Barbados has a special importance as a marine research centre because of its location. As an oceanic island, it is in a favourable position for the study of detailed influences of a land mass on a major ocean current system. Its position in an area of relative ocean stability also makes it ideal for studies of dynamic production processes. Since a large proportion of the water entering the Caribbean from the Atlantic flows into the channel between Barbados and Tobago, Barbados is an excellent position from which to monitor the rate and quality of this flow. Rich and diverse deep benthic communities of coelenterates, sponges, molluscs and echinoderms are readily accessible. Several species of oceanic turtles live in coastal and offshore waters, with two species nesting on the sandy beaches of Barbados. The 1,000 fathom line lies only one mile offshore and deep oceanic water is present within a few miles of the coast.
Fauna and flora
The diversity of communities encountered inshore offers research opportunities on live and fossil coral reefs, rocky shores, mangroves, sandy beaches, brackish water ponds and areas of shallow sea water flats of sand, mud or grass. The corals found on the fringing reefs along the western coast of Barbados are complemented by varied populations of sponges, anemones, molluscs, polychaetes, sea urchins and cucumbers, and colourful reef fish.
There is also a varied marine flora around the coast of Barbados, including discrete beds of the tropical marine angiosperm, Thalassia testudinum, which support a rich faunal community.
The terrestrial fauna and flora are limited for a tropical island, but this has advantages for certain ecological and population studies. Birds are an example. Barbados is a small island (island tameness in birds is well documented) with a small avifauna (low competition, little specialization), intense development (low forest cover, few pristine habitats and food sources, many foods and habitats of anthropogenic origin) and low levels of predation (low avoidance of human experimenters). All of these combine to make Barbados birds ideal for field and captivity studies of feeding flexibility and learning. Other examples include the small, heavily forested areas which are of special interest to the botanist, and the resident population of African vervet monkeys, which attracts studies in primatology.
Barbados also offers opportunities, some unique to the island, for research into problems of the geology of the Caribbean. Study of the deposition and diagenesis of carbonate sediment in the reef environment, the structure and facies of uplifted Pleistocene reefs of several ages, the effects of sea level changes in the Pleistocene and Holocene, and the influence of crustal plates on the historical geology of the Caribbean are problems open to attack through studies in Barbados.
The fringing reefs which grow from headlands along the west coast of the island, north of Bridgetown, supply carbonate sediment offshore. A submarine ridge located several hundred metres offshore in a depth of about 20m appears to be a drowned Pleistocene barrier reef along which corals are still growing and submarine cementation is taking place. Its proximity to the land and the Institute makes it convenient for study of the growth of reef organisms and the binding, framebuilding and sediment-producing functions of the reef biota.
The elevated reefs and backcliffs that cover much of the island, excluding the Scotland district, provide a natural laboratory for the examination of Quaternary reefs. Deformed early Cenozoic terrigenous and carbonate sediments form the highest parts of the island - the Scotland district, on the northeast side. Pleistocene reefs, marking stages in the progressive rise of the island against a background of fluctuating sea levels, form concentric terraces around three sides of the Scotland district.
Other research opportunities
Geographers have opportunities for research projects in the fields of climatology, geomorphology and human geography. There are conspicuous climatic contrasts between the windward eastern coast and the leeward side of the island and studies of these contrasts have formed the basis of theoretical discussions of a model island in the trade wind belt. The island's varying physical environments, the historical evolution of its society and economy, the changing patterns of estate-dominated agriculture, and the development of tourism provide ample material for studies in sociology and anthropology.
In recent years, the focus on environmental issues has increased and more research on such problems as conservation, pollution and fisheries exploitation, all of which are important to Barbados, is indicated. There has been a serious decline in the abundance and diversity of corals and other organisms on the fringing reefs on the west coast. A large body of data, collected over more than a decade, indicates that reef deterioration has been caused largely by urbanization and eutrophication of coastal waters. The Bellairs waterfront is within the larger Folkstone Marine Reserve, within which a specific area is designated for research, fishing is excluded and water sports can be strictly managed.