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]

Only a few weeks left on Curtain Bluff Power of ’10 package

There’s only a month left on Curtain Bluff’s “Power of ’10” deal, and if you’re feeling worn down by the fierce winter cold, here’s your chance to win some relief. So, stay at this Antigua resort in the next few weeks, and you’ll be able to add some interesting activities to the SCUBA diving, dep-sea fishing and reef snorkeling that are already available. You’ll be able to take a cooking class with Chef Christophe Blatz, pick up a second spa treatment (of equal or lesse value), add an extra personal training session or enjoy a second tennis lesson.

These perks come at the rich cost of $10, as long as you pick them up by the end of March. The all-inclusive resort starts at $995 a night. I know there isn’t much time, but if you need to get away, this is an excellent way to do it.

%Gallery-67423%

In the Heart of Central America: Diving the Bay Islands of Honduras

Honduras’ Bay Islands – the large islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, plus Cayos Cochinos and the Swan Islands – sit about 40 miles off the coast of the mainland in the Caribbean Sea. While the islands are as beautiful as any others in the Caribbean and offer long sandy white beaches, turquoise water, and lush jungle landscapes, the biggest draw for most visitors is the area’s superb and low-cost diving.

Most visitors stay in Roatan, the largest and most developed of the islands. Home to about 35,000 people, it is the most-visited spot in Honduras. Flights take about 15 minutes from La Ceiba – as soon as the plane rises above the clouds, it starts its descent to the island – or an hour from San Pedro Sula (including a brief stop in La Ceiba). The flight on Taca Regional costs about $90 from La Ceiba or $250 from San Pedro Sula. There are other flight options, but for a fearful flyer, Taca’s modern planes were the most attractive.

Direct flights from the US are offered by several airlines. Taca arrives from Miami on Saturday and Sunday and Continental arrives from Houston on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and from Atlanta on Saturdays. Even if you are flying within Honduras, it’s wise to know the large carrier schedules as lines at the airport can triple at times when flights to the US depart.The island is accessible by ferry as well. The Galaxy Wave carries up to 460 people at a time, takes just under an hour, and costs about $50. Private yacht charters are also available for $50 per person each way. Unfortunately, there is currently no land or air connection (unless by charter) between Roatan and Utila. You’ll have to backtrack through La Ceiba.

Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, but it is still quite small at about 30 miles long and 3.5 miles across at its widest point. At certain spots along the main road you can actually see the Caribbean Sea on both sides of your window. The island’s east side is much more undeveloped than the west, so if you are looking for a little bit of nightlife to go with your diving, stay in West End, a small one-lane collection of open-air restaurants, bars and shops that are just a few yards from the beach. Be sure to try some of the island’s fresh-from-the-sea seafood like shrimp, lobster and conch.

Roatan recently completed a new Port, located near the island’s capital of Coxen Hole, a collection of brightly-colored homes that house most of the island’s residents. The houses were painted so vibrantly so that early postal workers could identify houses that didn’t have addresses. Letters were simply addresses to Name, color of house, Coxen Hole. During high season, cruise ships will be docking every day (even twice a day sometimes) so steer clear of this otherwise mostly residential area if you want to avoid crowds. If you are arriving via cruise ship, you can book activities in advance and hop in a cab at the Port. Cab fare to most destinations on the island’s west side will cost under $10 each way. Just negotiate your fare before getting in.

There are over two dozen dive companies operating on Roatan. One of the most popular is Anthony’s Key, a full-service dive resort that’s been in operation for over 40 years. Rooms are located in wooden cabanas that are a short boat ride across the Lagoon from the main grounds and accommodations include three meals per day. Seven-night high season dive packages start at $2000 and include all meals, three days dives, two night dives, and additional excursions.

