Coral, Colombian Style


WORLDS APART

In contrast to San Andr?s' low hills, Providence is mountainous with only a thin ribbon of coastal buildings in scattered spots. Both islands share a rich history of pirates and English influence, but on modern San Andr?s, Spanish is the dominant language. Providence is somewhat less influenced by mainland culture, and it's more obvious that, as far as the locals are concerned, the island's real language is Creole English.

Providence was first settled by a cadre of Puritans arriving on the Mayflower's sister ship, the Seaflower, in 1629. The English colonists found raiding and plundering Spanish treasure ships a good vocation, a situation that Spain tried to rectify by ousting the British in 1641. It worked, but for a later visit by the infamous Captain Henry Morgan, who would launch his attack on Panama from Providence.

The strongest influence on modern Providence's culture, though, was planters and their slaves arriving from other Caribbean islands, especially Jamaica. Many Providence islanders have lineages that go back hundreds of years, but there are few other signs of the island's history save the remnants of a single fort and the occasional cannon.

I check into the Posada del Mar, on the normally protected Freshwater Bay and an easy walk from two of the island's four dive shops. Meeting up with Felipe Cabeza, owner of PADI Dive Resort Felipe Diving, we map out a plan for the day: drive across the island to launch on its lee side and dive the closest thing we can find to a protected dive site.

The main road around Providence is surprisingly good, but the spur road leading to Manzanillo, where we'll load up, is decidedly more third world. At the end of the trail, though, we're greeted by a postcard-perfect picture: a South Pacific-style white sand crescent with coconut palms poking out and a small food shack--Roland Roots Bar, an island institution we'd experience later.

Loading Felipe's 30-foot open boat, we head for a reef Felipe calls Ximena's Place, in 95 feet of water. As expected, the visibility is far from the usual 100-plus feet, but it's plenty clear enough for us to begin to see what Providence has to offer. Blue parrotfish welcome us to the feast as they graze contentedly on coral, and a 5-foot-green moray comes most of the way out from behind its rock to welcome us. An abundance of soft and hard corals form a backdrop, and a sizable spiny lobster makes a cameo toward the end of our dive.

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Black coral and elephant ear sponge off Ximena's Place
(Photo by Franklin Viola)


When we surface, Felipe offers me something from a small white bag. I expect another exotic fruit treat like the guava paste Nelson's team stocked in San Andr?s, but find instead fresh conch fritters--a great way to warm up.

Back at the hotel, with the sun setting and scattered rains falling, I run into a group of Brazilian travel agents on a familiarization tour. Over Cuba Libres, we share our impressions of Providence, using a combination of Spanish, English and Portuguese that yields a surprisingly coherent conversation--so much so that we decide to have dinner together at nearby Caf? Studio. The seafood mix includes lobster, conch and the island specialty, crab toes. These are the claws of the giant land crabs found throughout the island, which are a supremely tasty Providence staple. Each summer the crabs create a unique spectacle when they come down from the hills for a mating ritual in numbers high enough to force road closures.

PROTECT AND PRESERVE

The next morning, Felipe and I go to the local office of Coralina, an unusual government environmental agency that oversees the region. The San Andr?s-Providencia archipelago, which also includes a number of mostly uninhabited outer islands, is the heart of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, sanctioned by the United Nations in 2000. At nearly 116,000 square miles, it's the largest in the Caribbean and encompasses a whopping 10 percent of the Caribbean Sea. In collaboration with local fishermen and divers, a subset of the area was also set aside more recently as Colombia's first Marine Protected Area, with strict no-fishing regulations in areas the fishermen and divers helped identify as the most in need of protection.
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Coralina, established in 1993, protects the region. Unlike the typical government agency, Coralina operates autonomously, insulated to a degree from political influence because it is governed by a board of directors that includes both government officials and locals, each having only a single vote. Another critical contrast from the norm is that Coralina oversees both the islands and the surrounding waters, so it can develop policies that govern and protect both more effectively.

The group also runs annual reef surveys and conducts training programs for fishermen, dive operators and school children. Coralina's executive director, Elizabeth Taylor, tells me that she believes increasing dive tourism is essential to protecting the region, because it will improve the economy and help fishermen displaced by emerging regulations.

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