How to (re)build an island

65 miles off the coast of Miami, a derelict island used for sand excavation has been rebuilt into a shining example of tourism and conservation working hand-in-hand.

Photograph by Conrad Schutt
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Just off the picturesque beach of Ocean Cay island lies 64 square miles (165 square kilometers) of protected marine reserve.
Photograph by Conrad Schutt

There are many ways that individuals can help contribute to the conservation of our natural world. But if you happen to be an organization that finds itself in possession of a piece of land in the Western Bahamas—one that’s become heavily degraded from decades of industrial use—there’s quite a bit more you can do to restore it back to a pristine state. As the passionate team at MSC Cruises have demonstrated on the small island of Ocean Cay, it’s possible to turn an industrial wasteland into a marine paradise. Here’s a step-by-step guide to how they did it.


Find a paradise lost

The island of Ocean Cay lies, as part of The Bahamas, in the azure waters of the tropical western Atlantic, 65 miles (104 kilometers) east of Miami, Florida. Having been abandoned in 2015 after decades of industrial mining for aragonite sand, the entire area had been left in a poor state. But, the potential for it to become a haven for aquatic wildlife was palpable, and so MSC Cruises’ first step was to clean up the entire island which, along with 64 square miles (165 square kilometers) of surrounding ocean, is a designated marine reserve. The work had begun, but with heavy industrial debris littering the island and surrounding seabed, transforming the stark landscape was going to be an undertaking.


Find the treasure

Despite years of heavy industrial operations causing extensive damage to the island’s fragile ecosystems, all was not lost. Teams of scientists and environmental experts mapped the island and its surrounding waters to assess not only the damage, but existing natural properties that needed to be maintained and protected throughout the clean-up process. Different studies – both underwater and on land – were conducted to assess the existing biodiversity of the various reefs, marine colonies and land habitats, helping to calculate and plan conservation efforts. An inland lagoon was noted as an important base for migrating birds, and its protection was factored into the way the island was developed.

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A diver photographs a green sea turtle as part of ongoing documentation of wildlife in the area. Once documented, species can be monitored to help guide conservation efforts.


Responsibly remove rubbish

Somewhat paradoxically, the removal of waste substances can be just as damaging as putting them there in the first place if it’s not done properly. Professional clean up teams had to be enlisted to remove more than 1,500 tons (1,360 metric tonnes) of scrap metal from the island, including old vehicles and machinery, and transport it back to the US for recycling. Specialists were then brought in to test and decontaminate the soil to once again sustain life. Any trash that could be turned into treasure, was, with old concrete structures re-purposed into sea defences.

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Before transformation work could begin, tons of scrap metal and industrial debris had to be cleared from the island and surrounding seabed.


Plant a few (thousand) trees

Trees are crucial in fortifying any natural ecosystem. They protect against erosion by strengthening soil structures and provide a scaffold for much needed bio-diversity. Around 5,000 trees and palms have been planted already, as well as 75,000 new plants and shrubs. The plant species have been carefully selected to ensure they are predominantly indigenous—95 percent native to the Caribbean, with the remaining 5 percent being exotic but non-invasive. As well as these new roots, the removal of invasive species is also crucial for settling the island’s flora and fauna.


Revive the reef

There’s little point in establishing a marine reserve if existing wildlife is damaged in the process. Coral colonies had settled within the underwater debris left by previous industrial activities and 400 hard corals had to be carefully removed by a team of marine biologists and expert divers to be rehomed away from construction zones—in places they’d be able to grow and thrive. And, as well as restoring key habitats surrounding the island, a team of marine biologists continue to study the range of corals, seagrasses and mega fauna.


Tread lightly

Once you build a paradise, you need to maintain it, with environmental protection informing all operations and activities on the island. Therefore, the Ocean Cay team are working to ensure that they’re equipped to minimize the environmental footprint of day-to-day operations. Solar farms produce 600kw of green power, greywater is recycled in a closed-loop system before being used to irrigate surrounding vegetation, all transportation is electrified, and any and all single-use plastic is completely prohibited.


Welcome Wildlife

After foundations and protective measures are laid out, nature still takes time to populate and settle into a natural balance. This too is something that can be nurtured though, as in the years it will take for the area to once again form into a fully thriving eco-system, regular surveys are conducted to monitor progress. There are already positive signs with increased sightings of lobster, green sea turtles and rays. Ideally, as habitats around the island revive, more wildlife will be drawn to its shores.

To find out more about this issue, visit Ocean Cay.

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