• A lionfish swims in the foreground of a reef during a Hope for Reefs mesophotic dive
    The Academy’s scientific dive team conducts their first biodiversity surveys of Roatán’s mesophotic—or twilight zone—reefs. Image: Luiz Rocha © California Academy of Sciences
  • A drone shot of the West End of Roatán
    A global dive capital, Roatán lies north of Honduras along the path of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Image: Manlio Martínez © California Academy of Sciences
  • Academy Hope for Reef researchers on a reef patrol with the Roatán Marine Park
    Roatán Marine Park research coordinator Zara Guifarro (center, back) takes Academy researchers on a patrol through the protected waters surrounding the island.
  • A sharpnose puffer off the coast of Roatán
    Academy researchers were stunned to see thousands of sharpnose puffers all over Roatán's reefs, sparking ideas for future research on the island. Image: Luiz Rocha © California Academy of Sciences
  • A California Academy of Sciences hat sits atop a scuba tank as a scientific dive team prepares in the background
    Academy divers prepare for a mesophotic dive to Roatán’s twilight zone.

Take a look at the undersea biodiversity—and the topside collaborations with local partners—from the Academy’s first scientific expedition to Roatán!

Resting just off the northern coast of Honduras, the island of Roatán is one of the most popular dive sites in the Caribbean—and part of the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Thanks to a decade of marine protections led by the community-based nonprofit Roatán Marine Park, the island’s reefs are rebounding from the region’s mass bleaching events at the turn of the 21st century. To accelerate the regeneration of Roatán’s reefs—and potentially co-create models for reef conservation elsewhere in the Caribbean—the Academy’s Hope for Reefs scientific dive team recently surveyed the island’s mesophotic, or twilight zone, reefs and met with Roatán Marine Park staff and local divers.

Keep up with our coral reef research in Roatán and beyond! Follow the Academy's Hope for Reefs team on social media and with the #HopeforReefs hashtag.


Expedition highlights

An Academy diver surveys the mesophotic coral reefs of Roatán

Taking stock of the twilight zone

While Roatán’s mesophotic reefs have been explored by submersibles, specially trained Academy divers using rebreather technology are able to get closer to the species that call these unique ecosystems home. Using photography, videography, and underwater field notes, Academy researchers conducted the first non-submersible biodiversity surveys of the species that exist on the island’s deep reefs, all the way down to 430 feet!

Image: Luiz Rocha © California Academy of Sciences

Academy researcher Luiz Rocha presents on recent findings to a dive shop in Roatán

Rallying around the reef

At the end of the expedition, Academy Hope for Reefs Co-Directors Bart Shepherd and Luiz Rocha, along with Curator of Invertebrate Zoology Terry Gosliner, held two presentations to share their preliminary findings from Roatán’s twilight zone: The first was to enthusiastic divemasters-in-training at the local dive shop the team had used as a homebase during the expedition, and the second was open to the entire community and conducted in partnership with the Roatán Marine Park. Both were well-attended and led to fruitful conversations about potential community collaborations.

A healthy elkhorn coral sits prominently atop a reef in Roatán

Hopeful signs of reef health

Despite the numerous threats Caribbean reefs face, from stony coral tissue loss disease to warming oceans, Academy divers found a reason to be hopeful on every dive. For example, Roatán has more large, healthy colonies of elkhorn coral, such as the one shown here, than Shepherd has seen elsewhere in the Caribbean. Though there is still a long way to go for reef regeneration in the region, insights from these successful colonies and the work of the Roatán Marine Park could lead to insights that can be applied elsewhere.

Image: Luiz Rocha © California Academy of Sciences


Partner profile: Roatán Marine Park

Academy researchers tour the Roatán Marine Park

Through island-wide education initiatives, coastal patrols to deter illegal fishing, and the recent launch of their marine research program, the Roatán Marine Park has worked tirelessly since 2005 to protect Roatán’s marine and coastal ecosystems—and the hopeful signs Academy divers saw on the island’s reefs are a testament to their hard work and perseverance. The Hope for Reefs team is looking forward to more opportunities to exchange knowledge and expertise with the Roatán Marine Park to achieve our shared goal of ensuring a regenerative future for coral reefs.


What's next

  • Academy scientists are working on updated species distributions for reef fishes found in the mesophotic zone, as well as a scientific paper on the remarkable proliferation of sharpnose puffers riddling Roatán’s reefs.
  • Academy coral biologists are planning a return trip to Roatán this fall to help the Roatán Marine Park get their coral reproduction program off the ground.
  • Academy educators are in touch with the Roatán Marine Park to potentially co-develop place-based coral reproduction curricula based on educational materials from the Academy’s Coral Regeneration Lab (CoRL).

Stay tuned for more updates!

Expedition fast facts

Where: Roatán (view map)
When: June 11-24, 2022
Why: Mesophotic biodiversity surveys; local collaborations
Who: The Academy’s Hope for Reefs team (led by Co-Directors Luiz Rocha, PhD, and Bart Shepherd); local nonprofit Roatán Marine Park; local dive community
Wow: Roatán rests within the Bay Islands National Marine Park (BINMP), the largest marine protected area in Honduras!

Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs on this page: Skylar Knight © California Academy of Sciences