• A Rinconvenient Truth

Beauty in the backyard: our Tres Palmas Marine Reserve

[ Lee este artículo en español]


The Tres Palmas Marine Reserve (or Reserva Marina Tres Palmas, RMTP in Spanish) is an iconic landmark of northwest Puerto Rico. Surfers know it for the break with the same name - Tres Palmas – offering a thrill ride of 30ft waves. Beachgoers know it for the popular Steps Beach access with expansive wide sandy beach and easy entry for world class snorkeling within arm’s reach. Environmentalists know it for its healthy coral reefs, composed of branching and boulder corals with all seven endangered coral species residing inside the Reserve boundaries.


This fringing reef flourishes with genetically diverse colonies of the endangered Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) that one can observe within just a few yards of the shoreline. Those orange, branching structures that appear like rocks are actually living, eating animals that comprise coral reefs. The Elkhorn coral is well suited for high wave energy, and its presence is actually responsible for dissipating that energy and protecting the coastline. This coral grows in thickets near Steps Beach, where snorkelers can carefully drift over top to observe the biological community that gathers below. The Elkhorn serves as a shelter and a food source for many fish and invertebrates, like crabs and lobsters. Curious about the color? The coral gets its orange hue from the special relationship it has with an alga called zooxanthellae. This alga provides a food source for the coral and in exchange receives protection in the form of shelter, referred to as a symbiotic relationship. Overall, Tres Palmas is a healthy reef compared to others in Puerto Rico, with an estimate of 47% (range of 27-63%) live coral cover.


Boundaries of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve

The Reserve was established by a grassroots effort in 2004 led by local non-profits, fishers, and other stakeholders and legally committed by Ley 17. It’s currently co-managed by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) and the Tres Palmas Management Board using the management plan created in 2008. Certain actions are prohibited within the Reserve boundaries (a 3.8km perimeter) including fishing and anchoring. This “no take” regulation also prohibits removing sea shells and dead corals – leave them on the beach because the breakdown of their organic materials provides nutrients that other organisms use to grow and thrive. What can you take? Trash!

The RMTP perimeter coordinates

The Reserve is not immune to plastics and trash – both on land and in the water – so you are welcome to collect and properly

dispose of all trash you find. If you observe large debris, like tires, report this to your local scientists who actively monitor the reserve and can arrange for debris removal.



Rincón is blessed to have such an incredibly diverse and healthy natural resource in the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve and every citizen has a responsibility to protect it.


Here are some ways you can help:


  1. Remove all plastics and trash that you find on the beach to prevent them from entering the water

  2. Use only reef safe sunscreens (Fango is available locally, but there are many options on the island)

  3. NEVER stand on the reef – remember a coral is an animal, not a rock!

  4. Be mindful of your fins when you are snorkeling, DO NOT kick the coral

  5. Leave seashells, dead corals, sea fans and other rocks on the beach and in the water. Shells become homes for other animals, and the dead corals break down into nutrients that living corals can use to grow

  6. Understand the regulations at the reserve and educate others around you if you see someone engaging in prohibited behavior. If necessary, call the local police.

  7. Support local science engaged in monitoring the Reserve health by participating in their outreach events to learn the newest information about the Reserve’s biodiversity


The rules and regulations of the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve

This article was written by guest contributor Dr. Chelsea Harms-Tuohy, a marine scientist and founder of Isla Mar Research Expeditions in Rincón. Dr. Harms-Tuohy has spent the last 8 years researching our coral reefs and fisheries around the west coast of Puerto Rico, including actively leading and participating in the coral restoration effort at the RMTP following the hurricane and swell event of 2017/2018. Find out more Isla Mar via their website and Facebook.

Photography by Rachel Tanner and Pichon Duarte. Science by Isla Mar.

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