The coral reefs of Bora Bora

Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia – I dove in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island to have a first hand look at how the coral reef is doing in this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good.

Descending to ninety feet it was immediately clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve come here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible change.

I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just ten to thirty feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear an invasive predators and natural disaster have both taken big tolls.

Populations of acanthaster — more popularly known as the Crown of Thorns starfish – mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. No one is sure exactly how they got here or where they originated, though invasive species are well known for hitching rides on cargo ships and jumping off far from home. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora – as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti – the predatory starfish have eaten, thus killed, hundreds of acres of coral.

The natural disaster occurred in February 2010, when Cyclone Oli whipped the nearby seas to a froth of eighteen to twenty-one feet, pouring over the protective reef and across the lagoon. The impact on the corals was devastating, as deep as 100 feet below the surface.

At twenty feet below, the coral was ripped off at its base and forever destroyed. Rather than coral, today much of the shallows of the lagoon floor are covered instead of by a fine pale yellow algae mat. The deeper you dive, the less destruction you see, but the powerful storm – the first cyclone to hit here in fourteen years — still managed to break, mangle and kill coral. The only slight upside is that it was also hard on the starfish population.My dive corresponded with having just read a new report from the D.C.-based World Resource Institute – “Reefs at Risk Revisited” – which suggests that 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by local and global pressures. It blames climate change, including warming seas and ocean acidification, but points fingers primarily at human pressures, primarily overfishing, coastal development and pollution. Hurricanes and invasive starfish are not mentioned.

Around the globe more than 275 million people live in the direct vicinity (within 18 miles) of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories reefs protect over 93,000 miles of shoreline, helping defend coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.

The reef encircling Bora Bora helps protect the island from typical weather and seas. Human pressure on the reef and lagoon come from development: Thirteen big hotels are built either on the mainland or one of its several big motus. In the past decade the human population has swelled to 9,000, thanks to tourism. But the twin pressures of more building and more people is having a direct impact on the very thing – its amazing natural beauty – that attracts visitors in the first place.

My morning dive led me to a conversation in the late afternoon with French-German marine biologist Denis Schneider. Despite his mainland birth, Schneider has been an island-rat most of his adult life. He guesses he spend 30 hours a week – five hours a day, six days a week – in the ocean. He only occasionally wears shoes. His company – Espcae Bleu – works to rebuild reefs in Indonesia, the Maldives and Bora Bora.

“The three biggest problems for the reef here – before the starfish arrived – were people, especially fishermen and their motors, the Red tide which warms the water and kills the coral, and hurricanes.” He and his team have taken on the unenviable attempt to clear out the venomous starfish. “Touch a sea urchin and the sting will last for a few minutes,” he says. “Brush your skin against a Crown of Thorns and it will sting for months.” The solution to ridding the lagoon of the starfish is injecting them one by one, using giant hypodermic needles, with a chemical solution that kills them. (He changes the subject when I ask what impact the chemicals may have on the lagoon ….)

To try and resuscitate reefs, especially near the hotels, Schneider and compatriots from the Maryland-based Global Coral Reef Alliance, build unique domes out of rebar which they flip over and sink to the lagoon floor. The metal rusts very quickly and the chicken-wire mesh covering it is soon grown over by calcium-rich marine life. Coral is transplanted onto the faux reef and within a year it is nearly completely covered with colorful, living coral. They’ve dubbed the patented system Biorock and its trick to growing coral on the super-structure fast is that the underwater structure is “electrified.” To encourage fast-growing coral a low voltage current courses through the metal structure, usually created from solar, wind or tidal sources. .

“What we are building are really ‘boosters’ for the reefs, growing three to five times faster than normal coral,” says Schneider. “In some cases 20 times faster. “

The Biorock system is just one of a variety of man-made attempts being made around the world to encourage new coral growth, including concrete forms and, around the coast of the U.S., purposely dumped buses, tanks and aging military boats.

“The reality in Bora Bora is that the island, like all in Polynesia, is sinking. Slowly, very slowly. But in 70,000 years the island will be gone and all that will remain will be the reef surrounding the lagoon. I wish we could come back then and see how the coral has done.”

[flickr image via Jon Rawlinson]

Australia floods leave tourist industry in peril

The terrible floods in Queensland, Australia, have destroyed thousands of homes, done billions of dollars of damage, and have left at least a dozen people dead. Queensland is a major coal exporter, and with the rising waters hampering shipments and flooding mines, world coal prices have risen. A major consumer of Queensland coal are Asian steel mills, which are already feeling the pinch. This has led to a rise in steel prices. That’s a double dose of bad news for the economic recovery.

