Racing to Save Two Sea Animals in the Dominican Republic
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Racing to Save Two Sea Animals in the Dominican Republic

There are many sea animals under threat because of climate change and pollution, but two of these Caribbean creatures are illustrating how extensive the impact is. On the large size are West Indian manatees, which are the gentle giants of the sea. They were abundant in the region for centuries until hunting and pollution took a major toll. By 2008 the Dominican Republic estimated there were less than 70 manatees left in its waters.


On the tiny size are several species of coral that form crucial coral reefs. In the Caribbean it’s estimated that half of the coral reefs have died off in the last 30 years.

The declines have led to extensive conservation efforts. Rustic students on the Marine Life and Coastal Restoration program work with a key NGO called Fundemar that spearheads these efforts.

Their work is already paying off, but there’s still much to do. Part of their efforts center on education, so there is an understanding of how much is at stake.

marine life in the Dominican Republic with Rustic Pathways

Photo: Rustic Pathways

The Caribbean Sea is one of the most diverse waterways in the world. Species survival in the area is critically important to nations in the region that rely on marine life for tourism and food. It’s also crucial for the health of our planet as marine life migrates in the Atlantic Ocean, and water problems easily spread.

In the last several years it has become increasingly evident how quickly human behavior has damaged natural wonders that took thousands – or even millions – of years to flourish. But there is a lot of hope as the younger generation steps up to help.

Going Back in Time

One of the key goals of conservationists is to promote better practices among the public. These lessons include details on how to protect coral reefs that prevent land erosion and play a major role in the ecosystem.

Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but are home to an estimated 25% of all marine species. They only can form in areas with shallow warm waters like the Caribbean and areas of the coast of Australia.

The Dominican Republic has nearly 800 miles of coastline and the reefs along its shore provide food and protection for many fish and other sea animals.

Dominican Republic beach

Photo: Rustic Pathways

Overall, it can take 10,000 years to form a coral reef. Some larger reefs are millions of years old. The reefs are formed when tiny, free-swimming corals attach to hard surfaces like rocks along the edge of islands or continents. Over time their skeletons build and new coral polyps live together on the surface in a symbiotic relationship with algae.

Some of the oldest reefs are barrier reefs and atolls. Barrier reefs border a shoreline but are at a greater distance than a fringing reef that comes directly from the shore. An atoll reef is formed when a volcanic island sinks, but the reef around it remains closer to the surface.

Climate change has hurt reefs since warming can damage the algae that the corals need to live. This can lead to bleaching that can kill the corals. Bleaching occurs when corals expel damaged algae causing the coral reef to turn white.

Other factors that can cause this problem include pollution that reduces sunlight exposure. In addition, coral reefs are threatened by many human activities. This can include people stepping on or touching fragile reefs and fishing equipment damaging them.

Dominican Republic coral reef

Photo: Rustic Pathways

They also need sea life like the parrot fish to essentially serve as lawnmowers for algae growth. Therefore, overfishing can cause problems for coral reefs. The Dominican Republic’s environment minister says 80% of Dominican Republic’s coral reefs are threatened by environmental pollution and overfishing.

The Decline in the Manatee Population

Things haven’t been much better for manatees, The role of human activity in the decline of the manatee population is quite evident. For centuries manatees were hunted for food, medicinal purposes and craft projects. They also faced habitat loss and degradation as development unfolded in the region. In addition, manatees too often are injured during boat collisions.

Manatees are adorable and playful aquatic mammals that are herbivores. They can only sleep underwater for about 20 minutes before they need to come up for air. That means their brains cannot completely rest while sleeping since a portion required for motor function needs to remain active.

Manatees are important to the ecosystem because they prevent vegetation from becoming overgrown and will eat invasive species. They also fertilize sea grasses and other aquatic vegetation.

Manatees and corals are just two examples of sea life that are critical to the health of the ecosystem in the Caribbean and beyond.

Efforts to Save Sea Life

Laws to ban manatee hunting have helped the population grow, moving their status from endangered to threatened. Corals have benefited from more responsible practices both large and small. Ensuring travelers wear coral safe sunscreen is one of the easier initiatives.

Rustic students try their hand at other key measures. This includes constructing reef restoration structures, monitoring coral growth in a wet lab, and working on the rehabilitation of mangroves that are important for marine life.

They also take part in beach cleanups and create buoys so fishermen don’t drop anchor on coral reefs. They save sea turtles eggs and learn to identify important fish to the ecosystem like parrot fish versus invasive species like lionfish.

Get in the water to clean buoys and work on projects that encourage coral reef reproduction. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Alumna Liv Woodruff who traveled on the program in 2019 says her student group slowly became a family as they learned about the local ecosystem and did what they could to foster environmental improvements.

“The boats we rode on and the turquoise blue waters became both our playgrounds and projects, as we attempted to do our part to save the ocean,” Woodruff said.

These kinds of experiences have helped make the marine program in the Dominican Republic one of the Rustic’s most popular animal life programs. Other marine-centered programs that are popular include Marine and Rainforest Conservation in Thailand and the Great Barrier Reef Dive Expedition in Australia.

To learn more about traveling to the Dominican Republic, please read our blog on what you won’t want to miss. For more information on all our programs, please visit our program page.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.