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Andros Barrier Reef: the World’s Third Largest Ecosystem

We all know the Caribbean for its impossibly bright turquoise sea that looks so deliciously tempting to dive into, millions of people travel to its shores every year to do just that. Now. we can’t blame anyone for coming to the Caribbean for a beach holiday. What many don’t realize, though, is there’s an extraordinary exotic underworld to be discovered beyond the end of their sunbeds. The Andros Barrier Reef in The Bahamas.

If you love adventure just as much as you like lazing on a tropical beach with a book, then Andros Island’s eastern coast may just be the Caribbean island destination for you. Most of the island is a protected area known as West Side National Park. This rugged untouched park navigating mangroves, tidal creeks, and sandy islets, is home to an array of exotic animals like iguanas, flamingos, sharks, and turtles. Meanwhile, the Andros Barrier Reef awaits in the east with its own underwater landscape to explore. Andros Island, therefore, literally offers the best of both worlds — land and sea.

Where is the Andros Barrier Reef?

Measuring somewhere between 124 and 190 miles long, the Andros Barrier Reef is actually the third-longest barrier reef in the world. And if its length wasn’t wasn’t impressive enough, what about the fact it’s the third-largest living organism on the planet?! 

The reef fringes the edge of Andros Island seabed and the Tongue of the Ocean, a tremendously mysterious 2000-meter-deep ocean ridge. Having been protected from overtourism, the Andros Barrier Reef is in fact one of the healthiest reefs remaining on our beloved planet. 

 It consists of five reefs, each of which have a unique ecosystem. These are the lagoon reef, back reef, reef crest, innerfore reef and outerfore reef. The reef as a whole is split into two marine parks, the North and South Marine Parks. While one is well-established for tourism and controlled by a warden, the other is completely wild with little to no infrastructure.

What Sealife Can I Find in the Reef?

The wildlife-rich Andros Barrier Reef is home to an astounding 164 species of fish and coral. Species so colorful, unusual, and fascinating that even when you see them, you still may not believe they are really there. Yet, you could spend hours and hours below sea level just watching life go by in this unlikely ecosystem, if only your oxygen tank would allow it!

The fishes’ names are often just as peculiar as the fish themselves, including the sharp nose puffer, black jack, queen trigger, and the flying gurnard just to name a few. Of course, the reef is home to some of nature’s more legendary sea creatures too. Don’t be surprised to find yourself swimming with moray eels, green turtles, manta rays, and reef sharks.

There’s one fish, in particular, you should keep your eyes peeled for when diving in Bahamian waters; the blue marlin. At five meters long, up to 2000 pounds in weight, and reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, this fish is kind of legendary. No wonder it’s The Bahamas’ national fish! If you’re not sure what they look like, don’t worry — they are somewhat easy to spot. After all, they fashion a distinctively long rod-shaped nose and a shark-like fin atop their heads. 

Much less intimidating but equally worth paying close attention to is the coral reef itself. From trees to antlers, and even spongy cylinders, corals come in all shapes, sizes, textures, and colors. The best one, in our opinion, is the ‘smooth brain coral’ which, surprise surprise, looks exactly like a human brain! All of them coexist on the seabed like a kaleidoscope of life. Look closely because while some are still and rigid, others flow with the current or contract and expand as if they’re breathing with their very own pair of lungs. Plus, you never know what might be hiding within them…

What Snorkeling and Diving Opportunities Does it Offer?

Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, Andros isn’t exactly teeming with tourists which means two things. The first, and most important, is that the reef’s health is much better than Australia’s competing sea forest, and so there’s much more life to see. Secondly, without the crowds, this reef offers much more of a personal and authentic diving or snorkeling experience. Imagine having almost the entire reef to yourself! Remember though, you’ll never quite be alone because the sharks will be lurking around where you least expect them. Luckily, the reef is best known for its deep-sea sponges and schools of red snapper fish, neither of which pose any kind of threat to us humans.

Whether you’re a diving expert, or just enjoy some casual snorkeling, Andros Barrier Reef promises to show off its impressive artistry. With the shallower end of the reef being only 2.5 meters deep, those less confident in the water have a safe place to get a good glimpse of this mesmerizing underworld. The more daring divers are invited to teeter on the edge of the Tongue of the Ocean where the reef sharks and manta rays like to hang out. Are you daring enough to swim over the edge of the seabed and into the abyss? 

How is Andros Barrier Reef Being Conserved?

Of course, like all of our ecosystems, the Andros Barrier Reef is fragile and requires lots of love and attention to maintain its integrity and continue thriving for many centuries. Luckily, the Bahamian government has always seemed to value the reef’s contribution to our Earth rather than its tourism economy. Therefore, large developments on Andros Island, the reef’s closest coast, have been prevented. 

Less development like big hotel resorts and on-land attractions means less tourists to potentially cause damage to the reefs. It’s not only snorkeling and diving in the reef and interfering with its synchronicity that causes damage. It’s the pollution and waste produced on land which gets either absorbed by the sea or swept into the reef by nearby currents. There’s a good reason why Andros is the healthiest reef in the world!

The tourism that does operate around the reef is curated carefully with the wellbeing of the reef at the heart of its considerations. Tour operators only take out small groups at a time into the reef to minimize disturbance, and their guides and instructors always ensure the sealife’s well respected. Even fishing is tightly controlled to maintain the reef’s beautiful abundance.

While tourists are a major threat the Andros Barrier Reef’s wellbeing, the biggest threat it faces is climate change. Despite all the efforts made to protect and conserve the astonishingly rich and diverse reef, the rise in temperatures is causing irreparable damage. As the seas get warmer, coral expels zooxanthellae which changes their nutritional intake and causes them to bleach. By 2040, it is expected that the Andros Barrier Reef, and the amazing life that inhabits it will be dead along with many other reefs around the world. The world has already had to say goodbye to half of the Great Barrier Reef. 

The good news is that efforts are being made to conserve all of the weird, wonderful, and wild species that inhabit the Andros Barrier Reef by Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. This protected underwater park features a coral nursery where rare and endangered species are cultivated and conserved before being planted in the reef. With this admirable practice, there is hope that the reef will be there for future generations to admire it just as much as we have.

How can you help?

We all want to see the Caribbean Sea keep its coral crown, but how man we as individuals do our part to ensure it does? 

  • No matter where in the world you live, minimizing your personal carbon footprint by reducing, reusing, and recycling will go a long way. 
  • Conservation organizations are always happy to receive some funding and donations which you can raise in many inventive ways.
  • Ensure that if you do come and visit the breathtaking phenomenon that is the Andros Barrier Reef, you are a guest in the fishes’ home and you must always give them the utmost respect

Written by Emily Draper

Having visited over 70 countries across all seven continents, it's safe to say Emily has the voice of a true traveller. She has lived with the Hare Krishnas in Chile, an Amazonian tribe in Peru, and a retiree named Jerry in a Wisconsin trailer park. Now, Emily has embarked on the coolest adventure yet: across Europe in her self-converted van.

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