Lionfish in Paradise: What’s Eating the Great Mayan Reef?

great mayan reef diving

From March to May 2018 I was fortunate enough to land the role of Assistant Trail Leader on Frontiers Central American Trail. Frontier is a gap year travel organisation which provide volunteering opportunities for travellers, and also coordinate “Eco Trails” – such as the one I was working on.

Along with the Trail Leader, who booked travel, transport, accommodation and all manner of other things, I accompanied a group of seven backpackers on a six-week journey which took us from Mexico City to the outskirts of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.

Part of my role was to write Blog material and update social media along the route, and research accordingly. Here’s what I wrote about my time learning to dive in Utila…

great mayan reef

So where is Utila?

Just eighteen miles North East of Honduras lies a tropical gem – its name is Utila. Only 11km by 4km at its widest point, this tiny island has a surprising secret. It borders the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the second largest reef in the world.

Commonly known as the “Great Mayan Reef”, here the corals stretch for over 1000km and the area has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Marine species abound, including the whale shark and some thousand or so manatees, as well as four species of turtle. It was amongst this biodiversity hotspot that our Trail family learned to dive, and what an experience it was…

Many people compare the underwater environment to being on another planet, but, it’s us who are the aliens here.

great mayan reef

Life on Earth began in the oceans, after all, something we often overlook when prioritising areas for conservation. In this marine paradise, at least, there is an ongoing conservation crisis. This crisis is strikingly beautiful, an orange and off-white mirage with whiskers that waft in the current.

It is the ethereal Red Lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific Region but a horrendous guest in the Caribbean. It is destroying our coveted Mayan Reef with its huge appetite.

Many corals live in symbiosis with what are known as “reef-tending species” – the shrimps and filter feeders which consume algae and keep the corals’ disease free and thriving. In return, they get a safe and stable structure in which to live and breed.

The problem, then, is that lionfish feed on these reef-tenders with a ferocity that threatens the reefs ability to cleanse itself.

It is a common tale in ecosystems the whole world over: invasive species meets exquisite new habitat, invasive species moves in and takes over, free of natural checks and balances, and consequently destroys its newfound home.

This is no less common in the marine environment than upon land and is only set to perpetuate with rising sea levels and warming waters.


So how do we deal with invasive species?

Luckily, though, conservationists are taking it upon themselves to curb the issue, such as the divers we met at Underwater Vision, who capture and humanely kill any of the venomous lionfish they come across. A new industry is emerging as locals and tourists rush to prepare and eat these distinctive marine terrors.

By learning to dive here, and exploring the treasures hidden beneath the tranquil Caribbean surface, we unwittingly entered an ecological battleground and were moved to take positive action ourselves. Many of the group already plan to return to Utila in the future and get their Advanced Open Water Diving certification, enabling us to assist with the plight of the Great Mayan Reef more effectively in future.

Just a month after qualifying for my Open Water PADI certification in Utila, I found myself in Taganga, Colombia, studying (and diving!) hard for my Advanced Open Water PADI certification at Poseidon Dive Center, which I passed in June 2018.

Since being back in the UK, I’ve signed up for a Marine Debris Removal course with the 5th Point Diving Centre in Blyth, Northumberland, and can’t wait to get started!

It is important to realise that our planet is being besieged by multiple crises – Climate Change is just one of these, and it’s just as imperative we recognise the impacts of marine plastics, ocean acidification and invasive species, not to mention soil degradation and the worlds 6th mass extinction event!




Ella has guest written on the Great Ambini a couple of times, documenting her trip to Budapest and her experiences with mental health while backpacking. 


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2 Replies to “Lionfish in Paradise: What’s Eating the Great Mayan Reef?”

  1. Greetings! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly enjoy reading your posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics?
    Thanks a lot!

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