Education and Conservation: How The Central Caribbean Marine Institute Is Working to Save Our Oceans



Photography provided by Central Caribbean Marine Institute

What happens when a country boy from Indiana decides he wants to follow his passion of marine biology from the swaying cornfields of Batesville to the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean? For Peter Hillenbrand, the journey might not have followed the traditional path, but he chased his dream to Little Cayman, where he owns Southern Cross Club, a beautiful, secluded scuba resort, and where he helped found the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), one of the premier marine research centers in the Caribbean. 

After working at his family’s company, Hillenbrand Inc., for the better part of a decade, Hillenbrand decided it was time to follow his heart to the ocean. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in biology and was applying to marine biology graduate programs when the opportunity to buy Southern Cross Club “sort of fell in my lap,” he says. 

Two years later, Hillenbrand met Dr. Carrie Manfrino, who was teaching courses on marine ecology in Grand Cayman. “We hit it off right away,” says Hillenbrand.  “I was very interested in what she was doing and I began to support her organization through Southern Cross Club. She formed CCMI in 1998 as an official not-for-profit company and it continued to grow. This was all really exciting for me, because I was able to still stay near marine conservation, marine science and marine education, even though I wasn’t directly involved in a day-to-day basis.”

The Central Caribbean Marine Institute is a 501c3 not-for-profit in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Cayman Islands. In broad-brush strokes, CCMI is about “research, education, and conservation,” says Hillenbrand. The Little Cayman Research Center is the actual working station where most of the research and educational initiatives take place. 

After the inception of CCMI, “it took us two years to raise $1.2 million, and in 2004 we were ready to build the Little Cayman Research Center,” Hillenbrand says. It was around this time that Hillenbrand and Manfrino found out that Prince Edward of Great Britain was going to visit to mark the quincentennial of the Cayman Islands. Knowing Prince Edward already had an interest in marine conservation issues, they invited him to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the facility. 

Hillenbrand says, “He agreed to do it right away, and he agreed to become our Royal Patron,” supporting CCMI through means such as hosting an annual dinner in Buckingham Palace to raise funds for the Institute.

The Little Cayman Research Center has had tremendous success since then, hosting countless students and scientists every year. “The Institute right now, especially in the busy season, is bursting at the seams,” Hillenbrand says. There are plans to expand the research center’s facilities since “we don’t have room for any more students or any more scientists. We want to be able to expand so that we can extend our reach a little more globally. We would really like to become one of the premier marine research and education centers in the world.” 

Of course, being a not-for-profit can make expansion a bit tricky. “We could not exist without people’s support and donations. Each year our programs cover more and more of our overhead expenses, but we still need people to give us even small donations for us to live and pay the bills.”

In the meantime, CCMI continues to work on research and education locally. “Having the Little Cayman Research Center located on Little Cayman is a huge advantage, because even though the standards have changed over the past 20 years, Little Cayman’s coral reef is the healthiest coral reef in the Caribbean,” Hillenbrand says. “It’s what today’s reef is supposed to look like.” Currently, CCMI is working on studying the health of the local marine culture, including the reef, issues with invasive fish species and ocean acidification. 

“We’ve documented that we have lost 40% of our reef since 1998 and we’re the healthiest in the Caribbean, so that just tells you what has happened to the other coral reefs around,” Hillenbrand says. “We’ve also documented that the coral reef is starting to re-generate. The corals that are there are starting to grow again, the mortality has stopped, and there is recruitment of new corals. We don’t know why it’s re-growing, and that’s one of the things we’re studying.”

Hillenbrand firmly believes in the mission of the Little Cayman Research Center, which is centered around research and education as means of successful conservation efforts. “What research does is it gives you the data and the knowledge of what is actually happening and hopefully what we can do to help fix problems,” he says. “So right now the coral reef on Little Cayman is regenerating. It’s doing very well, it’s very healthy. But why? Without science and research we could never figure it out. If you want to get the best possible information to make the best possible decisions, then you have to depend on science.” 

The Little Cayman Research Center’s heavy emphasis on education initiatives spans from local primary school students to PhDs. “It’s really kind of funny that a lot of the culture in the Caribbean is centered around the ocean and yet a lot of the knowledge of the sea that supports these cultures is based on myth and innuendo,” says Hillenbrand. CCMI has successfully implemented a marine ecology education curriculum for local schools to allow students to gain a deeper understanding about their environment.

“A place like CCMI and the Little Cayman Research Center is putting data together and putting it into an educational format so a lot of the Caribbean kids can learn what it really means to have respect for what’s going on in the ocean and make sure that their children are going to see the same thing they’re seeing,” Hillenbrand says.

 

To learn more about the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and the Little Cayman Research Center, visit www.reefresearch.org.

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