing net and asked if I wanted to take a look at it. So we grabbed our gear and headed out for a dive. I was surprised how large the net was and how much of the reef it covered. It had to be five feet from top to bottom and looked to be over 100 feet long. We swam along it seeing how and where it was attached to the reef. When we got back to the boat we talked about the best way to free the net from the reef and remove it completely.

Due to divers staying at Kabah-na (the resort where Luis works) and some bad weather, it was another few weeks before we had a chance to return to the reef. It took a little while for us to get all our gear together. In addition to our regular diving equipment, we needed lift bags or, as they say in Mexico, "balloons," gloves to protect our hands, and knives to cut the net away from the coral. We also had extra tanks on board because we felt it would take two dives to remove the net.  Luciana joined us with her camera to document our work. Finally the panga was loaded and we were ready for our save-the-reef adventure.

It was a perfect day, with the water very calm and few waves. We got to the place we thought was at one end of the net. We put our gear on and did a back roll off the boat. Since the visibility was good, we dropped down to about 25 feet to conserve our air as we searched for the net. We swam in what seemed like circles for about 40 minutes and could not find the fishing net. So we decided to just finish our time looking around the reef and seeing what little creatures we could find. Suddenly off to our right we saw the fishing net, just as big as you please! All three of us were low on air so Luis took his safety signal, inflated it and tied it to the end of the net so that after our surface interval we could head right down to it.

Needless to say we all were very happy when we climbed back on the boat. We knew we could only remove half of the net on our second dive, but that was better than nothing. For the next hour we relaxed, ate some apples, drank our water, and watched a sea turtle surface for air a couple of times.

After an hour we switched tanks, went over our plan, and dropped back into the water. We followed the line down to 78 feet where it was attached to the net. Our plan was to attach lift bags at the deepest end, cut the net free from the reef, attach another lift bag, and continue doing this until we had the deepest half detached, then return another day to remove the remaining portion.

Luis began at the deepest part attaching the first lift bag, as I continued farther down cutting net away from the coral. As we both worked our way along the reef, I found a large crab tangled in the net. I tapped him on the shell with my knife and did not see any movement, then I slid my knife under him to lift him up a little, and still no movement. I felt sad thinking how he got tangled and could not free himself. Then Luis came along and took over cutting the net from around the crab. Luis told us later that the crab must have been traumatized because as he freed the claws the crab grabbed his finger and pinched it hard. I prefer to think that the crab wanted to shake hands and say "Thanks, buddy!"

I moved on to another section and had to drop down a few feet into a narrow opening in the reef. The net was embedded deep into the coral in this area and I was having trouble freeing it without damaging the reef. My head was down into the opening and I was reaching down further with my hands and knife. Luciana, who had been recording our progress, came over to me and I felt her pull up on my first stage. Finally the net came free as she pulled me back farther. I turned to look at her and she gave me the signal for lionfish and pointed down into the area she just pulled me out of. Back on the boat she explained that she saw a number of large lionfish start moving up towards me. I thanked her for seeing them and getting me out before they stung me.

We were making great headway, cutting the net, connecting a lift bag, then moving on to the next section. Luis clipped on the last lift bag and motioned for me to move back, and I watched as the net was lifted to the surface. We had released the deepest half of the net! I was amazed that we were able to do so much on one dive.

What a sight seeing that huge net suspended in the water just below the surface. Fish started coming up to find food on the net. We took turns taking photos as we swam around the net. We climbed back on the boat and gave each other hugs and high-fives for a job well done. Luis pulled the net onto the boat so he could then cut it up and dispose of it.

I love to dive on this reef and it felt good to help do something to keep it alive. Everyone in some way is able to do something to keep our reef healthy. Remember the ocean can survive without us but we cannot survive without the ocean. So, next time you go diving, snorkeling, or even walking on the beach, please pick up that piece of plastic or beer can someone threw in the water.

Until next time…
Happy Bubbles.

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Barbara Eller

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