Ambassadors of the
Grand Cayman, an island in the western Caribbean replete with beautiful
coral reefs and lush mangrove forests, is an ideal place to connect with
the wonders of nature. Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the
Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Grand Cayman immerses
guests in these tropical ecosystems, fostering personal connections with
nature through education and adventure.
This is the Ambassadors of the Environment learning center, the
Ambassadors Heritage House. It features several examples of
environmentally friendly architecture, such as solar lighting and flooring
made from recycled shoe material. This place is the launch pad for
countless undersea adventures.
In the Ambassadors of the
Environment program, guests
get the opportunity to dive
straight into the underwater
world of the coral reef. They
soon learn that reefs are not
just random assemblages of
beautiful critters, but rather
efficient, tightly functioning
ecosystems where every
creature plays a specific role in
the community as a whole.
In the Ambassadors program,
we use a “city under the sea”
metaphor to understand the
ecological roles of many
different creatures on the reef.
Just like human cities where
everyone has a specific job,
coral reefs have power plants,
farmers, recycling and waste
managers, public health
professionals, and demolition
Corals are the “architects” and “construction crews” of the reef. They grow
into big, building-like structures full of nooks and crannies in which other
organisms can live or find shelter.
As the construction crews and architects of the reef, coral provide homes
for many different creatures on the reef, like this Christmas tree worm
and this blenny.
Algae are “plants” of the ocean.
Some types of algae are tiny and
live inside the tissues of corals
(right), while others are larger and
grow by themselves on any
surface they can find (left).
These algae serve as solar power plants on the reef. Like green plants on
land, they use sunlight to make their own energy rich food in a process
called photosynthesis and constitute part of the base of the food chain.
Therefore, like our electric power plants, algae and corals (with their
algae partners) provide energy for the entire coral city.
Sponges help clean the reef, filtering water through their porous bodies
to extract a tasty meal of organic matter like plankton and bacteria. This
makes the water clean, clear, and healthy for the other reef inhabitants.
There are also “farmers” on the reef. Some damselfish maintain patches
of algae to ensure a steady food supply, “weeding out” unwanted
organisms and defending their gardens from intruders. This feisty
damselfish is facing off with his own reflection!
Sea cucumbers are the “waste managers” of the coral reef. They roam the
seafloor, ingesting a mixture of sand and dead organic matter (detritus)
and excreting clean sand. This keeps the reef clean and healthy and
ensures that not even the “trash” of the reef is wasted.
There are also several “doctors” in the coral city, including juvenile spanish
hogfish. They keep other fish healthy by picking off their parasites and
dead scales…and eating them! This relationship is called mutualism
because both parties benefit: the fish “patient” gets its parasites removed
and the cleaner wrasse gets an easy meal.
There are also “demolition crews” on the reef. When parrotfish and sea
urchins feed upon algae, they scrape away some of the dead coral skeleton
underneath with their rasping teeth and parrot-like beaks. This action
erodes the reef and turns old coral skeletons into sand!
Mangroves serve as “nurseries” for countless inhabitants of the coral reef.
Mangroves are salt tolerant trees that grow along shorelines and have special
roots that stick up out of the soil, creating a labyrinth of little spaces where only
young, small fish can fit. Therefore, young fish of many different reef species live
in the shallow, safe waters around the mangrove roots to avoid predators while
they grow up. This habitat, though often far away from coral reefs, is very
important to keep the population of the coral city healthy and thriving.
There is also “advertising” on the reef. Just like our TV, radio, and Internet,
coral reefs contain endless advertisements. This nudibranch advertises
with bright colors to let others know that it is toxic and warn predators to
We have now learned that coral reefs and cities have many similarities.
However, unlike in human cities, the inhabitants of coral reefs and
rainforests do not pollute, deplete their natural resources, or destroy other
ecosystems. Therefore, coral reefs offer lessons that can help us make our
own communities more sustainable.
What can we learn from coral cities?
The Four Principles
By understanding how nature
works, we can imitate it and
make our own way of life more
sustainable on Earth. In the
Ambassadors of the
Environment program, we
learned four simple lessons
about how nature works and
used them to brainstorm ways
to live sustainably. We call
them the Four Principals.
The Four Principles
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
1. Everything Runs
On Energy Just like our bodies, cars, light
bulbs, computers, televisions,
and kitchen appliances –every
organism in nature needs
energy. Some creatures, like
most corals (with their algae
partners) and plants, get their
energy from the sun in a
process called photosynthesis,
and therefore we call them
This elkhorn coral is one such
primary producer; it grows
upward toward the sunlight to
collect as much energy as
Corals are actually animals, not plants. Each little circle shown here is an
individual coral animal, or polyp. The entire colony of polyps are clones of
a single original individual, and together they are called a coral head.
However, we know that plants perform photosynthesis, not animals. So
how do corals manage to do photosynthesis?
Coral polyps contain little brown or green plants called algae inside their
bodies. These algae give a portion of the sugars they create through
photosynthesis to their coral host in exchange for their safe home inside the
coral’s body. The coral then gives the digested remains of the sugar back to
the algae, which the algae then use to manufacture more sugar! This tight,
efficient partnership is how corals get much of their energy and enables
them to survive in the relatively nutrient-poor waters of the tropics.
