Ancient Reefs Rock

Latest update August 11, 2019 Started on May 11, 2019
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Dr. Federico Fanti, Dr. Vanessa Lovenburg, and Dr. Grace Young are looking at the coral reef fossils that make up the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We'll look at how reefs have thrived and died over the past 250 million years.

May 11, 2019
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In The Field

Veta and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory took Federico, our film crew, and me to an overlook that let us see the town of Plymouth. This town was covered by volcanic eruptions between 1995-2010. Veta has strong memories from her youth and teenage years here, seeing movies in the cinema, meeting friends and family. For many reasons it was an emotional time. We are trying to tell the geological story of the volcano while being sensitive to the human story that everyone on the island is still grappling with today.


Veta tells part of her story: """ 24 years since our Soufriere Hills volcano awoke, over 90% of ash from violent pyroclastic flows went into our sea, the largest of the flows literally boiling the seas and settling as new shorelines. The destruction to our reefs was incredible, with our near shore reefs hardest hit, mostly buried in sedimentation. However, Grace's work on the island allowed us to look at how our reefs are recovering from natural disaster. Her work tells a story of hope and resilience. As we sat on the sea together facing Plymouth, she asked what it was like to experience the eruptions firsthand, how it all made me feel.

What strikes me every time as I walk through the devastation of the city that held such fond memories for myself and my community, is the resilience shown by not only nature, but our people too. I am always reminded and encouraged by the many Montserratians who, like my own father, lost their whole life's investments yet remained patriotic and loyal to our island, relocating and starting over again. It's these virtues of resilience and courage that make me look eagerly towards the contributions and legacies our future generations will make to the success of Montserrat.

The story below water is very similar. Coral reefs are bouncing back. Despite the ever present threats to our reefs such as climate change, pollution, overfishing and coastal developments, it's not all doom and gloom...our coral reefs are slowly but surely bouncing back. After two decades our town still remains uninhabited (indefinitely). Dive into Plymouth's backyard and we see new life and habitat being formed. We see hope!

So impressed am I by the wonders of our reefs (something that only became apparent to me later in life, as unlike Grace, I didn't follow a path of science but simply saw the need to assist in empowering our youth to be better stewards of the Caribbean Sea), that I spend almost all of my time engaging our young people on Montserrat and on the island of Barbuda in citizen science and marine awareness. I believe as Caribbean people, we all have an important role to play in preserving our marine ecosystems and we have to take responsibility for our most valuable resource, with an estimated 50-80% of global biodiversity found in our oceans.

At Fish 'N Fins we patrol our reefs each week, looking for invasive species such as Lionfish, collecting debris, cataloging coral health and telling the story of our "ed-ventures" to our local community. """ Please follow Veta's story and her continued incredible work on Montserrat: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/montserrat

Federico and I arrived in Monsterrat! There are twelve Italian film makers with us, so we are quite the circus. The attached image (my eyes closed) shows our 900+ lbs of luggage. Nearly all of it is camera gear, underwater housings, rebreathers and SCUBA kit. Famed underwater videographer Michael Pitts and his assistant Jon Chambers came with two Inspiration rebreathers, a RED camera with underwater housing, and two oxygen cylinders, which accounted for 20 of the bags. It’s a lot of “stuff”, but the footage will be stunning and nothing like what has been captured here before.


Thankfully the Trident drone was the easiest item to bring over. It fit into the backpack I carried onto the plane and placed under the seat. I thought the drone might get some strange looks at airport security, but TSA in San Francisco recognized it as an underwater drone and then told me about dives they did in Monterey! Antigua airport security was fine about it too. By the end of this journey I’ll have taken it through airport security in five different countries and I don’t expect any problems.

We saw the part of the island covered in ash and pyroclastic flow during the volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 2010. Federico, a professor of palaeontology and geology, was awe struck because here we see in real time a situation similar (geologically speaking) to what was happening in the Dolomites 200 million years ago. We talked to Montserratians who were on the island during the explosions, some of whom still own houses buried under the flow. I learned that it’s incorrect to call the flow from Montserrat’s volcano “lava;” it is “pyroclastic flow” (rocks spewed from the volcano) and ash. During explosions, ash turned day to night. The sand on the beaches is dark black, and the island has grown larger. Amazingly, corals once completely covered in the flow are already starting to regrow through the ash. The corals and the people here are incredibly resilient.

Becauss the volcano is still considered active, the former Director (now seismologist) of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, Rod Stewart, was with us at all times while we were in the buried city of Plymouth, an area that would be in immediate danger of the volcano erupted again. That said, this was a very low-risk activity. It would be more likely that one of us would get a bad wasp sting (Jack Spaniard wasps like to make nests under broad leaves, beware!). Thankfully no filmmakers or explorers were harmed in the course of these events.

A friend and incredible Montserratian woman, Veta Wade, will be in the documentary sharing the story of the island. She runs a non-profit organisation, called ‘Fish ‘N Fins’ that teaches kids to swim, snorkel, and protect the ocean and it’s reefs. She invited me to share stories (and have a dance off!) with them at the island’s first STEAM Festival. I was floored with their enthusiasm! Every other sentence a kid (ages one to sixteen) flew up their arm with a question or remark. I got some common questions, “How did the door work in underwater habitat? Did you see sharks?” Plus the younger kids had questions I’d never think of — One came up to me urgently and pulled on my shirt to ask “Is hot chocolate your favorite drink?” (Turns out she saw hot chocolate packets in one of the videos of the underwater habitat. Very observant!). Another pointed to a strange shadow I’d never noticed in an image and asked “Are those snail eyes?!” Another asked if I could lift the Goliath grouper out of the water, and I said “No they are 300 lbs! I couldn’t hug it if I wanted to!” A boy who looked about six years old asked if I could bring the submarine to the island. I said if he can pick out some dives spots to study we can try to organise it!

A big deal movie called “Wendy” directed by Benh Zeitlin was filmed on the island last year. I’m looking forward to seeing that one.

Stay tuned for more and please comment if you’ve questions!

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Expedition Background

We are planning this expedition over three continents: Federico in Italy, Vanessa in Tanzania, and Grace in California. This means we are sending about a thousand emails and texts each day and answering them at all hours. We're working with a team to finalize travel plans, gear lists, permits, and visas.


Sometimes this necessary pre-work can feel like a drag, us waiting to get to the good part, but I've started to embrace it as part of the journey. Now I think of everything, even the back-and-fourth emails and spreadsheets, as part of the grand adventure.

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