Another Queensland industry has also been hard hit–tourism. The tourists have fled along with the residents, but it’s the long-term effects that are more harmful. If rising coal and steel prices hurt the economic recovery, that’s bound to hurt the tourism industry pretty much everywhere. Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city, is the center for Australia’s Gold Coast, a major draw for Australia’s $32 billion tourist industry. Floods are damaging popular beaches and will require costly repairs. Coastal and riverside hotels and shops are being destroyed. The Brisbane Times reports that toxic materials washed into the sea could have an effect on delicate coral reefs and fish populations. With snorkeling and scuba diving such popular activities on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, this could do long-term damage to tourism.

Meanwhile, airlines are worried about how this will affect them. Virgin Blue has already seen its shares drop by 3.4 percent today because investors fear there will be a drop in bookings. Qantas shares also dipped slightly. Airlines are issuing fee waivers for passengers who want to change their flights to, from, or through Brisbane.

It looks like Queensland residents will suffer from the flood long after the waters recede.

[Photo of Brisbane sunset courtesy user t i m m a y via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Eerie underwater sculpture finished in Caribbean

If you go diving off Isla Mujeres near Cancun, Mexico, you’ll see more than the usual coral reefs and colorful tropical fish. You’ll see a ghostly crowd of people standing on the bottom of the sea.

Silent Evolution is the creation of Jason de Caires Taylor, who specializes in underwater sculptures cast from real people. Taylor uses inert, PH-neutral concrete that doesn’t pollute the water. The figures attract sea life and become platforms for coral and other marine creatures. With coral reefs on the decline around the world, a little extra help from artists can come in handy. Check out the gallery below to see how life begins to grow on the figures, transforming them from realistic replicas of living people into something alien and a bit spooky.

Taylor took eight months to install the sculptures in a big crowd of talking, walking, and thinking people. The exhibition encourages repeat visits to see how “sea change” transforms the art into a living ecozone.


Australia’s Ningaloo Reef: whale sharks and world-class snorkeling and diving

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Enough about that other Australian reef. Ningaloo, located nearly 800 miles north of Perth in Western Australia, is where it’s at. “It” being an astonishing array of aquatic life, a lack of crowds, and plenty of budget-to-mid-range options including camping, backpackers, and smallish resorts.

In January, the Ningaloo Coast (which includes the160-mile-long reef/national marine park, Cape Range, and adjacent dune fields, marine areas, and islands) was nominated for a World Heritage listing, in recognition of the area’s “outstanding natural beauty, biological richness, and international geological significance.”

The world’s largest fringing reef (it grows directly from the shoreline, or a shallow backreef zone), Ningaloo also ranks near the top in terms of biodiversity, and the number of species found within a limited range. Unsurprising, then, that in a one-hour, offshore snorkel, I saw scads of impressive marine life (a large white-tip reef shark, giant potato cod, sea turtles, octopi, moray eels, countless fish) within arm’s reach. Depending upon the time of year, Ningaloo offers visitors the opportunity to view and/or swim with dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and Humpback whales.What Ningaloo is best-known for, however, are whale sharks. The world’s largest fish, whale sharks are filter-feeders that can reach over 40 feet in length. Unlike most sharks, they swim by moving their entire bodies from side-to-side. Very little is known about these gentle, migratory creatures, in part because they don’t need to surface for air, and can remain on the ocean floor- at depths up to 2300 feet- for years at a time. They’re found in warm-temperate and tropical seas, but Ningaloo Reef is considered the most reliable spot to find them, when they congregate to feed off the coral spawn April through late June.

Although listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” enabling the public to swim with whale sharks is an incredibly effective way to promote education about the species, as well as aid researchers. In Australia, the animals are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act, and Conservation and Land Management Act. Swims are strictly regulated by the Department of Environment and Conservation, including how many swimmers are allowed in the water at one time (10), and how far they must remain from the sharks (16 feet, and behind the pectoral fins). A spotter plane is used to locate the sharks, which are usually found up to several miles offshore.

Whale sharks have a pattern of spots marking their bodies that is distinct to each animal. At Ningaloo, swimmers are encouraged to use non-flash photography to capture the spot patterns behind their gills, and note any scars or other unusual features to help scientists track migratory patterns and keep a census.

It’s been a longtime goal of mine to swim with whale sharks, so when I found out an assignment in Australia coincided with their migration, I made arrangements to fly up to Ningaloo, via Learmonth Airport outside of Exmouth. Exmouth isn’t so much a town as it is a tourist pit-stop/marina in the midst of an arid, scrubby landscape of flat red earth and termite mounds, and approximately a bajillion emus, wallabies, and kangaroos. It’s a place of eerie, desolate beauty, and a stark contrast to the turquoise waters of the reef. Don’t expect to find anything to do besides swim, fish, dive, snorkel, and enjoy the scenery. For that reason, I’d recommend staying in one of the backpackers or campgrounds outside of town. All of the snorkel and dive boat outfitters will pick you up at your accommodation, regardless of where you’re staying.