But what happens when the sun goes
down and the algae inside the coral can
no longer photosynthesize? The coral
polyps, having been folded safely away
during the day, emerge to catch prey
like little upside-down jelly fish.
(Indeed, coral is very closely related to
They have stinging
nematocysts that catch
Coral are truly
amazing- they lead the
life of a plant by day,
and an animal by
Plants are well-known for
and they are the biggest
natural power plant on land.
They contain tiny packets of a
green pigment called
chlorophyll that absorb the
energy in photons of sunlight,
powering the manufacture of
sugars from very simple
building blocks. These sugars
then feed the entire plant.
When primary producers like plants or coral are eaten, energy is
transferred up the food chain. Energy flows from primary producers to
herbivores, and then to predators. This means that all organisms in these
ecosystems are powered by energy that originally came from the sun!
But natural ecosystems are HUGE! How do plants and coral provide enough
energy to help support these massive food chains? Well, there is strength in
numbers. In the ocean and on land, the landscape is covered with plants,
coral, and algae- with “solar collectors.” This ensures that the entire ecosystem
has energy to grow and survive. We could learn from nature’s example and
cover our cityscape with solar panels, putting solar panels and gardens on all
of our roofs…just like we saw in nature.
How do humans presently get most of their power? From oil and coal-
power plants. In these power plants, oil or coal is burned to heat water
and create steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity.
However, burning oil and coal releases harmful greenhouse gasses into
our atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. This serious
problem could be solved by switching to renewable energy sources such
as wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
We explored some of these
alternative energy sources in
the Ambassadors of the
Environment program. Here,
we used a solar oven for
cooking and explored the uses
of solar panels. Solar energy is
easy and only requires sunlight
- a free and renewable source
2. There Is No Waste In Nature
The second Principle says there is no waste in
nature. For example, on coral reefs, creatures
such as sea cucumbers and lobsters
specialize on eating detritus, the organic
“leftovers” or “dead stuff” on the seafloor.
Along with worms and microbes, sea
cucumbers and lobsters ensure that virtually
all useful material is used on the reef.
Hermit crabs ensure that vacated snail shells are not wasted. They turn them
into their mobile homes!
This christmas tree worm bores a hole into the coral below it to create a safe
place to live. Given that there’s no waste in nature, what do you think is going
to happen to this hole when the worm dies?
It will become a home for another animal, like this blenny!
Today, humans tend to waste a lot of resources. One thing we can do to
change this situation is compost. Composting is where worms, bugs and
microbes convert organic waste into soil, just as we see in nature. By
composting food leftovers, we prevent garbage from going to ever-
growing landfills. Instead, waste is converted into useful, fertile soil that
can be reused in a garden.
3. Biodiversity Is Good
Biodiversity refers to the number
of different species that live in a
certain ecosystem. It is kind of like
nature’s insurance policy, because
when there are a lot of different
organisms in an ecosystem, all of
the important work needed to
keep the community healthy gets
done. If one species ails or
disappears, many others are
around to replace it. Therefore,
biodiversity is what keeps
complex ecosystems like coral
reefs running smoothly. Also,
biodiversity is what makes our
world interesting and beautiful!
Here is a taste of the amazing biodiversity that can be found on Grand
Cayman’s coral reefs!
Just look at the
diversity among corals
alone. How many
different types of coral
can you count here?
means that there is a
great variety of form
and function in the
coral reef. For example,
these porous sponges
filter water through
their bodies. Water
comes in through
small pores in their
sides, is filtered for
food, and leaves
through the big holes.
Here are two different kinds of algae. The green algae is called a sailor’s
eyeball, and it is growing on top of pink coralline algae, a type of red
algae that covers most reef surfaces and acts like mortar, cementing
pieces of the reef together and helping prevent erosion.
A diverse family of butterflyfish lives on Grand Cayman’s coral reefs.
These fish often have a spot called a false eye on their bodies, an
adaptation that distracts predators from their real eyes. As you can
see, some species also have a dark line over their real eyes to further
confuse a predator.
The long, thin shape of these
trumpetfish help them blend in
with various gorgonians and
soft coral. They often wait here,
swaying in time with the gentle
motion of their surroundings,
ready to suddenly dart out and
catch passing prey.
Parrotfish use their sharp beaks to scrape algae from rocks and coral
skeletons, keeping the growth of algae in check. As they graze, they often
gouge into dead coral and take in some of the calcium carbonate, later
excreting this material as sand. One parrotfish can produce 300 lbs of
sand in one year!
So next time you walk down a tropical, sandy beach, remember where some
of that sand likely came from!
Sea stars are members of the
echinoderm phylum, and they
are related to sea urchins and
spiny skin, an
since you can see many
projections of its
skeleton on the surface
of this sea star. On the
underside of the sea
star you can find tube
feet, thousands of
small suckers the sea
star uses to stick to the
ground or slowly move
Reef squid are swift, streamlined predators of the reef. They are related to the
octopus, but instead of crawling over the reef like their cousins, they swim
continuously. Some can swim so fast that they have been found on the decks
of ships over 30 feet above the water. Pigment and reflective chemicals are
manipulated to give squids an unlimited suite of options for color change.
