image: A spotted nudibranch floats in a Papua New Guinea coral reef.
A spotted nudibranch floats in a Papua New Guinea coral reef.

Photograph © Amos Nachoum/CORBIS

Coral Reefs of Papua New Guinea
By Jean-Michel Cousteau

My most emotional dive took place about ten years ago. After a lifetime of diving with my father, Jacques, and learning about the underwater realms he knew so well, I invited him to sail Calypso to Papua New Guinea.

We would dive together there, exploring one of the most beautiful and biologically diverse reefs on the planet. Generally speaking, the number of reef species—biodiversity—increases as you move southwestward across the Pacific from Hawaii. Papua New Guinea is one of the least damaged regions of the Indo-Pacific. You can observe in a single reef there twice as many coral and fish species as live in the entire Caribbean.

One reef, near Wuvulu Island, is a favorite of mine. It's dense with corals—staghorns, table corals, and big brain corals. Schools of purple and reddish basslets hover near the coral heads. Now and then a marauding jack will sweep through the school, and the basslets will zip into hiding inside the reef. That's when you may see a fleeing basslet snapped up by a perfectly camouflaged stonefish.

On an earlier trip our team found an open cave. Its walls and ceiling bristled with bushes of black coral. The first time we swam in, a dim, reddish flashing in the crevices mystified us. We returned with lights and discovered clamlike file shells, waving their red mantles to feed. Our dive ended that time when a dozen startled stingrays lifted off the cave floor like bombers, stirring up so much sediment we could hardly see.

Now, for once, I was the guide and my father the student. I had the chance to show him a place he had never seen. But my father, who was in his late 70s, grew tired in the strong current and surfaced early. I was worried. Back on deck, he said, "Jean-Michel, that was a painful dive. I'm getting old." I dreaded what his next words would be—"I'm too old to dive any more." But as he so often did, he surprised me. "You know what?" He gave his incredible smile. "I'm going to design equipment for old people." He did, and went on diving for several more years.

For the reefs he loved to see and film, though, solutions come harder. Unlike remote Papua New Guinea, most of the world's reefs suffer greatly from pollution and other stresses. About 10 percent are destroyed already, with another 25 to 40 percent in grave danger. The sea life on which we depend is dying. I keep saying the canary in the mine is dead, but we're oblivious to this.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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