For 15 years, I served as the CEO of Shark Diver where we pioneered cage-diving with great white sharks. We were the first commercial shark diving company in the U. S. to initiate, develop, and support research of white sharks at Isla Guadalupe in Mexico. We went on to initiate strong global shark conservation programs like the Shark-Free Marinas Initiative in tandem with our operations sites in the Bahamas. The goal was clear: be advocates for sharks and the diving industry, while providing exciting, but safe shark encounters to our divers, the mainstream media, and research partners. We called it Conservation Shark Diving.
We learned that the first step to addressing an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem in the oceans is to get people to directly engage. It sounds simple in retrospect, but at the turn of the millennium, getting diving instructors, SCUBA schools, and other dive groups really interested in traveling to a remote Mexican island to jump in 500 ft of water in a shark cage and go face to face with an 18-ft great white shark was a tall order.
It worked. Shark divers are more likely to give back to the environment in real and tangible ways, including site preservation efforts, shark site research support, and positive media efforts for sharks. When we started Shark Diver, sharks where not viewed as charismatic mega-fauna. Sharks were the enemy; divers didn’t mingle with sharks. They carried big knives on the chance of encountering one. Fifteen years later, after some heavy lifting by Shark Diver and a number of other companies, sharks are now viewed as charismatic mega-fauna. They are the darlings of the conservation world, and there are a multitude of groups trying to protect and save sharks or bring awareness to destructive practices such as shark finning. It’s been a spectacular transformation.
The Jeweled Belt
After 15 years at Shark Diver, I took a year off, sold that company, and sat down with my new team at Reef Worlds to figure out how we could apply these same principals to what natural resource oceanographer Sylvia Earle has called “a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet.”
We started Reef Worlds three years ago to address the out-of-sight, out-of-mind global issue of reef loss. We want to create sustainable artificial reef systems that help reduce tourism pressures on natural reefs. If that wasn’t enough good news, we aren’t operating at a loss. Reef Worlds, the products, are fully monetized, discrete mini-marine “protected areas” within the resort’s own footprint, allowing them to brand a signature experience for their guests, while also creating and fostering regional habitat.
Coral reefs are the rain forests of the sea. While regulations from NOAA and international bodies can help protect coral species, more needs to be done to raise awareness outside of the ocean science community. According to NOAA’s Reef Watch Program, coral reefs provide habitat for approximately 25% of all seadwelling fish species. The problem is, reefs are disappearing. We are losing tens of thousands of square miles of coral reefs to ocean acidification, global warming pressures, point source run off, and negative human interactivity with reefs. Right now, across the world, we’re looking at 500,000 square miles of these waterfront spaces that are endangered due to habitat loss. And if we don’t do anything, the problem is only expected to worsen.
Reef Worlds’ projects specifically deal with the latter two negative effects on coral reefs: 1) point source run off, including coastal dredging, farm runoff, and wastewater from human settlement; and 2) negative human interactivity, which can include overfishing, damage from oceangoing vessels, pollution discharges, and irresponsible diving. We decided to focus on resorts and resort developers because they have, on any given day around the world, the most people interacting with the oceans—the place where we can have the most immediate impact is at resorts. Right now, not enough is being done to communicate with these individual ocean explorers. We’re not promoting a message to them; we’re not teaching them; we’re not doing anything but letting them interact with oceans. Worse yet, and this Was the staggering thing we discovered, is that for the last 50 years, developers have considered nothing past the high tide mark. This is really kind of ironic when you consider that they spend millions on water parks, golf courses, and manicured gardens. Yet we’ve seen, time and time again, five star resorts with one star waterfronts or nearshore reef areas. They literally abandoned their ocean fronts and, like anything if you’re not tending to it or paying attention, they’ve gone into disrepair.
Shocking Resort Facts
1. Only 2% of four and five star hotel brands have a coral conservation policy.
2. Only 1% of four and five star resort hotel brands have coral conservation projects.
3. Under 1% of four and five star resort hotels have coral education/outreach projects.
4. Under 1% of four and five star resorts have a relationship with regional coral NGOs.
We build reef worlds with two clients in mind: one with fins and the other with credit cards. We’ve seen octopi living in cola bottles; we’ve seen snapper living on old broken pier pilings. These creatures are making a utilitarian choice and not an aesthetic one. But the consumers with the credit cards do care about aesthetics— the consumer—and we are using that to drive the development of these artificial reefs. If you can show resorts a financial paradigm where it is worthwhile for them to invest in their waterfronts and to spend money creating a habitat that their clients will love, while at the same time showing them that they can make money doing it, then you have won the battle. This is the key. If we can get to the point where folks are paying resorts to go and explore Atlantis underwater… if this development also acts as habitat for marine species…then we also get to share our message of conservation, much like what has happened with recreational whale watching and shark diving.