I had my swim arranged as part of a package offered by Sal Salis, a two-year-old, tented, luxury eco-camp an hour south of Exmouth. The property is in the dunes just off the beach; my epic snorkel occurred right offshore. Sal Salis works exclusively with Ocean Eco Adventures to charter full-day, 16-passenger whale shark swims/reef snorkeling. Once onboard, we were issued wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and taken for a test swim to assess our abilities.

We were given explicit instructions on how to enter the water behind our guide, and the protocol for swimming with the sharks. After an “all-clear,” we were free to break away from the group and swim on the far (right) side of the sharks. Fortunately, my group consisted of a couple of kids and their parents, which meant they tagged behind the guide, in the shark’s wake. I was literally able to swim on my own. I should add that while slow-moving, keeping pace with a 25-foot shark for distances up to a mile (I asked) is no small feat. Even with fins on, I had to power swim using a combination sidestroke the entire way, so I could watch the shark while keeping out of range of its thrashing tail.

The exertion was well worth the effort. I’m a spiritually bankrupt sort, but swimming alongside such a magnificent animal is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. There is simply no way to describe the feeling of being alone with a whale shark, in the blue gloom of the open ocean. The accompanying high of pushing myself to my physical limits added to my euphoria. Watching the sharks dive, trailing a clump of hitchhiking remoras from their pale underbellies, and disappear into the murky depths is the most beautiful, haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

By day’s end, we’d had four separate swims: two shorter runs beside smaller sharks (12 to 15-footers), the last two as described above. The boat had also been surrounded by a “super pod” of spinner dolphins that entertained us with their aerial acrobatics. It’s expensive (depending upon the operator and if you observe, snorkel, or dive, expect to spend at least $265/pp) but it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that has no equal. Just to make sure, I’m already saving up for the next time.
If you’d like to adopt a whale shark to aid with research costs, check out ECOCEAN.


[Video courtesy of Rolex Awards for Enterprise and ECOCEAN]

Somaliland: the other Somalia

There are some places you just can’t consider for a vacation. While even Iraq has recently opened up to carefully handled tours, Somalia remains out of bounds. What with an Islamist movement proudly proclaiming its ties to Al-Qaeda, and a decades-long civil war between rival clans, there’s no chance of exploring the Somali culture and landscape, right?

Actually, that’s only half true.

The Republic of Somaliland is the northern third of what most maps show as Somalia. Anyone paying attention to the news knows that Somalia hasn’t been a unified nation for quite some time, but this one region, a little larger than England and home to 3.5 million, has managed to bring stability and a developing democracy to its people. Born out of the colony of British Somaliland, it gained independence in 1960 and immediately joined former Italian Somaliland to create what we now know as Somalia. A brutal dictatorship and a civil war later, it declared independence in 1991 and has quietly built a nation as the rest of Somalia disintegrated into chaos.

But no other country recognizes Somaliland as an independent state, which makes it very hard to get international investment and attention. Now Somaliland officials are hoping an increase in tourism will help to literally put their country on the map. It already has regular contact with its neighbors Ethiopia and Djibouti, and has representatives in several major capitals. The Tourism Ministry is busy making plans and there’s a good website highlighting Somali Heritage and Archaeology.

%Gallery-84671%With a countryside only thinly populated by nomads, Somaliland has good potential for safaris. Lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelope, and other animals are easily spotted. Even more stunning are the well-preserved paintings at Laas Geel, believed to be some of the oldest in Africa. They’re located near the capital Hargeysa and remained unreported until 2002. Colorful paintings of hunters and animals date back an estimated 9,000 years.

Other towns to check out are Barbera and Zeila, two ports with excellent coral reefs as well as old colonial buildings from British and Ottoman times. More important than bricks and mortar, though, is the chance to interact with a culture that has had comparatively little contact with the outside world. This is a rare chance to see a country unaccustomed to tourism, where there are no “tourist sites” and “local hangouts”. For the adventure traveler, it’s still pretty much uncharted territory.

After almost 20 years of independence, Somaliland is beginning to get some recognition from adventure travelers. The most recent edition of Lonely Planet Ethiopia has a short section on the country, and three young backpackers recently posted a video of their trip there on YouTube. A reporter from the Pulitzer Center has also covered the country on an online video. Somaliland could become the adventure travel destination of the new decade.

While Somaliland has some good potential, travelers should take care. Government bodyguards are required (costing $10 a day each) and there are few facilities for visitors. The country has also attracted the ire of Al-Shabab, an Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda that wants to take over the Horn of Africa. In 2008 a series of deadly car bombings blamed on Al-Shabab left two dozen dead in Hargeysa. Also, the countryside is not yet safe enough for foreigners to travel overland from Ethiopia on public transport. There are regular flights to Hargeysa from Addis Ababa and other regional capitals. The office for Somaliland in Addis Ababa (which is not recognized as an embassy by the government of Ethiopia) can issue visas and give advice. If you do decide to go, it’s best to plan well in advance and talk to the government as soon as possible.