Coral World Ocean Park hosted the sixth annual Reef Fest on Sunday, an event featuring educational and interactive ocean activities for locals and visitors alike of all ages.
Most of the events took place at Coral World Ocean Park, which opened its gates for free admission during the day. Visitors also took part in beach activities on Coki Beach. Coki Beach Dive partnered with the University of the Virgin Island’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies to offer snorkel tours. UVI CMES also facilitated sand castle building, as well as kayaking and paddle boarding.
Dr. Paul Jobsis, the acting director of CMES, said the sand castle building is often the event the kids love the most.
Tiny Bubbles also offered a swimming demonstration and class at the beach.
Throughout the day, exhibitor tables from more than 20 organizations and government departments featured kids’ activities, freebies, and a wealth of information.
Dan Nellis and Alexis Sabine represented the Department of Fish and Wildlife branch of Public and Natural Resources. Their table drew children and adults to its poster board full of pictures and facts, and a touchable sea turtle head, whale bone, and shark jaw.
Sabine said the department’s goal is to engage the public and teach people of all ages about the marine environment. The colorful board included information about current topics, such as sargassum sea weed. According to Sabine, the sargassum presence in the Virgin Islands both in 2011 and 2014 has been remarkable.
Nellis said the presence of both DPNR and DFW at the Fest helps to share with the community "some of the things DPNR does." Nellis added that connecting with kids and teaching them about marine life is essential.
First time Coral World visitors Andy Palmer and his mother, Ruth Palmer, both said they enjoyed the educational experience at the park. Both had their first SNUBA experience, and also participated in the shark encounter.
Ruth Palmer said she plans to join her son for the Sea Lion Swim at the park the next time she visits Andy on St. Thomas.
The sea lions even made a special third appearance for Reef Fest. A crowd of children, parents, and grandparents filled the Marine Gardens for a sea lion presentation by Coral World trainers. Omar, a 350-pound, 10-year old South American sea lion, stole the extra midday show.
Omar’s trainer, Sarah Stuve, said, "The sea lions and their trainers are happy to support Reef Fest and continue in their daily role as animal and conservation ambassadors."
Although the large swimming mammals were not quite so fascinating as the sea lions, one of the most important parts of the day was a coral restoration demonstration by divers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC). People at the park watched the divers harvest young fragments of grown Elkhorn coral, then epoxy the new coral into existing beds around the Observatory.
TNC biologist Anne Marie Hoffman explained the transplant process to visitors as they watched. To create healthy coral beds, she said, divers grow coral on PVC pipe ‘trees,’ then break off the ends of the main branches. Those ends are glued to the hard bottoms of natural reefs in the area to boost the coral growth.
Hoffman said the survival rate of coral from these nurseries is over 97 percent. She also said that the coral grows fast, more than an inch per month, while it is in the nursery.
Presentations on dangers to the reef, sea turtles, and reef life in general took place throughout the day. When participants tired of the sun, story hours also took place in the park’s gift shop.
Valerie Peters, Coral World’s marketing director, said that while 800 people have come to Reef Fest in the past, everyone hoped for an even bigger day on Sunday.
Reef Fest is sponsored by UVI’s CMES, the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service, Sea Grant, and Blue Flag USVI.
More information on Coral World’s conservation efforts and the park is available by calling 1-340-775-1555 or visiting the park’s website, coralworldvi.com.
More information about the reef is online at http://www.uvi.edu/research/center-for-marine-environmental-studies/default.aspx.