Sacrificial Reefs

Are we loving some coral reefs to death? Sacrificing them to unsustainable tourism so others can exist with less human impacts? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in some major tourist destinations around the world.

Recently, I visited Phi Phi Island in Phuket, Thailand — one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. I was excited to go there, since it would be my first time snorkeling in the Andaman Sea. I should have known better. What I saw horrified me.

I’ve been fortunate enough to snorkel or dive on many reefs of the world — but with the possible exception of Egypt, I’ve never seen such shocking overuse of reefs. My friend and I went snorkeling at one of the iconic snorkeling sites, and there were so many boats racing over the reefs at high speed that it was too dangerous for both of us to look down at once! So we had to take turns — one person watching for crazy boat drivers while the other one looked at the reef!

We were also surrounded by hoards of tourists snorkeling over the reef – many of whom could not swim and were standing on the coral.  For someone who’s committed to coral reef conservation, it was a nightmare.

Underneath all of that pandemonium lay one of the saddest looking coral reefs I’ve ever seen. The water quality was terrible, probably due to the boat traffic and tourists doing goodness knows what in the water. So most of the coral was already dead, sick or dying.

Some people argue that sacrificing some reefs to unsustainable tourism can protect the rest. While that may be so, don’t all reefs deserve some protection? Why can’t the number and activities of boats and people be managed sustainably even on heavily used reefs?

But maybe I’m just spoiled. As my friend pointed out, we were probably the only people in the water that day who realized that there was a problem and didn’t enjoy it. I wonder if the thousands of other tourists in the water that day would have enjoyed it so much if they’d realized that they were loving the reef to death?

(Image 1: The seemingly endless stream of high speed boats racing over the reef at Phi Phi Island, Thailand. Credit: Alison Green/TNC. Image 2: Just a fraction of the hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists on the reef at Monkey Beach, Phi Phi Island each day. Credit: Patrick Christie.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. “call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye”

    The Eagles, The Last Resort

  2. Montanans are famous for telling people that it’s terrible to live here. Maybe the people of Thailand should adopt similar practices.

  3. I guess most tourists share many of the reasons why you are there.

  4. people need to make a living.. if not they will not be able to purchase what is necessary like fuel for fire and start deforestation on land and other necessities for basic life … which is much more damaging … just look at Africa used to be lush land and now most of the trees are gone…

  5. What can we do to help?

  6. Yep..they’ll just breed and wreck it

  7. Yes, while its true that people do need to make a living, that living will disappear if the reefs die. So its really in everyone’s best interests to proect reefs. One way that we can all help protect reefs is to support sustainable tourism activities whereever and whenever we can. In many places now, there are often alternatives that we can chose to minimise our impacts. We can also do our best to reduce our own impacts while we’re there by being careful not to damage coral while we are diving or snorkeling (don’t touch anything if you can avoid it!). Recently, we saw a great example of how to manage mass tourism sustainably on the Great Barrier Reef, where the number of vessels and people visiting an area are stictly limited, as are what they can do there. For example, the large dive boats all have toilets on board and they don’t release sewage into the Marine Park. We visited an area that has hundreds of tourists a day, and the reefs are still healthy and striving. So it is possible to do mass tourism in a sustainble way.

  8. Coral jewelry was an important part of Na Hoku for many years. While we enjoyed sharing the beauty of this unique gemstone with our customers, it became very clear to us that the ever-increasing harvest of coral is detrimental to the delicate ocean environment.

    Treasure-hunting divers, uncontrolled harvesting, pollution and climate change have all contributed to the decimation of our naturally occurring coral beds on the ocean floor surrounding us here in the Hawaiian Islands.

  9. We have always tried to avoid any jewelry that hurts the environment, especially coral. The beauty of it does not outweigh the cost on our natural resources and environment. Using the reef as a jewelry piece just doesn’t work with us, and we support those who would keep the reefs safe from harvesting.

  10. I was there in November 2010 and experienced the same exact thing. The boat actually dropped us off at a spot on the reef where it was almost impossible to get in or out without stepping on the reef, as it was only 2-3 feet below us. Everybody on the over packed boat, that were not scuba divers, walked all over the reef. I can’t believe no instructions were given prior to entering the water. We did not enjoy it either. It was just all about the money for the tour operators.

  11. yau should limit visitors, so stay up to beutiful.
    Our in Tanjung Puting National park, will do so.
    if not then the destruction in front of our eyes.
    I love the ocean, fish, coral and others,
    greetings from BORNEO ………. visit my blog:

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