For kids and adults, one of the most exciting aspects of Anthony’s Key is the on-site Dolphin encounter. During the summer, the resort, in cooperation with the Roatan Institute for Marine Science (R.I.M.S.) offers kids the chance to be a dolphin trainer, with a week-long Dolphin Scuba Camp. The also offer dolphin encounters, dives, and snorkel activities. During the dolphin encounter, guests learn all about dolphins, how they interact, feed and survive in the wild. They can pet the dolphin, watch it perform tricks, and mug for the camera as the dolphin gives a soft, wet kiss on the cheek.

Snorkelers can swim freely with the dolphins, watching as the dolphins swim around and below them and play with one another. Dolphin dives are also available. During the dives, the dolphins are released into the open water and then interact with the divers near a shallow reef wall. At the end of the dives, sometimes the dolphins come back to the enclosure and sometimes they don’t. If not, the dolphin trainers say, they’ll always come back with the next boat.

If you’re looking for cheaper accommodations than those offered by Anthony’s Key, stay in West End and arrange for dives with a tour operator. In West End, you can also hit the beach, rent a jet ski for the day, or just relax with a few Salva Vida beers and some live music as you watch the sunset at places like The Dive Bar.

For divers on a budget, or those who want to get certified, Utila may be a better option than Roatan. Like Roatan, the waters around Utila are teeming with life. Divers can often encounter whale sharks, dolphins and manta rays as they swim along reefs and around shipwrecks and deep drop-offs. Both islands have easy access to the Mesoamerican reef, the largest reef in region. It’s over 1000km long and is home to over 500 species of fish, 1000 manatees, and several species of dolphins.

Known as the cheapest place in the world to get SCUBA certified, Utila is home to several operators offering very attractive prices. One dive with the Utila Dive Center is $35, a package of ten dives is $250. They also offer courses to become a certified SCUBA instructor. Rooms at the attached Mango Inn start at $10 for a dorm room to $70 for a deluxe room for two. Three nights in a deluxe room with PADI certification is $339 per person.

With beautiful beaches, some of the best and cheapest diving in the world, delicious fresh seafood, and a laid back lifestyle, the Bay Islands are the perfect place for dive enthusiasts and budget beach-bums to enjoy the Caribbean.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.

Work and play in Queenland, Australia: Whitsunday Islands

Whether you’re on a working holiday while backpacking or on a more tradition vacation, if you’re in Australia, you’ll want to make your way to the Great Barrier Reef. Being that it’s massive, there are several locations where you can go to explore the GBR, but perhaps the most beautiful is the Whitsunday Islands. Home to 74 islands, crystal clear waters and some of the best sailing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world, the Whitsundays alone may be reason enough to include Queensland on your itinerary in Oz.

Typically, upon hearing about SCUBA diving and, in particular, sailing, many people fear that they will be priced out of a destination. The Whitsundays, however, cater to everyone from the extravagantly wealthy boat owners to the backpackers looking to spend a few days at sea. A natural wonder like the Great Barrier Reef is often the great equalizer when it comes to prices, as businesses will seek to accommodate anyone looking to explore an environment this unique. That means that there is something for everyone in this beautiful corner of the world.

%Gallery-66358%


Sailing

While in the Whitsundays, I was treated to a three-day/two-night sail in the Whitsundays on a catamaran named Whitsunday Getaway, which is operated by Islandive. Sailing out of Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach, Islandive specializes in sailing and diving packages that allow visitors to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the beauty of the Whitsunday Islands while also getting in the water for some of the best snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world.

The sleeping quarters on board may be small (as is the nature of any boat that is not a yacht or a luxury cruise ship), but the overall accommodations aboard the Whitsunday Getaway were stellar. We were served prawns, steak, chicken, tea and snacks throughout the excursion. Most of the boats in the Whitsundays are BYO, and Islandive’s vessels are no exception. So, if you want alcohol on your trip, grab some goon or cans of beer (glass is a bad idea on boats) before heading to the marina. You’ll find that, once you’ve finished a day of snorkeling and the sun is beginning to set, everyone will agree that it’s “beer o’clock.” (Aussies are fond of that phrase, and far be it from me to disagree with their nomenclature or logic.)

