By Barb Whitman I”ve spent the majority of my life trying to do things that will protect the marine environment and encourage others to do likewise.” Don’t kick the corals when you dive or snorkel.” Don’t let garbage get into the sea.” Make sure pesticides and other pollutants are disposed of and used properly.” Keep silt and dirt out of the water so they don’t smother the corals.” Then in one fell swoop an enraged Mother Nature passed by and trashed a large assortment of marine habitats all by herself.” Sometimes I wonder: Why do I bother? A few days after Hurricane Omar battered our shores, I took some people out to snorkel at my favorite site.” Normally the corals and sponges are gorgeous and the fish plentiful but when we dipped our heads into the water it looked as though a tornado had sucked up everything that had been there and all that was lift in its stead were naked boulders.” Gone were the tall yellow tube sponges and the red rope sponges.” I knew where they had ended up, rotting and smelling on the shore.” Loggerhead and barrel sponges were rolling around on the sand or hanging by a thread to rocks they had once been securely attached to. Huge heads of coral were upended or turned on their sides, the living polyps being smothered in the sand.” Smaller colonies of coral were ripped right off the volcanic rocks they were once glued to, including a three-foot diameter colony of star coral and an even larger brain coral which I always pointed out to my guests. The soft coral gardens of purple and pink sea fans and feathery clusters of delicate sea plume colonies that used to dance to the motion of the currents had vanished, the powerful cement that holds them to the rocks no match for the tantrum of storm waves.” Every kick of our fins took us past sad devastation.” I was amazed that many of the fish were gone as well.” I supposed the tiny cities of invertebrates that normally live in the sponges had disappeared with them.” So what were the fish to eat?” Obviously they had moved to “greener pastures” as it were. My return to shore after that trip was somber.” Even though I”ve seen it before, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly nature can take away what it has spent decades, even centuries building, the way a fire can turn a centuries old forest to ashes in an afternoon.” Then the practical side of me kicked in.” Where was I going to take people snorkeling now? The next day I had another trip.” I decided to take the visitors to my second favorite place.” It was second only because the waves and currents around rocks that were wonderful to explore with mask and snorkel were often too much for the novice snorkelers I sometimes take on my trips.” The calmer areas of the bay weren’t as nice because they were covered in silt and oddly enough I felt embarrassed to take Federation visitors to a degraded habitat.” But I had no choice that day so off we went.” When we peered beneath the surface I was absolutely amazed.” The silt was gone like sins that were washed away with a blessing.” The sea fans were there.” The sponges were holding tight to the rocks and the corals were no longer peering at us from under a dusty blanket of goop.” Little assemblages of fish were milling about the rocks and hiding in the crevices.” Piles of empty clam shells indicated that food was plentiful for the octopuses.” We even spotted a couple of live conch hopping through the turtle grass ” a rare sight indeed. When my little group clambered back onto the boat everyone was happy.” We drank punch and snacked on goodies and listened to music wafting from the beach.” All was right with the world.” The hand that had taken away had also given. Later that evening I pondered what I had seen over the last 48 hours.” Then I began to doubt what I have been trying to do for decades.” Why bother taking care of the reefs if they can be swept away in a few short hours?” The answer came to me in the same words I had spoken to dozens of students just a few weeks prior when discussing climate change.” First the question:” If two people get the flu, which one recovers more quickly, the person with chronic health problems or the one who is healthy?” Then the answer: The person who has a healthy, active immune system will rebound from an illness faster than one whose health is impaired.” The same logic apples to reefs and indeed to every other environment.” So the lesson I took away from the aftermath of Hurricane Omar is that we still must do all we can to protect and preserve the marine environment that effects all of us on the island.” Why?” Because a healthy marine environment will return to its previous glory faster than one that must battle the constant onslaught of negative human impact.” The answer was so uncomplicated it seemed silly to even write it down:” Take care of the reefs and they will take care of you. (Barb Whitman is a marine biologist, educator and proprietor of “Under the Sea,” located at Oualie Beach. For more information, call 869-662-9291.)