Scuba Diving - - Ascend - BY SHANE GROSS

Queens Road stretches the en­tire length of the long, skinny Ba­hamian Out Is­land of Eleuthera. Palm trees line the way for por­tions of the 110-mile stretch, while craggy rocks sep­a­rate the road from the At­lantic Ocean for oth­ers.

But along that route, the is­land hides 200 in­land ponds and blue holes. These oftig­nored bod­ies of water host some of the most uncommon marine ecosys­tems in the world, but that won’t last for long if they con­tinue to go un­pro­tected. In many of the ponds, vis­i­bil­ity is limited, and it’s easy to see they have been used as dump­ing grounds — old re­frig­er­a­tors and car parts pro­trude from the sur­face. Other ponds and blue holes, how­ever, are home

to crys­tal-clear water and amaz­ing den­si­ties of unique marine life.

The ponds and blue holes formed as the sea level rose and fell over hun­dreds of thou­sands of years. When the sea level was high, reefs formed, and as it low­ered, the reefs be­came is­lands. But like most reefs, they were full of holes, caves, cracks and crevasses. All the ponds are con­nected to the ocean through small tun­nels — much too tight for a scuba diver — but the ponds do rise and fall with the tides. And, in some places, you can see water be­ing sucked out or boil­ing in the open­ings.

One pond has the high­est known den­sity of sea­horses on Earth. They have been cut off from the ocean for so long, they are mor­pho­log­i­cally dis­tinct from those of the same species found in the ocean. It wasn’t un­til 2016 that re­searchers found out they are

Hip­pocam­pus erec­tus, lined sea­horses. Just imag­ine what this pond could teach us about evo­lu­tion.

One ul­tr­a­clear blue hole is home to lu­cifuga, an al­most­blind, eel­like cave fish. Some ponds have so many yet-tobe-de­scribed red cave shrimp that you can’t find a square foot of seabed with­out one.

One fish­er­man, decades ago, be­gan trans­port­ing sea turtles from the ocean and putting them into “his” pond. They have re­cently been seen mat­ing and lay­ing eggs at the edge of the pond. Res­i­dents filled the famed Ocean Hole with snap­per, pork­fish, blue tangs and other trop­i­cal fish, and now the fish don’t even look like the ones in the ocean. They ate all the nat­u­ral prey and now de­pend on hu­mans for much of their diet. Leg­end has it the Ocean Hole was ex­plored by none other than Jac­ques Cousteau, and he couldn’t find the bot­tom, even with a sub­mersible. None of the ponds or blue holes en­joys any pro­tec­tion to­day. There are sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions work­ing to change that, but it’s not easy.

Right now, the Ba­hamas gov­ern­ment is look­ing to pro­tect 20 per­cent of Ba­hamian waters by 2020 — a won­der­ful goal, but how do the ponds and blue holes fit in? Maybe they don’t, and that could lead to more ponds be­ing lost to devel­op­ment and in­va­sive species or be­ing turned into dump­ing grounds.

Clock­wise, from top left: Due to their re­gen­er­a­tive claws, crabs pro­vide a sus­tain­able fish­ery; yet-to-be-de­scribed cave shrimp en masse; a re­searcher tags a sea­horse at Sweet­ings Pond; cave div­ing on Eleuthera has grown in pop­u­lar­ity.

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