If you’re backpacking through Australia and want to save a bit of money while still treating yourself to a sail, you don’t need to compromise too much. In fact, you can hop aboard a former championship sailboat and feel the wind in your hair for a few days while not blowing your budget.

Through Explore Whitsundays, you can book various types of sailing packages, including many that are geared towards backpackers in both price and accommodations. One such boat, the Boomerang, was sailing while I was was on Whitsunday Getaway. While the sleeping accommodations were more open and shared by a larger group of people, the guests on board spoke highly of their time on the Boomerang, whose top speed far exceeded that of my catamaran. For a true sailing experience, a boat like the Boomerang can’t be beat. Passengers had ample opportunities to snorkel and see the reef while the boat had its sails down. The menu may be more limited, but if you’re looking to either save some money or simply enjoy the company of other backpackers and young travelers, this experience is the one for you.

Whitehaven Beach

One of the most iconic and oft-visited areas of the Whitsundays is Whitehaven Beach, which features some of the softest, most pristine sand of any beach in the world. As I spent a morning walking along the shore amongst the cliffs and breaking waves, I felt as if I was placing my feet into baby powder with each step. The scenic overlooks at Whitehaven Beach provide breathtaking views of the nearby islands and the changes in water color created by the reef below. It is nearly impossible to take a disappointing photograph in the Whitsundays, as the view in any direction appears as if its been created for the sole purpose of one day becoming a postcard image.

Most sailing companies include Whitehaven Beach in their packages, yet they manage to keep it from ever becoming over-crowded. As such, you can enjoy the soft sand, crashing waves and gorgeous views without bumping into too many fanny-packed travelers (or bum-bagged travelers, as the Aussies call them).

Know before you go

A trip to the Whitsundays does not require an extended stay. Airlie Beach provides a host of accommodations, but most people only spend a night before or after their sailing adventure. However, it’s definitely worth the trip to Queensland and the Whitsundays for the Great Barrier Reef alone. The experience of seeing the reef, the aquatic life and the seemingly boundless sky above makes it one of the most exquisite places in the world to sail, dive and snorkel. Even in the winter, this region of Australia stays relatively mild and comfortable. The rainy season (October through May – Australian summer) can make for some unpleasant sailing, so it’s often best to plan around that.

If you’re not certified to SCUBA, many companies will offer training dives that allow you dive down to 10 meters with a certified instructor. Training is handled on the boat and you’ll never be more than a few feet from your instructor once you’re in the water. If you are certified, be sure to bring your paperwork with you.

Don’t let the glamorous reputation of the Whitsundays convince you that you cannot afford it. It may be a vacation hot spot for Australia’s rich and famous, but it’s egalitarian when it comes to who can enjoy the seas. Whether you’re on a budget or looking to film an extravagant rap video, you can get yourself on a boat and close to the Great Barrier Reef. If you’ve traveled all the way to Australia, you owe it to yourself to make the trip up to the Whitsundays.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Brit gets “best job in the world”

Ben Southall will spend six months swimming, blogging and soaking in the sun. Tourism Queensland picked the Brit from 16 finalists yesterday – not to mention 34,700 video entries from nearly 200 countries. The job pays A$150,000 (US$110,000) for Southall’s “efforts.”

His thoughts: “I hope I can fill the boots as much as everybody is expecting, my swimming hopefully is up to standard and I look forward to all of the new roles and the responsibilities that the task involves.”

My thoughts: Don’t hurt yourself, Ben. Nobody’s really expecting anything profound from a publicity stunt.

To secure his new gig, Southall overcame finalists from 15 countries, including students, journalists, a receptionist and an actress. Oh, and a porn star. MSNBC forgot that one.

Meanwhile, Tourism Queenland‘s already thinking ahead. This gimmick could become an annual event.