A Blueprint for Sustainable Reefs

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Anyone who has dived for a few years has noticed that the reef at their favorite locations seem to be degrading. Although typically the resorts will deny this, saying it is just increased familiarity, it is unfortunately true. We typically dive in the same location yearly, and we have photographs of the same coral formation and how it has degraded.

In fact, when experienced divers get together to discuss destinations, the lament over reef degradation dominates the discussion. The list of dive locations that divers have abandoned because of reef degradation is long. We ourselves have abandoned one of our favorite, most convenient and least expensive destinations, because it just isn’t worth it anymore.

A great percentage of experienced divers only dive liveaboards. They have simply given up land destinations. True, there are land destinations far from the beaten path, usually with minimal accommodations that have robust reefs nearby, and there are land resorts that dive where the liveaboards do. However, the poor accommodations, difficulty of access or long boat rides have convinced these divers that liveaboards are their best option.

Actually, this is all not surprising. Once reasonable access is established to a good dive location resorts proliferate. A full service resort requires a fair number of employees. The result is more resorts with more dive guests and more employees at the location.  The sheer number of humans overwhelms poor human sanitation procedures that were ok for only a few. The human waste enters the reef and bye-bye pristine reef. Of course this degradation is exacerbated by the ocean becoming warmer and more acidic, but human waste, overfishing, construction waste and debris certainly do their part.

We were therefore surprised to return to a land location for the third year and see the reefs actually more vibrant. We were doubly surprised, because this location prides itself on service and employs a large staff. With over 50 guests, 100 employees living onsite and numerous others commuting from nearby villages, one would expect the typical degradation. Instead, all the reefs including the reef right off the dock seemed healthier and more vibrant.

All this could be perception, you argue. True, except there is scientific proof that the water is devoid of human waste. Why is water quality so important you ask? Simple, water quality is the early warning system for reef health. If the water quality is bad, the reef health will degrade over time, while if the water quality is good, the reefs will be more able to recover from other ecological pressures

In fact, in 2010 this proved true. While other coral reefs were subjected to extensive coral bleaching as a result of warm water, this area experienced only a little bleaching and the coral recovered quickly. (See footnote)

Add to that the facts that fishermen are unseen on their protected reefs, which is typically not true in other areas, where fishing is “prohibited”, that the construct we have observed does not impact the reef and that it is an obvious fact that someone had a plan – a plan to develop a world-class dive resort, while still preserving the reef!

The place with the plan is Wakatobi Dive Resort in Indonesia.

Wakatobi is located in Southeast Sulawesi, the Mecca of biological diversity. Accessible by airplane from Bali, the airport only a 10-minutes boat ride from the resort, one would expect the surrounding islands to be dotted with dive resorts and the reefs teaming with dive boats. And you’d be wrong. Wakatobi Resort has exclusive use of the airport and exclusive use of the reefs. This is not because other dive operations are restricted. Instead, other operations are unwilling to pay the rates to the locals for use of the reefs that Wakatobi Resort pays for. The result is the only boats that dive these locations are one of Wakatobi Resort’s four large dive boats that ply these waters, and the only way you can get on these boats is as a guest of the Resort.

Guests stay in a lovely bungalow more than double the size of a liveaboard cabin, eat in a dining room that an entire liveaboard would fit in, sun on a beach a liveaboard sun deck could only dream of, process their cameras in a camera room beyond compare and have dive center staff always ready to carry their gear, camera or whatever and still dive pristine reefs as good as any liveaboard could visit.

Wakatobi Resort describes its sustainable reef model, called ‘Collaborative, Community based Reef Conservation Model’ as;

  • Wakatobi Resort incentivizes local communities with direct “reef lease” payments and electrical power.
  • Communities guard their “prime underwater assets” and generate more income than through fishing.
  • Sophisticated divers are attracted to pristine reefs and visit Wakatobi.

This approach works for Wakatobi. The question is can it work in other areas?

First, a prospective imitator of Wakatobi Resort’s approach must realize that Wakatobi Resort’s approach is NOT a low-cost, low-services approach. Those “sophisticated divers” are divers with the experience to appreciate pristine reefs and excellent service and have the financial means to afford them. Wakatobi is actually competing with top-quality liveaboards for those “sophisticated divers”, not the low cost alternatives that one sees advertised. This could represent a change in thinking for both prospective resort operators and the locals who live in suitable dive locations.

Second, the local inhabitants need to both buy into the long-term concept of protecting their “prime underwater assets” and have the power to do so. In the case of Wakatobi it appears that this requirement was met with enlightened local village leadership and Wakatobi Resort’s investment in an exclusive airport for their use.

Third, the resort must command a premium that divers are willing to pay. Wakatobi combines excellent biodiversity and pristine reefs. That is the starting point for any endeavor like Wakatobi. Then, a 5 star physical plant and dive operation must be married to the kind of service that this class of divers expects. Finally, easy transportation must be provided. And in Wakatobi Resort’s case, upwards of $25 per diver per day is paid for the exclusive rights to the reefs, and the chartered plan trip from Bali is extremely expensive.

Fourth, and not mentioned in Wakatobi Resort’s model is that the reefs must be protected from human waste from increased habitation. In Wakatobi Resort’s case proper sewage treatment is a matter of implementation, dot technology. A well thought out system, where individual septic tanks are treated to digest human waste, and carefully planted irrigation fields are maintained to dispose of the effluent without reef damage, was the solution.

Wakatobi Resort’s commitment to effective waste treatment is evidenced by its purchase and servicing of two Rainbow Sensor arrays that continuously monitor the water for excess sewage. These sensors provide the scientific proof that the plan is working.

Below is scientific data from the dive site known as Roma. Reading the temperature chart one can easily see that the water became very warm between December and March even at 20 meters depth (blue line). This is consistent with temperature rises in other areas that did experience serious bleaching.

Wakatobi - Site Roma - 9/15/2009-2/15/2010

However, the second graph is a measure of water quality.

In water devoid of human waste the water appears blue because the pure seawater removes the green light faster than the blue light. However, as soon as organic material is present in the water the polluted water looks green, because the blue is removed faster due to the addition of the organic material.

Unfortunately, just observing the watercolor by the human eye isn’t accurate enough to determine the organic content, but the Rainbow Sensor Array is. When, as in this location, the green line is above the blue line (indicating the green is being removed faster), quality water is present.

At other reefs tested, including relatively healthy reefs, whenever there is significant human population near the reefs, the blue is above the green, sometimes significantly so.

The ratio between the green and blue is called the Organic Index. A negative Organic Index (green above blue) indicates quality water, and as the index becomes more positive, the early warning system is saying DANGER to the reef.

By Tom Reynolds

Tom can be reached here

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1 comment for “A Blueprint for Sustainable Reefs

  1. January 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    I’ve been to Wakatobi and I know what you’re talking about. Heaven forbid if a cruise ship tries to make them a port.

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