Saving the Coral Triangle

When I was three years old, I made my first trip to the Philippines where my family is from and still resides today. The geometrically stunning rice terraces and lakeside volcanoes paint a landscape bound to awe anyone who’s lucky enough to get a glimpse of it. But for me it’s always been the sea, that great expanse of water and marine life surrounding the islands, which even twenty years after my first visit, still bears a spellbinding magnificence unmatched by anything else I’ve encountered in my travels. So when Philippine President Gloria Arroyo visited National Geographic headquarters last week to discuss the Coral Triangle Initiative, it alarmed me to think that this natural beauty could ever be in jeopardy.

The 2.3 million square miles of the Coral Triangle, which includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, is home to more than 75% of the world’s known species of coral, 3,000 species of fish, six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, as well as whales, dolphins and coelacanths, a fish believed to predate dinosaurs. But the vanishing reefs could face peril if we fail to sustain them. 

In May, the six government leaders of the Coral Triangle met in Indonesia to sign a series of commitments safeguarding the resources of the Triangle from the affects of climate change. Economically, these resources afford income and food security for over 120 million people living in the area’s coastal communities with total annual values estimated at more than $2.3 billion.

“We must find a win-win solution to not just stopping the degradation, but also restoring and enhancing our fragile ecology,” President Arroyo said at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium last Thursday. “We rely on the sea for food, jobs, and pleasure, and we cannot allow this resource to be further compromised.”

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Arroyo explained that the initiative also includes support for the conservation of important species and protected marine areas including popular tourist sites such as the Apo Reef Natural Park, the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary, and Tubbataha Reefs National Park, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site.

While tourism within the Coral Triangle is important to the economy, responsible travel is also necessary to sustain the endangered area. As a person who would never discourage a vacation to this area, I’m dismayed to learn that part of the coral threat has come from tourist-related activity. For years, travelers and resort developers have poked and chipped away at the coral life all for the sake of taking away a souvenir. If you decide to dive or snorkel, be sure to keep your self and your gear away from the reefs; even the slightest touch can impact the coral. And try to stay off the bottom; stirred sediment can settle on coral and smother it.

Also harming the coral reefs is the excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels used to run large cruise ships. As the ocean absorbs these fuels, they are converted into carbonic acid, which has increased the ocean’s acidity by 30 percent over the last 100 years. As this continues, the ability of corals and other marine invertebrates to acquire the calcium carbonate they need is becoming nearly impossible.

For travel to the Coral Triangle, I recommend traveling through the World Wildlife Fund, who has partnered with the Coral Triangle Initiative and practices sustainable measures on its trips. Snorkeling tours

of the Raja Ampat Archipelago in Indonesia’s West Papua province allow you to visit fishing villages and get up-close-and-personal with the corals and marine life without endangering them. WWF’s voyages are only on small ships, which create smaller carbon footprints and are run in an eco-sensitive manner. Travel partners such as Natural Habitat Adventures

offset 100% of its greenhouse gas emissions by funding environmentally friendly energy projects to reduce emissions equal to the amount released on your trip.

As I start planning my next trip to the Philippines, I’ll have a lot of travel options to consider, but you can be sure I will heed my own advice to ensure that the seas I fell in love with when I was three will be just as beautiful another twenty years from now.

Photos: WWF