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PeerJ. 2017 Dec 14;5:e4119. doi: 10.7717/peerj.4119. eCollection 2017.

Unraveling the structure and composition of Varadero Reef, an improbable and imperiled coral reef in the Colombian Caribbean.

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Ecomares NGO, Cali, Valle, Colombia.
Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Pontifica Universidad Javeriana, Cali, Valle, Colombia.
Department of Biology, Universidad del Valle, Cali, Valle, Colombia.
Centro de Estudios en Ciencias del Mar-CECIMAR, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Sede Caribe, Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia.
Department of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, United States of America.


Coral reefs are commonly associated with oligotrophic, well-illuminated waters. In 2013, a healthy coral reef was discovered in one of the least expected places within the Colombian Caribbean: at the entrance of Cartagena Bay, a highly-polluted system that receives industrial and sewage waste, as well as high sediment and freshwater loads from an outlet of the Magdalena River (the longest and most populated river basin in Colombia). Here we provide the first characterization of Varadero Reef's geomorphology and biological diversity. We also compare these characteristics with those of a nearby reference reef, Barú Reef, located in an area much less influenced by the described polluted system. Below the murky waters, we found high coral cover of 45.1% (±3.9; up to 80% in some sectors), high species diversity, including 42 species of scleractinian coral, 38 of sponge, three of lobster, and eight of sea urchin; a fish community composed of 61 species belonging to 24 families, and the typical zonation of a Caribbean fringing reef. All attributes found correspond to a reef that, according to current standards should be considered in "good condition". Current plans to dredge part of Varadero threaten the survival of this reef. There is, therefore, an urgent need to describe the location and characteristics of Varadero as a first step towards gaining acknowledgement of its existence and garnering inherent legal and environmental protections.


Caribbean coral reefs; Coral reef biodiversity; Paradoxical reef; Reef dredging; Resistance

Conflict of interest statement

Monica Medina and Roberto Iglesias-Prieto are Academic Editors for PeerJ. The other co-authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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