Lonely Planet Writer

Earth Day: how travellers can help protect the world's fragile coral reefs

With Earth Day on 22 April, there are renewed calls to protect one of the world’s most important and fragile resources; coral reefs. Now, one global initiative called 50 Reefs is in a race against time to save 50 of the most important reefs from extinction.

A turtle swimming over a healthy coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot, December 2016.
A turtle swimming over a healthy coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef, Lady Elliot, December 2016. Image by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

At the current rate, 90% of coral reefs will be extinct by 2050 with the blame lying squarely with climate change. Rising sea temperatures are leading to coral bleaching on a scale previously unimaginable. Should this continue, the extinction of the coral reefs will have catastrophic consequences for the eco-system as well as for food supplies, medicine and the tourism industry.

50 Reefs aims to identify the 50 coral reefs that have the best chance at survival and work with the world’s top scientists and conservation experts to find the best individual solutions to support and protect them. There will also be a worldwide coral conservation and climate change campaign.

A bleached coral reef in the Maldive
A bleached coral reef in the Maldive Image by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers

The corals are the subject of a new documentary Chasing Coral which is due to be released on Netflix shortly. To mark Earth Day, Lonely Planet spoke to Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of the Ocean Agency to find out what people can do to support and protect the world’s remaining coral reefs.

“The most important thing is spreading the word”, he said. “People are generally unaware of the impact of climate change on the ocean and how far advanced it is there. 93% of the heat is being absorbed by the upper layer in the ocean and that’s where corals live.”

The film also wants to encourage people to get involved in the fight against climate change. “There’s only so much we can do for marine protection if we don’t have climate action”, Richard says. “We’re finding more and more progress is happening on a city-scale. The film is really encouraging people to work with their local community on a city basis or even a company basis to look to get commitments for action.”

A before and after image of the coral bleaching in American Samoa. The first image was taken in December 2014. The second image was taken in February 2015.
A before and after image of the coral bleaching in American Samoa. The first image was taken in December 2014. The second image was taken in February 2015. Image by The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Richard Vevers and Christophe Bailhache

Despite the dire warnings, there is hope for the project the the future of our oceans and some reefs have so far been largely protected by bleaching by their location. “At the end of last year I went to Raja Ampat in Indonesia and jumped in the water there”, Richard recalls. “The corals were pristine, 100% coral cover, massive amounts of fish life. There are lots of hope spots which are far less vulnerable to bleaching.”

The support from big philanthropic foundations has also been a huge boon for 50 Reefs. “When we came up with the plan, it was Bloomberg Philanthropies who approached us and brought with them Tiffany & Co Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and they’re now looking for other partners. There’s a tremendous amount of support for what is seen as a positive project.”