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One theory in Cayman’s coral disease outbreak: heavy metals in sand

An outbreak of coral disease on Grand Cayman’s west side has prompted the Department of Environment to take action.

Cayman 27’s senior reporter Joe Avary happened to dive at the Killer Pillar dive site about four and a half months ago on February 11th, filming its namesake pillar corals before this outbreak of coral disease was reported. That video shows a sharp contrast to images supplied by the DOE showing just how far the disease has advanced in a few months time.

Last week the DOE took the steps to relocate healthy sections of the coral to a site they believes is out of harm’s way, and says it’s reaching out to other experts for advice.

“We are contacting our colleagues in the international community, particularly Florida because they have been through this and we have some experts there that we can rely on for a good opinion, other people in the Caribbean as well,” said DOE Deputy Director Tim Austin.

The big question remains: what’s behind this rapid emergence of disease?

Cayman Eco Divers’ Aaron Hunt is working with scientists from the University of Georgia.

Last week I filmed as his wife Brittany Balli, also of Cayman Eco Divers, collected samples of sand in the vicinity of the diseased pillar corals for testing.

Mr. Hunt says UGA’s chief of infectious diseases has a very interesting theory: heavy metal content in the sand itself.

“Just like putting salt onto a slug, the flesh will boil away, there are many types of metals that will do the same thing with the flesh of coral; and the bacteria and the other parasites that we see showing up are secondary,” explained Mr. Hunt. “They are just doing the job of breaking down the damaged tissue and unfortunately because of higher temperatures, those bacterial loads stay high, once the parasites are on there it gives the appearance of black band disease, but perhaps it’s something very different than what’s been experienced in Florida.”

Is this disease outbreak the same disease that has ravaged Florida’s coral reefs for the last four years?

That’s what scientists hope to determined, and of course, Cayman 27 will stay on this story and update as developments occur.

About the author

Joe Avary

Joe Avary

Joe Avary has been with Cayman 27 since 2014. He brings 20 years in television experience to the job, working hard every day to bring the people of Cayman stories that inform the public and make a difference in the community. Joe hopes his love for the Cayman Islands shines through in his informative and entertaining weather reports. If you have a story idea for Joe or just want to say hello, call him at 324-2141 or send an email to

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