How can I get involved in coral reef restoration projects?

From the Florida Keys to Fiji, there are plenty of ways to help make a positive impact on coral reefs around the world. Here are six projects to get involved with on your travels.

At the Coral Restoration Foundation visitors can get hands-on training in transplanting live coral fragments onto Coral Trees tethered to the ocean floor in one of the offshore coral nurseries.

Photograph by Alex Neufeld, Coral Restoration Foundation
By Rhonda Carrier
Published 29 Sept 2021, 06:11 BST, Updated 30 Sept 2021, 10:18 BST

There's no getting away from the fact that our oceans and seas are gravely threatened by climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, harmful pollutants, single-use plastics and general littering from boats, on beaches and a whole host of other issues. But it would be all too easy to despair at the bad news or concentrate on the attention-grabbing Great Barrier Reef while overlooking the smaller initiatives doing great work.

It’s possible to enjoy the oceans responsibly and even contribute to their health by getting involved in conservation projects while you’re discovering the globe. Whether you’re a diver, prefer to lend a hand in other ways or simply want to deepen your knowledge of reef health and conservation, here are six interesting coral-reef restoration projects to get to know. 

1. Coral Restoration Foundation, Key Largo, US

The Florida Keys’ iconic landscape conceals a brutal reality: regional authorities have already calculated how high its 310 miles of roads and bridges will have to be elevated by to stay dry, and which areas will be lost to rising sea levels.

But staff at the Coral Restoration Foundation are among the untiring local Stewards of the Keys dedicated to saving this part of the world, offering visitors hands-on training in transplanting live coral fragments onto their Coral Trees tethered to the ocean floor in one of the offshore coral nurseries (one of which is the largest in the world), and in monitoring their progress.

It’s a remarkable and moving experience, with sharks threading their way through the corals as you work. But non-divers shouldn’t despair because there are plenty of volunteering opportunities on offer to those in the area for three weeks or longer, doing anything from helping to build the coral trees to providing outreach at the Foundation’s Exploration Center with its talks, slides and interactive exhibits on global reef conservation.

2. Dumaguete Atlantis Dive Resort, Philippines

In partnership with the Keys’ Coral Restoration Foundation, along with the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Utah and The Mead Foundation for sustainable development in the Philippines, this highly regarded 44-room tropical resort is busy building a large coral nursery in Dauin — and inviting visiting divers to help out for a week in September 2022. Restoration dives will involve collecting broken coral fragments from the reef and placing them on the nursery trees; at the same time, there’ll be educational sessions about coral ecology and conservation techniques.

Known for its frogfish and black volcanic sands, Dauin has long been a bastion of marine preservation in a country where 98% of the reefs are currently classified as threatened. The Dumaguete Atlantis itself is just minutes from around 20 dive spots, most of them marine protected areas with reefs marked by buoys, where all activity is regulated and no fishing is permitted. Day trips from the resort include nearby Apo Island, Siquijor and Oslob for snorkelling near whale sharks.

3. Anse la Raie Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project, Mauritius

This Indian Ocean destination’s reefs are vital to the local economy, attracting scuba divers to swim with grey reef sharks but also ensuring the livelihoods of artisanal fishermen whose catch depends on the health of the corals. But this island has suffered drastic losses in live coral cover through acidification, pollution, sedimentation, coral blasting and dredging, bad fishing practices, rising ocean temperatures and mass bleaching events. This community-based initiative on the north-east coast of Mauritius involves both fishermen and other local inhabitants, as well as NGOs and some local tourism operators, in environmental initiatives including coral-reef monitoring and rubbish collection. The best way to get involved is by staying at a participating property such as the new, eco-friendly Attitude Lagoon hotel, which has its own friendly, multilingual marine biology team encouraging visitors to get involved in the likes of reef monitoring and beach clean-ups. 

4. Caribbean Reef Buddy, Carriacou

While Grenada is famous for its Underwater Sculpture Park taking the pressure off local reefs by providing an alternative for divers and snorkellers, its dependency island of Carriacou is home to this non-profit marine conservation organisation currently in particularly urgent need of volunteers for its Coral Reef Restoration and Invasive Lionfish Containment programmes. Studies have shown that Caribbean reefs have declined by more than 50% since 1970 and could be gone within the next 20 years without major conservation efforts. If you sign up, expect to contribute towards conservation surveys providing data to the local government, assist with developing an environmental education and awareness programme, monitor sharks, assess diver impacts, and take part in marine plastic pollution clean-ups and surveys. Non-advanced divers including beginners need to factor in time to attend one of the Dive Training Weeks, and volunteers are asked to participate for a minimum of two weeks.

5. Watershed Restoration Days, Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii looks picture perfect on the surface, but like many reef destinations it’s crying out for help below. Ideal for non-divers, these sociable monthly half-day outings under the banner of the mighty Coral Reef Alliance allow you to help out in planting native vegetation, including vetiver grass, grown by local residents to reduce erosion and sediment reaching its coral reefs. The Alliance and its partners work with farmers, local communities, non-profits and private businesses, combining modern technology, native plant life and traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices to restore streams and prevent pollutants from entering the ocean. It also instructs the local tourism industry on reef-friendly, low-impact design and making the best use of reclaimed water.

6. Kokomo Private Island Fiji

Fiji is home to the South Pacific Ocean’s most extensive coral reef and is, like most of these reef hotspots, victim to damaging coral bleaching impacting the wildlife and communities that surround it. At Kokomo Private Island, a luxurious but sustainability-focused resort including its own clam nursery and mangrove reforestation programme, there is a three-person in-house marine biology team — one of whom, Cliona O’Flaherty, received the Sustainability Practices Champion Award from Women in Travel [in 2019] — which invites guests to get hands on with them.

Join in and you’ll learn to identify heat-resilient corals, plant them in a nursery then transplant them back onto the house reef. You can also visit the resort’s adopted Walker Restoration Reef with its regular clean-ups and coral restoration activities. To date, Kokomo has transplanted more than 300 corals back onto the reef and has more than 1,300 in its nursery.

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