This Diver Is on a Mission to Restore Coral Reefs
For marine ecologist Alannah Vellacott, saving the Bahamas’ coral reefs is a fight to protect her home.
Growing up in the Bahamas, Alannah Vellacott never strayed far from the ocean. The water was steps from her back door, and in the morning she would wake up to sea turtles and sharks outside her window.
For Vellacott and her friends, the shoreline was their playground. They would spend their days exploring the water and playing in the lush intertidal forests, sometimes going out on an aluminum boat that they salvaged from a nearby dump.
“We’d give our parents money to buy gas for our engine and be completely gone all day,” she recalls. Her father, a biology teacher, would listen to her stories and explain the science behind what she was experiencing. “I had no idea that all of that would set me up for the career that I currently have.”
Those early years of discovery propelled Vellacott into her own journey with marine research, conservation, education, and outreach, which she’s been doing for the past 12 years. She is a coral restoration specialist at Coral Vita, a company working to restore dying reefs by creating a global network of land-based coral farms.
The fight to preserve Caribbean coral reefs
Although they make up less than one per cent of the ocean, coral reefs are a cornerstone of aquatic life, supporting 25 per cent of all marine species. These days, though, the ocean of Vellacott’s childhood is just a memory. Giant colonies of coral that divers once relied on as underwater landmarks are now completely dead, their bright colours drained away.
The depletion of the reefs has even changed what the ocean sounds like.
As a child, Vellacott remembers “lots of activity, lots of clicks and pops and whooshes and low-frequency noises.” Today, that underwater symphony has largely fallen silent.
About 80 per cent of Caribbean corals have already died, and due to stressors like climate change, pollution, and overfishing, what’s left of them are facing steady decline.
This large-scale deterioration of the reefs has profound consequences for an “ocean nation” like The Bahamas. Along with mangroves, corals help protect Bahamian coastlines by reducing wave energy by up to 97 per cent.
Corals are also central to the country’s tourism and fishing industries, as well as its staple diet of seafood. “A Bahamas without coral reefs is not a Bahamas at all,” Vellacott says.
For her, the fight to save the reefs is deeply personal. Not only is she trying to preserve a vital ocean ecosystem, she’s fighting to save her home.
Untold stories of the transatlantic slave trade
When she’s not working on coral restoration, Vellacott keeps busy with another cause that’s just as meaningful to her. She’s part of a team of archaeological divers called Diving With a Purpose who work to uncover, document, and preserve shipwrecks connected to the transatlantic slave trade.
Unlike her work with coral reefs, diving shipwrecks to uncover the history of the slave trade wasn’t something Vellacott sought out. She joined the group while working on a six-part documentary about the shipwrecks, called Enslaved.
Each episode of the series, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Afua Hirsch, focuses on a different shipwreck from the Caribbean Sea to the coasts of Africa, England, and the United States.
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The experience was both eye-opening and fraught for Vellacott, who is biracial with a Black Bahamian mother and a white English father. “My skin is lighter, my curls are looser, and so I was never quite accepted by either community in The Bahamas,” she explains. “[Because of this] I initially did not feel like I would be a good representative for uncovering untold stories about the transatlantic slave trade.”
She hesitated at first to join the production, fearing that viewers might accuse the show of colourism for choosing to put a light-skinned, biracial Black woman at the front of a story about the complex legacy of the slave trade. But Vellacott ultimately decided that sharing these stories was more important than her own misgivings.
“I believed that the right people would receive it,” she says. “These are my ancestors, these are my stories, [and] this is my history.”
Reconciling family histories of slavery
For the descendants of enslaved people who were brought over on those wrecked ships, these diving missions can mean finally knowing the truth about what happened to their ancestors.
“Finding the shipwrecks and ensuring that we document them before they’re gone forever is our first lead into what the truth actually is,” she explains. “Because you cannot change what is physically there.”
These fact-finding missions were crucial for Vellacott’s understanding of that history, especially when they happened to link back to her own family. In the first episode she filmed, the team travelled to Cornwall, England, where Vellacott’s father was born.
“And so here I was where my dad had grown up and spent his best years,” she tells me. “And at the same time, I was exploring my mother’s ancestry, and my ancestors’ pain and anguish, and it was a very odd line to straddle.”
The group was in Cornwall trying to find the wreck of The London, a ship that had sailed from the Caribbean to Cornwall’s Ilfracombe Harbour carrying freed Black people who had been re-enslaved by the British. By chance, Vellacott’s first cousins were also visiting the town of Ilfracombe while she was there. She’d never met them before.
“It was just mind-blowing to be telling such a horrible story about what these people did to my ancestors, but at the same time exploring that ancestry and meeting my cousins and feeling such a love for my cousins,” she says.
The trip to Cornwall forced Vellacott to confront some of the painful overlaps between the two sides of her family tree: one side coming from a community with a direct lineage of enslavers, and one whose ancestors were enslaved.
And yet, the stories she and her collaborators were uncovering made it worthwhile, even if they raised difficult questions about her identity in the process. Vellacott says the experience allowed her to fully see and accept herself as a Black woman.
“I [realized] I needed to truly love and accept myself for who I am,” she says. “Because what I am, back in the times of slavery, would either be a heinous crime or it would be an act of profound love. I’m an act of profound love, and that’s what it is.”