Coral reefs are dream diving destinations but their importance extends far beyond their beauty. They are some of the most valuable and diverse ecosystems on earth and home to about 25% of all species of marine life.
They protect coastlines from storms, buffering them from wave action and preventing erosion, as well as protecting the productive wetlands along the coast.
More than 100 countries benefit from tourism related to reefs and they provide food and employment for millions of people around the world.
Reefs are naturally formed by corals, which are small animals known as polyps. Algae, sponges, soft coral and invertebrates create a foundation for complex food webs. From large predators to small herbivorous fish, all are protected and find food on a reef.
Everything from lobsters to sea turtles depends on the reef and each animal plays an important role in the ecosystem.
Up to half of the coral reefs in the world are already lost or severely damaged. Scientists are predicting that by 2050 all corals will be threatened, and by 2070, they could be gone altogether.
Some of the factors causing the damage are global warming, excessive fishing, careless tourism, sedimentation, and coral mining. The greatest threat comes from rising water temperatures that cause coral bleaching.
As many of the threats are manmade, it is important to take action by controlling fishing, restoring the reefs, keeping the oceans clean and restoring creating marine protected areas.
Volunteering for a coral reef conservation project is one way for divers and ocean lovers to help protect these reefs and make sure future generations can benefit from them too.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef on earth, comprised of more than 3,000 reef systems with 400 different types of coral and abundant marine life. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of World.
Coral Watch is an organization based at the University of Queensland that works with volunteers worldwide. They can get involved in collecting important information that is used by professional scientists, conservation groups and reef managers.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Raja Ampat in Indonesia has over 600 different species of hard coral and the reefs are still in good condition, stretching unbroken as far as the eye can see. Aside from the coral, divers can see almost 1,300 species of tropical fish.
They will also see other marine animals, including endangered sea turtles and endemic species like the epaulette shark (walking shark). When scientists discovered that the area had the largest coral reef diversity based on its size, they made plans to protect it.
Volunteers can join a diving project in Raja Ampat that’s created to work at a grassroots level, mixing research and survey dives with community work and education.
Palancar Reef, Cozumel Mexico
The Palancar Reef is often referred to by divers as “the underwater garden of Eden” due to the incredibly vibrant colors of the coral and they often return again and again to this reef.
It is not as large as some of the other reefs mentioned here, but its multicolored pink, green, yellow and orange corals make it just as beautiful. The coral is home to butterfish fish, squirrelfish, seahorses, sea fans, parrotfish, and much more.
The Cozumel Ocean Research Org has a network of volunteers responsible for the protection of the undersea environment in Cozumel. Informational and fun courses help people gain a deeper understanding of delicate marine ecosystems and train volunteers in field methodologies to capture information scientists can use.
Belize Barrier Reef
This reef is the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, featuring 106 different types of coral, more than 300 documented species of fish, coastal lagoons and mangrove forests. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and over 40% of the reefs are damaged, so protection efforts are extremely important.
The Blue Ventures organization offers an opportunity for volunteers from around the world to get involved in dive expeditions for marine research and community conservation. Invasive lionfish are a problem and volunteers can improve their dive skills as well as survey, hunt and dissect them.
Red Sea Coral Reef – Red Sea
The Red Sea Coral Reef is about 1,200 miles long and more than 5,000 years old. It is home to about 1,200 fish, a number which are found only in this area and 300 hard coral species. Located between the Arabian and Sahara deserts, two extremely hot and arid regions, this coral reef is able to withstand changes in temperature.
The Red Sea Environmental Center promotes coral reef conservation, research, and education at the Red Sea. It runs a field station at the southeast coast of the Sinai in Dahab and partners with Sinai Divers dive center, offering conservation volunteering.