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Most Impressive Coral Reefs

(TRAVEL) / 14 October 2011

(An extract from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights)

Coral reefs cover less than one per cent of the world’s oceans but support incredible biodiversity. Pull on your snorkel, take a deep breath and check out these incredible underwater gardens

1. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Yes, it’s an obvious choice, but the Great Barrier Reef is popular for good reason. The world’s largest marine park stretches more than 2300km along the clear, shallow waters off the northeast coast of Australia. An extraordinary variety of species thrives in its tropical waters, including 400 types of coral, 1500 species of fish and 400 types of mollusc. An armada of tour boats shuttles snorkellers and divers to and from shore, providing myriad services and tours. Witness whales on their annual migration, car-sized codfish and eerie shipwrecks at this Unesco World Heritage site.

2. Andros Barrier Reef, Bahamas

The crystal waters surrounding Andros, the least populous of the Bahaman islands, form the world’s third-largest reef system and offer truly unique dive experiences. The corals extend for 225km along the island’s east coast and run to the edge of the dramatically named Tongue of the Ocean, an oceanic shelf that plunges from the 35m shallows to a pulse-quickening depth of 1800m. The experience is mesmerising, as is the opportunity to explore the wondrous coral caves of the Petrified Forest. Closer to shore, lagoon and mangrove areas offer less adrenaline-fuelled dives, rich in groupers, snappers and a variety of sponges.

3. New Caledonia Barrier Reef, New Caledonia

Coral reefs come in many shapes and sizes and the Pacific nation of New Caledonia boasts a sizeable double-barrier system; it’s 1300km in length and surrounds the main island of Grand Terre. Lying up to 30km from the shore, the reef forms a huge lagoon containing a staggering array of marine life. Strap on your snorkel, take the plunge and you’ll be confronted by species including triggerfish, tuna, sharks and tortoises, set against a backdrop of phosphorescent corals. Many species are endemic and Unesco considers this an area of outstanding natural importance — it placed the reef on the World Heritage list in 2008.


4. Raja Ampat Islands, West Papua, Indonesia

Lying off the coast of Sorong in West Papua, Raja Ampat is at the heart of the so-called ‘coral triangle’, encompassing the reefs of Indonesia, the Philippines and Northern Australia. The dazzling reefs that flourish here are considered some of the world’s most spectacular, supporting a mind-boggling 1200 species of fish and 600 species of coral, some 75 per cent of all known variants. So diverse is the ecosystem that one diver set a world record for the number of fish species seen in an hour — an astonishing 283. Add in multifarious sea fans, sponges and anthias fish of every possible colour and this is a destination without compare.

5. Caroline Atoll, Republic of Kiribati

The South Pacific is the ultimate desert-island destination. The Republic of Kiribati is a nation of 32 atolls and one solitary coral island, so isolated from civilisation that this is one of the world’s most remote regions. It’s also the location for an extraordinary lagoon reef. Caroline Atoll, 4200km east of the capital, Tarawa, is a tiny group of islets measuring just 13km long and 2.5km wide. The atoll’s seclusion has allowed it to remain pristine and the reef blooms with lush corals and vivid species such as giant clams, coconut crabs and the Napoleon wrasse.

6. Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles

Aldabra is the world’s second-largest atoll. Its location means there are no permanent residents and few tourists, but reef lovers might want to add it to their hit list. Surrounding the atoll are a series of shallow flats, slopes and deeper-lying reef systems, rich in pristine corals, fish and invertebrates. This bionetwork remains self-sufficient due to its protection from human interference, which has prevented stocks from depletion. In addition to the reef ecosystem, Aldabra supports species such as hammerhead sharks, barracuda, and over 150,000 endemic giant tortoises.

7. Belize Barrier Reef, Belize

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of the greater Mesoamerican reef system that extends from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula down to Honduras. The 300km length that follows Belize’s Caribbean coastline shelters 100 types of coral and 500 species of fish.

Scuba diving is the main draw and the reef has some of the best sites in the world including the Blue Hole, a 300m-wide, 124m-deep sinkhole. In 1996 Unesco bestowed World Heritage status on the reef, but global warming, pollution and uncontrolled tourism are threatening its health.


8. Komodo National Park, Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia

Mention the name ‘Komodo’ and the mind races with images of the fearsome-looking dragon, the gigantic carnivore synonymous with Indonesia’s islands. So it’s no surprise to find that this chap is the star of the show in the aptly named Komodo National Park. But drag yourself away from the lizards and into the ocean and you’ll find something equally extraordinary. The temperate waters support an iridescent network of reefs, abundant with the flamboyant life of sea horses, clown frogfish, blue-ringed octopuses and delicate tunicates. The contrast with the mean old Komodo dragon couldn’t be greater.

9. Abrolhos Bank, Brazil

The oceans are earth’s final unexplored frontier. Brazil’s Abrolhos Bank, lying in shallow water near the southern coast of Bahia state, has long been of world importance due to the endemic species of mushroom-shaped corals. But in 2008 researchers discovered new reef structures that doubled the size of a system that was already the largest in the southern Atlantic. The reefs around the archipelago are now known to cover an area of 46,000 sq km and harbour previously unknown species of corals, molluscs and fish.

10. Røst Reef, Norway

High inside the Arctic Circle, Røst Reef was only discovered in 2002 and is the world’s largest known cold-water coral system, covering an area of 120 sq km and lying at a depth of 400m. Røst is an island in the Lofoten archipelago, 200km southwest from Tromsø. Although the reef might be too far and too deep for the average diver, there are other options. Nutrient-rich currents flow around the islands, giving rise to a world rich in corals, wrecks and diverse marine life.


An extract from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate SIGHTS

UNDERWATER GARDENS: (top) The Great Barrier Reef, Australia; (inset) a diver inspects starfish found on a coral reef at Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Pacific Ocean;  branching corals at the Lesser Sunda Islands, Indo-Pacific, Indonesia

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