In this case, we are talking about tens of millions of people each year who utilize the oceans. If you can show resort visitors the kind of diverse and vibrant life a reef supports, then you can spark an interest in the importance of global coral reef conservation. You can educate visitors, telling them that the reason we built these places is because the in-shore reefs are already gone and explain in concrete terms that the global Reefs are crucial to ocean sustainability. We can even educate them about what we need to do to mitigate damage to global reefs. Direct interaction between consumer and reef starts this vital conversation.
It’s not just resorts. We’re talking about cruise lines as well. The millions of passengers each year who travel to cruise lines destinations are not being messaged about reef restoration at all. Take any of the 2,000 people that walk off a major cruise line and ask them what they know about reefs. Chances are, they’ll say, “I went snorkeling on one. It was beautiful.” We need people to come back and say, “Yeah, I went snorkeling and it’s in bad condition and we need to help.”
Our team at Reef Worlds includes some of the best film and television designers, dive-site developers, and marine biologists. If we can take the lessons we learned from 15 years of casting light on an out-of-sight, out-ofmind problem like shark finning to where someone in Missouri feels connected and activated to help, we will be just as successful with coral reefs. In spite of the promise, we still have some convincing to do. We went to the Caribbean in 2009 and pitched our plan, but the Caribbean wasn’t ready. So we went to the United Arab Emirates—specifically to Dubai and Qatar—and they are very interested in this concept. We are currently building two sites there and are in the process of designing one in the Philippines as well as one in Mexico.
Our “Pearl of Dubai” project is set to be the world’s largest underwater theme park—yet construction costs are projected at a fraction of the cost of a typical resort water theme park. Because of its organic element, the site will evolve over time to provide habitat for a wide range of corals and other marine species. Our partners in Dubai understand that tourism is a long-term issue, and they are building for habitat tourism that stretches from the near-term to 100 years in the future. It’s remarkable that they are taking the best ideas from non-government organizations and the ocean world and applying them now.
We need this in the Caribbean, where there has already been an estimated 80% coral loss. Habitat loss and coral bleaching are major issues there and, unless the region invests now in restoring habitat, I’m fearful that we are going to lose everything. It’s a region that just can’t afford this loss— economically or ecologically.
Another place that really needs coral rehabilitation is the Philippines. Entire coast lines are dead there. It’s a problem for the fishing industries, for typhoon and coastal flooding mitigation, and for the culture as a whole. These coastlines desperately need tourism money. The easiest approach would have been for them to tap into the $3 billion snorkel market, but now their natural reefs are gone. What they need to do now is invest in rehabilitating their reefs and construct dynamic structures to bring back the wildlife and reseed coral on them. They’re not going to get there with traditional artificial reef objects—like triangles or balls. These generate zero tourism interest. Instead, developers need a blended product that includes “ancient temples beneath the sea” and objects that stimulate the imagination of tourists culturally. On top of that, we can add other products in order to fully rehabilitate these sites. The finished product: mini marine protected areas.
Our pitch to resort developers and long-chain resort owners and managers is very simple: you have tens of thousands of useable acres right on your resort, within its existing footprint. We are here to help you monetize those spaces, create new habitats, and educate your people. Everybody wins. We’re back in the Caribbean now with a project in Mexico where we the theme is the Mayan Gods in 3D; the end result is the same—creating a sustainable reef system that profits investors and educates the public.
A Marketplace Solution
Even though there is a lot of negative news right now about coral reefs, there is also a bright new future. You can just sit on the sidelines and say the world is going to hell in a hand basket or you can come up with marketplace solutions that really work. Artificial reefs work; dynamic reefs work even better, especially when they are applied to tourism. Distilling the lessons we learned from the last 15 years into a repeatable template for coral reefs and placing this product in regions that have reef systems needing rehabilitation will work. We can bring these reefs to market, and we can do it in such a way that everybody wins—from the resort owners on down to the most delicate, endangered marine species.
Reef Worlds is educating and reshaping attitudes of resort developers regarding the intrinsic values of reef systems off resort waterfronts. By harnessing the latest technologies and providing richer tourism experiences, we can build dynamic reef environments that allow natural reef systems to regenerate and thrive all over the world. Meanwhile, we can also engage regional and international conservation groups and foster synergistic conservation relationships for future tourism developments.
Reef system loss equals billions in lost tourism revenue. By setting the global stage for the creation of underwater habitat tourism, we can begin to stem destruction and habitat loss while providing resort developers with new revenue, green media, experiential client engagement, and new conservation channels. Simply put, Reef Worlds represents the future of water based resort tourism.
To learn about coral conservation and access, visit coralreef.noaa.gov. For more on Reef Worlds, including their latest projects visit www.reefworlds.com.