Underwater Tobago: Jonathan’s Story

The Maritime Ocean Collection is a collaboration of Underwater Earth, the Trinidad and Tobago marine NGO, SpeSeas and the Maritime Financial Company to document the reefs of Tobago and present them for online viewing in “virtual reality.” When complete, The Collection will be an education and research resource available on the Maritime Financial Company’s website; as well as on the webpages of the partners.

In the last week of March, marine biologist Dr Anjani Ganase and Jonathan Gomez, Marine Technician with the Institute of Marine Affairs started an exploration of the coastal waters around the northern end of Tobago.

The Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) is the Trinidad and Tobago government organization (under the Ministry of Planning and Development) responsible for marine and environmental research.

This is where Jonathan began his career surveying Tobago’s coral reefs. Here is Jonathan’s story:

Jonathan Gomez
Jonathan Gomez. Photo by Anjani Ganase, The Maritime Ocean Collection

Talk about your relationship and attachment to the marine environment.

I was born in Grenada and grew up near the sea. In Grenada, you are almost never without a view of the ocean. I learned to swim before I could walk.

Many, many hours were spent with my siblings exploring the seagrass beds of L’anse Aux Epines Bay, the patch reefs of Pink Gin Beach, and scrambling over precarious rocky cliffs to access remote coves.

On weekends my grandfather would take us out in his tri-maran sailboat “Shadow”, barking his orders at us while we zoomed over the shallow reefs of Grenada’s south coast. To me, the sea was everything, and all I knew.

My family moved to Trinidad when I was 13. Imagine one day you’re living in one country, and the very next day you’re walking into a new school in a strange new place surrounded by strangers. The stark contrast of the slower, more tranquil life in Grenada, and the busy, fast paced concrete environment of Port of Spain was intimidating. The transition was difficult.

Eventually I discovered Trinidad’s north coast. I learned to surf and would spend my weekends in Blanchisseuse and Toco riding the waves. It was the only thing I could do to fulfill my craving for the ocean.

After high school I saw an opportunity to apply for a field tech position at the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA). It was a no-brainer, working in the ocean was the only thing I could see myself doing. Twenty years later, I’m still here at the IMA.

How long have you been diving the coral reefs of Tobago?

I was certified for diving in Grenada in 2002 and dived Tobago’s reefs for the first time in 2003, soon after joining the Biodiversity and Ecology Research Program at the IMA (https://www.ima.gov.tt)

Buccoo reef was my first dive in southwest Tobago; and Japanese Gardens my first dive in the northeast in Speyside.

The biggest change I’ve seen over the years diving in Tobago was the loss of the coral cover, especially in Speyside. The worst was the bleaching event of 2010. Blackjack Hole, a reef off Little Tobago, was literally a winter scene. We conducted surveys every month for six months after that. The feeling of helplessness was depressing. We were documenting the death of the corals.

Talk about some of your favourite dive sites in Tobago.

Dive sites have definitely changed from when I first started diving in Tobago. The more I dive, the more new sites I visit, and the more favorite places I add to the list. At this moment I think my favorite dive site is Melville Drift, on the Southwest end of St. Giles Island. I have never seen such dominant colonies of boulder brain corals (Colpophyllia natans) jostling with each other for space on this current swept reef. Melville Drift remains magical because of the high coral cover which is very rare in Tobago these days. It was pleasantly surprising.

Another one is Flying Reef in the southwest where we would see a mix of Orbicella, Diploria corals, barrel sponges, and swaying soft corals on the gentle slopes. However, it has been a while since I last dived there, so I am hoping there are not too many changes when I return.

The small patch reef off Pirates Bay at Charlotteville is definitely up in the top: this is a perfect area, shallow enough for snorkeling, but still great for scuba. Sand dominated areas with distinct coral islands rising out, each one a little oasis in the desert. If you’re lucky a curious school of Almaco Jack might move in for a closer look, or you may spot one of the large green morays peeking out of its lair.

How do you think your work and experience at IMA prepared you to be part of the team on the Maritime Ocean Collection?

This is the first time I am involved in a project like this, and it is an exciting and challenging departure. We have been monitoring the reefs at a number of sites. Usually we just stick to the sites under observation without getting a chance to explore new areas.

I am enjoying diving different sites, where I have the chance to focus on photography, spending time to capture the reefs in photos to create the 360-degree “virtual reality” dives; and to make them available globally.

It is very exciting to be part of the innovative capture of these reefs in VR; and eventually to have Tobago reefs showcased for the world to see. These images will also serve as a baseline for the condition of these reefs for the next decades. I enjoy learning about the technology involved in creating the images. Even though the learning curve was steep, seeing the final results was worth it.

What is the value of the Maritime Ocean Collection for Trinbagonians?

The first thing I can think of is the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.” Corals exist in a world of which few of us are even aware. They are likely to disappear before many of us know the most basic things about them. This is the awareness we are working on. Most people have no idea what is out there, and how we might be affecting these valuable resources.  By bringing these mostly unseen places to the attention of the broader public, I’m hoping that there will be an awakening of interest; and perhaps we can affect the understanding that human life on earth is intricately connected to the reefs!

We need healthy reefs more than they need us.

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