Falmouth Port Expansion & Oyster Bay
Jamaica's Oyster Bay, or Glistening Waters to the locals, is one of the four largest remaining lagoons in the world that glow at night. The blue-green light comes from millions of tiny phytoplankton that are bioluminescent. Like fireflies, the plankton glow naturally, due to light-producing chemicals in their bodies. They need specific environmental conditions in which to thrive - shallow saltwater surrounded by mangrove swamps and coral lagoons, and a narrow entrance to the bay, so waves don't wash them out.
In spite of the bay's rarity, in 2007 Jamaica took steps to expand and deepen the lagoon to allow the world's biggest cruise ships access to Historic Falmouth Port on land. Falmouth Port used to be the world's biggest sugar exporting and slave trade station, where ships dropped off slaves and filled their now empty holds with sugar and rum. It was one of the earliest towns in Jamaica to build in the Georgian style, and that colonial style has been well preserved over the years. It was also the site of the first slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. It has plenty of history to entice tourists.
One would think that the phosphorescent bay would itself also attract tourists, and that Jamaica's government would want to preserve the bay's environmental integrity for that reason, if not because of its rarity. Indeed, there was a branch of the government, Jamaica's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) that wanted to do just that. But it put them at odds with the Port Authority's desire for expansion, also a government body. What to do?
Oyster Bay Expansion Dilemma
The two government bodies decided to work together to find a solution. The Port Authority put out a bid for an engineering design firm that knew about port expansion and environmental preservation. Private engineering consultant, Mott MacDonald, fit the bill. That firm is currently playing a leading role in London's new Crossrail project and is redesigning Roughriders Stadium in Canada for use during winter months, but in the past they had worked on many port expansions.
Mott MacDonald saw the dilemma immediately. The company started by studying the needs of the phytoplankton, then the needs of the port expansion. Working with NEPA and the Port Authority, they redesigned the pier to minimize changes in water flow, realigned the entrance through the coral reef, and found a place to move whatever coral and sea grass they could save.
In the process, they built and tested simulations of the bay and the changes they were proposing. They also supervised the construction, the dredging, and the move of coral and sea grass, testing temperature, salinity, water and air flow changes the entire time. All told, they moved 100,000 square meters of reefs, and 25,000 square meters of sea grass. The cost to make the moves was less than 2% of the total contract - minimal, compared to its potential benefits.
Of the approximately 2,300 species of phytoplankton, about half are bioluminescent ("bio" = biological, "luminescent" = light). They collect and multiply only in well protected bays or lagoons, which are rare. The water must be shallow and wide, so it evaporates quickly, leaving heavier saltwater behind. The saltwater drops to the bottom and is washed out to sea. A narrow bay entrance, usually protected by coral, guarantees that incoming waves will not wash the plankton out too. And fresh water from a warm river mouth on the land side keeps the bay from getting too salty. Surrounding mangrove swamps provide ample Vitamin B12, which helps the organisms thrive.
No one knows for sure why the plankton light up, but they do know how. Dinoflagellates are tiny organisms that gather energy from the sun during the day, via chloroplasts (like plants), and release it at night, especially when disturbed. The chemicals luciferase and luciferine are responsible for converting the energy to light. You can see them glow in the wake of a boat sailing in the Caribbean night. In protected bays, like Oyster Bay was, they collect into large, faintly glowing colonies that spring alight wherever disturbed.
Falmouth Port, Jamaica
Falmouth Port Changes for Cruise Ships
The original vision of expanding the port for the world's biggest cruise ships was to widen and deepen the entrance at the reef, build a straight pier, and dredge the bottom leading to it. But that would have increased both the current and wind power entering and exiting the bay, which would have been a disaster for the plankton.
Instead, the Port Authority angled the entrance to slow the wind down, and widened it less than they had planned, while still deepening it to allow for the entrance of the giant cruise ships. They built the two-berth pier in a triangular shape, which also slowed the current, and deepened the bottom between entrance and pier only.
On the pier the Port Authority built a gated series of tourist shops and restaurants, some of which they rented out to locals. They built a crafts market for locals to ply their wares. Onshore they licensed foreigners to build resort hotels along the edge of the bay, still going on, which gave some of Trelawny Parish's people jobs. The nearly completed project officially opened in March 2011, with the first visit of the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
According to a recent Executive Report by Jamaica's National Environmental Protection Agency, "Wetlands destruction is . . . known to result in the loss of unique species such as the phosphorescent algae, the source of Falmouth's once famous 'Glistening Waters'."
For Falmouth Port Tourists
Did you see the phosphorescence of Oyster Bay?See results without voting
Since then, Jamaican tour guides have added night-time boat tours of Glistening Waters to their offerings. They recommend tourists tour the bay when it's darkest, so the glow will be at its brightest. On Tuesday nights the cruise ships come in and there is too much noise and too many lights. Moonless night's are best. Cloudy is ok and so is rainy. Anything that disturbs the plankton generates a tiny, bright light, like glittering fairy dust in the water, including the boat's wake, swimming fish, trailing fingertips, and raindrops. Tourists can even swim in the shallow water (given a slightly sucking, muddy bottom) and watch their own bodies stir up the glow.
Bioluminescent Bay Protection
The Caribbean has seven bioluminescent bays, according to Dr. Michael Latz of California's Scripps Institute. Puerto Rico has three of the largest, but two are endangered. These and a smaller one in the US Virgin Islands (Salt River Bay) are the best known. There are smaller populations of bioluminescent plankton elsewhere in the world, especially along strings of beaches like Southern California, but nothing as big or concentrated as in the Caribbean lagoons.
Oyster Bay may still be one of the four biggest and brightest bays in the world. Since Falmouth Port's cruise ship expansion took place only a few years ago, no one knows for how long or if the bay will remain glowing the way it does. NEPA's Executive Report quoted above suggests that it might already be degrading, most likely from wetlands alterations in the building of resorts and hotels, which was not taken into account in the expansion.
Tourist Camera Equipment
You'll definitely need a tripod to take photos at night from the boat. A cable is great, too, so the camera stays still when you press the shutter.
If that is what's happening, destroying mangrove forests to build tourist hotels is counter-productive. According to Wetlands International "mangroves absorb and disperse tidal surges . . ." making the forests around Oyster Bay crucial players in keeping the waters of the bay calm enough to counteract any increase in surge from the dredging. They also provide food for the plankton. And they can be great places for tourists to go on boating excursions.
Wetlands International confirms that one of the drivers of wetlands destruction are industrial developments such as harbors and tourism. Governments are noticing it as well now. In addition to the above quote, NEPA recently stated that, "Existing mangrove forests in Jamaica have undergone severe stress over the years due mainly to man-made impacts like increased coastal developments." They named Oyster Bay as one of the areas slotted for restoration.
Hopefully this means that as the government takes action to restore the forests, Jamaica's Oyster Bay will continue to be a good place for photographers, tourists, and oceanographers to be awed by the bioluminescent mysteries of nature.
The expansion from an economic perspective:
- Port Authority of Jamaica | Sustainable Business Review
Contrary to assumption, sustainable development is not always costly nor without economic benefit, as the Port Authority of Jamaica discovered with their Historic Falmouth Port project.
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