Moray eels have long, skinny, flexible bodies ideal for squeezing into tight
spaces in pursuit of prey. They also have sharp teeth ideal for grabbing and
Jacks school in large groups, and together the light reflecting off their shiny
silver bodies disorients and confuses predators, making it hard to pick out a
single individual to pursue. This adaptation protects the entire group.
Groupers are another predator of
the coral reef. They have evolved
very large mouths that create a
vacuum when opened, and they
literally suck their prey in.
Diversity is good even
within a single species!
The queen angelfish
look different at their
adult and juvenile
stages so the young
fish are not forced to
compete as adults.
The same is the case
for the French
Angelfish. Look at the
the juveniles (top left)
and the adult
Grand Cayman also hosts great biodiversity on land. This is the blue iguana,
a native and endemic resident of the island. “Endemic” means that the blue
iguana evolved on Grand Cayman and has always lived there exclusively.
Mangroves are another example of Grand Cayman’s biodiversity. As one
of the few salt-tolerant plants, they live on margin between land and
sea, bordering some of the island. They create essential habitat where
many fish, birds, and other critters live.
4. Everything Is Connected
The fourth Ambassadors of the Environment principle is that EVERYTHING
IS CONNECTED–person to person, creature to creature, land to sea, and
present to future. We encountered many examples of connections
between organisms both in the ocean and on land. For example, this tiny
yellow and black goby has a partnership with reef fish in which it eats
their dead scales and parasites: it gets a meal in exchange for a cleaning!
There are connections between various fish that live on the reef. This jack is
using a queen triggerfish as a moving shield to hide behind while it hunts.
Notice the jack is on the side away from the reef so that it is concealed. Just
after this picture was taken the jack darted to the reef and caught a small
fish then returned to its position next to the triggerfish.
Here is an example of a negative connection between reef creatures. This
isopod has attached itself to a soldierfish and is leaching energy and
nutrients from the fish’s blood. This is a parasitic relationship because the
isopod benefits while the soldierfish is harmed.
There are often connections between organisms that we do not notice
at first glance! This orange blob is a sponge but there is more to this
story than what you see. What do you think we would find if we turned
this sponge over?
In the sponge is a crab. In fact, this crab has specially adapted hind legs
that hold the sponge in place. Why do you think the crab does this?
By carrying around the sponge, the crab is not only hidden but it is also
protected by the distasteful chemicals in the sponge.
Frigate birds bridge the gap between land and sea. They spend much of
their lives out to sea, in the open ocean or pelagic region, coming to
shore to breed or rest.
Humans enter the
underwater world as
guests. We respect the life
around us by not
touching the reef and
keeping an appropriate
distance from its
sometimes we have
effects on these
organisms that we are
not aware of.
Humans are very closely connected to the ocean. When we pollute our
oceans, it contributes to coral bleaching, one of the serious threats to coral
reefs today. When corals become stressed due to something like pollution,
they expel their symbiotic algae, becoming white and having no way to
photosynthesize. Unless the coral can find new algal symbionts (which is
not very likely), they end up starving to death.
Notice the color of this healthy coral head compared to that of the
bleached coral. This is a very conspicuous example of how humans have a
negative impact on the health of the reef!
Human pollution can also upset the balance between reef creatures. Coral
and algae usually compete for space on the reef and are evenly matched,
but when extra nutrients from human runoff or pollution are introduced
to the system, the algae get an advantage. This is another example of the
delicate connections between organisms on the reef and how human
actions can directly affect the reef ecosystem.
Here is another obvious example of how humans are connected to the
natural world. What do you think this litter could do to the mangrove and
coral reef ecosystems?
The Ambassadors Of the Environment program includes a game called
The Web of Life, and it’s all about connections. Each person chooses a
creature and thinks of how it is connected to the one across the circle.
Eventually we see that every creature is connected to the others, as is
represented by the rope. With all the species healthy and connections
strong, the web of life can support the human race.
However, when one creature
goes extinct or declines in
health, the effects ripple
through the entire web of life,
weakening the integrity of the
web and compromising its
ability to support the human
race. It is for this reason we
need to preserve our
environment and keep it
Here is a summary of the Four Principles. As we saw,
these four simple rules have many applications. They
can show humans how to better imitate nature and
live in harmony with it, moving from a lifestyle of
destruction and waste to one of sustainability.
1. Everything Runs On Energy.
2. There Is No Waste In Nature.
3. Biodiversity Is Good.
4. Everything Is Connected.
In addition to learning these
facts about nature, the
Ambassadors program is all
about appreciating nature.
This is easy in such a
With the knowledge, tools, and new motivation to protect the
environment, guests leave the Ambassadors program as Ambassadors of
the Environment, ready to spread the lessons they learned from nature in
their local communities in pursuit of a more sustainable lifestyle and
brighter future for humans and the environment!