There is no more spectacular underwater sight than a healthy, thriving reef system—vibrant corals, troves of colorful fish, and the occasional sea turtle or reef shark all provide a thrill for lucky observers. We can’t take these incredible aquatic worlds for granted, though. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Coral bleaching is rampant around the globe due to rising temperatures and human abuse. A cruise ship seriously damaged a stretch of Raja Ampat’s reef in Indonesia just last spring.
Some hotels and outfitters located near these biological treasures attempt to address the problems, but many fall short. “Normally, you get this attitude from resorts like, ‘Okay, we have a marine biologist,’ but they don’t really do anything,” says Cliona O’Flaherty, staff conservationist and zoologist at Kokomo Island. The luxury private island resort in Fiji (and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World) takes reef health seriously—so much so that they’ve hired O’Flaherty to lead the charge in helping to protect the island’s greatest natural resource, the pristine Great Astrolabe Reef.
At Kokomo, she’s been able to tackle projects that will make a noticeable impact on the environment’s health—all backed by a luxury resort, which doesn’t often happen. “We’re trying to develop a marine reserve around the area,” she says, and adds that she’s been working with Fijian villages to secure that designation to prevent overfishing and other damage to the ecosystem. Other initiatives include planting coral gardens to help keep reefs diverse and robust, and collecting information about the manta rays that frequent the resort’s waters for the Manta Trust, a UK-based non-profit that studies the under-researched creatures.
We spoke with O’Flaherty to get her tips for responsibly exploring reefs, whether you do so in Fiji or closer to home.
1. Don’t touch!
“You should never touch anything in the sea, in general, because you may harm it or it may harm you. A mantra I’ve been taught is, ‘we only take photos and we only leave bubbles.’ One of the biggest issues is sunscreen. Many people wear it when they go into the water because they don’t want to get a sunburn. If a snorkeler or diver touches the coral after applying sunscreen, it can actually kill the coral or make it really sick. Its chemical composition doesn’t react well with the coral.”
2. Don’t ever pollute
“Even on land! Tropical places like Fiji tend to have cyclones that blow a lot of stuff around and into the ocean. If you’re in the ocean and see rubbish, take it out of the water. A plastic bag can smother coral like any other animal.”
3. Make yourself more bouyant
“If you think you’re not that good of a swimmer or you think you’d be kicking around too much, wear a wetsuit to make yourself more buoyant so you won’t accidentally hit the coral with your hands or fins. Put kids in life jackets—they’ll always be on top of the water and will feel more secure, and so won’t kick around as much.”
4. Keep some distance
“Stay at least the length of your body from the coral. That way, in case a wave pushes you, you won’t accidentally scratch your fins along the coral. If you need to come up to the surface to fix your mask, swim into an area with deeper water and far from the coral to avoid accidentally colliding with it.”
5. Report an accident
“If you do accidentally hit the coral, mention it to your guide. Whoever is guiding you may be able to bring you somewhere else that’s a bit safer for you and the coral.”
Three More Coral Reefs You Can Dive Responsibly
1. Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Australia’s “other reef” is the world’s largest fringing reef, which means it’s close to shore—no seasickness-inducing boat ride needed to reach it. Recently, outfitters have begun leading intimate snorkel experiences that offer the chance to see whales and whale sharks up close. Whale shark outings starting at $191. Humpback whale outings starting at $142.
How to see it: Swim with whale sharks from March to July and with humpback whales from August to October with Ningaloo Discovery.
Tours from $103.
2. Raja Ampat, Indonesia
The reefs of Raja Ampat are most biodiverse on the planet, so expect rare sights, including the dugong, a manatee-like sea mammal, and five species of endangered sea turtles. (Plus, you can see 5,000-year-old cave paintings that are accessible only by boat.) Indonesian officials have plans to restore the part of the reef damaged by a 2017 cruise ship collision.
How to see it: Board Aman Voyages’ traditional Indonesian two-masted yacht Amandira and you can learn to scuba dive with a PADI-certified instructor.
Five- or seven-night itineraries for groups of up to 10, from $9,150 per night.
3. Loky Manambato Protected Area, Madagascar
Head to this reserve off Madagascar’s north coast to bask in one of the world’s richest marine environments. The reef is home to critically endangered hawksbill turtles as well as green sea turtles, manta rays, and whale sharks.
How to see it: Stay at Time + Tide’s Miavana, Madagascar’s premiere conservation-focused luxury resort. The lodge, located on the remote island of Nosy Ankao, is surrounded by more than 50 square miles of protected space.From $2,500 per person.
>>Next: One Tiny Country is Fighting to Save Its Endagered Reefs–for All of Us