An archive of decades-old photos reveal Jamaica's coral reefs were once beautiful ecosystems full of life

Today, ravaged by climate change, pollution and overfishing, they are ghosts of what they once were

Today, ravaged by climate change, pollution and overfishing, they are ghosts of what they once were

Slides from Tom Goreau's family's science photo archive (Tom Goreau)

While making the documentary Ground War, I met marine biologist Tom Goreau. We dove the reefs of Great Guana Cay in The Bahamas to study the impact of a newly built golf course on the coral ecosystem. At the time, Goreau told me about his family's unique photo archive, stored in the attic of his century-old house, between MIT and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. 

His grandfather, Fritz Goro, was a Life magazine photojournalist who travelled to Bikini atoll during the atomic bomb tests in the 1940s and 1950s, taking photos of the effects of nuclear radiation on marine life. It was there he discovered the beauty of coral reefs and built an underwater camera to document the incredible ecosystem, taking some of the world's first pictures of them. 

Goreau's father, Thomas F. Goreau, was a marine biologist who also photographed coral reefs, and his pictures taken in Jamaica, The Bahamas and Key West, Fla., in the 1950s and 1960s were some of the first taken of those ecosystems. So you could say studying coral was a family tradition. 

I suggested to Goreau that we explore the archive and go back to the places his father and grandfather had photographed decades earlier. Had the coral ecosystems changed? Would that change be evident by comparing the old photos with our current exploration of these places? How would our discoveries help us understand how climate change is affecting these hidden worlds? This is the story I tell in the documentary Coral Ghosts.

Tom Goreau working among his family's science photo archive in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018 (Tom Goreau)

When I arrived in Boston to see the treasure trove of photos in person, it had just snowed a metre, the skies were blue, and the place looked like a ghost town. I soon found myself in Goreau's dusty attic in front of dozens of Kodak film boxes in their iconic yellow glory. 

His grandfather's life work of documenting cutting-edge technology, science and innovation was laid out in front of us — not on a hard drive, but in faded boxes piled from the floor to the ceiling. Our mission was to find the underwater images, and thankfully, there were plenty. 

Twelve months later, we were rushing to our dive site off the north coast of Jamaica. Along with Goreau's brother, we explored the reefs off Discovery Bay, where they grew up and took photos alongside their father and grandfather in the 1950s.

Discovery Bay, 1950’s. Vibrant reefs teeming with life. (Goreau family photo)

It was my first time there, and being an amateur diver, I was overwhelmed by the experience. Floating weightless through water and observing this hidden world reminded me of how little most of us know about life under the sea. 

Goreau pointed out how pollution from above was smothering the reefs below. After a few hours of diving and filming, we set off to other parts of the island and spent the afternoon with the legendary founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, who grew up in Jamaica. Like most locals, he had had little experience with diving and coral reefs, and was curious to know more about what we found.

Some of the oldest underwater photos of coral show what Jamaica's reefs used to be - Coral Ghosts

2 years ago
Duration 1:03
About 50 years ago, some of the reefs off Jamaica's north coast were spectacular, with some lettuce coral being absolutely massive and possibly hundreds of thousands of years old. Today, only photographs tell the story of what these reefs used to be.

Six months later in the edit suite, it became clear: when contrasting the old still images with the video we captured, the reefs had changed dramatically — and not for the better. Of all the places we filmed, including the Great Barrier Reef and the reefs of northern Indonesia, it was Discovery Bay that told the starkest story of demise due to pollution, overfishing and warming seas. It's a story that is now being repeated across our planet's coral regions. 

Discovery Bay 2019, reefs smothered with masses of algae (Goreau family photo)

Of course, without Goreau's old photos as proof, we would never know what we have lost. Hopefully, our film, Coral Ghosts, will play a part in helping to preserve the past in order to safeguard the future of these often forgotten worlds.

Andrew Nisker is the director of Coral Ghosts.

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