When asked what her favourite dive destination in the world is, Sylvia Earle - National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist, oceanographer, author, teacher and all-around phenomenal ocean advocate - said:
'Anywhere… 60 years ago.'
It was an unexpected and profound answer to a question most divers love asking other enthusiasts. Sylvia, who is now in her late 80s, has devoted her life's work to our blue planet. A few years after becoming a research fellow at Harvard University, she led the first all-female team of aquanauts on a research mission studying the health effects of prolonged stays in underwater habitats. Since then, she's spent a lifetime witnessing the decline of the world's reefs, water quality and marine life, and through it all, along with many like-minded colleagues, she retained hope that the oceans and seas could and would bounce back, if given the proper protection and care.
Thus, Mission Blue's Hope Spots were born. Hope Spots are designated marine protected areas around the globe, sites where experts have seen special elements deserving of extra preservation. Read on for a few of our favourites…
Misool Resort, Raja Ampat
Hundreds of lushly blanketed islands comprise the regency of Raja Ampat in the eastern part of Indonesia. This remote archipelago is home to Misool Resort, which was founded under the ethos that tourism can be used to fund conservation. In 2005, recognising the damage being done to the biodiverse reefs, Misool Eco Resort partnered with the local community to create the first no-take zones. Now encompassing 300,000 acres, this marine protected area in which the resort lies, prevents all forms of harvesting from the sea, including previously used and incredibly harmful tactics like reef bombing, shark finning, and the collection of turtle eggs. The hugely positive results proved how quickly the underwater world will bounce back if given the proper protection. From 2007 to 2013, the biomass increased by a staggering 250%, and studies showed that there were 25 times more sharks and oceanic mantas inside the protected areas.
Walindi Plantation Resort, Kimbe Bay
Walindi Plantation Resort first opened in 1983, and from the get-go, conservation was at the forefront of their operation. Situated off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, Kimbe Bay is an invaluable Hope Spot that supports 60% of the coral species found in the Indo-Pacific region. Remarkably, over half of all species on Earth live on these reefs. The resort supports multiple scientific organizations and ongoing studies, while also integrating daily dive boats, terrestrial excursions, bird watching (including the area's iconic birds of paradise), volcano treks, snorkelling, WWII history and thermal river swims. The entire bay and surrounding region is home to a distinctive collection of species that rivals the Galapagos in its exclusivity to the area, and we're still able to enjoy, learn and appreciate it all due to the ongoing dedication to its preservation.
Palau Marine Protected Area
340 islands in the western Pacific make up the Republic of Palau. Its ocean region is vast, engulfing a larger surface area than the continental United States. Yet for decades, these waters were systematically overfished with ecologically harmful practices. The tides began to turn in 2009 when Palau became the first nation to fully protect sharks in its waters. Six years later, Palau's President classified 80% of their expansive waters as a no-take marine protected area where extractive areas such as fishing, mining and drilling are prohibited. However, in the other 20%, local fishermen and communities still rely heavily on the sea for their livelihoods, so efforts were also made to teach, implement and regulate sustainable fishing practices.
Galapagos Hope Spot
Famous for its vast shark and ray congregations, schooling hammerheads, and diverse range of animals (both marine and terrestrial), the Galapagos Islands - which are located more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador - are a bucket-list destination for many travellers. What makes these islands so iconic is how pristine they are. An expedition to this remote archipelago, made up of 21 volcanic islands, actually wouldn't look too different today from a century ago. This conservancy is thanks to its early and strict designation as a marine protected area that safeguards the abundance of thriving life. Aside from providing arguably the best and most exciting dive holidays, the Galapagos stand as proof that when marine habitats are cared for and protected, they will be preserved for generations to come.
Laamu Atoll, Maldives
As the sole resort in Laamu Atoll, Six Senses puts conservation and sustainability at the heart of their operation, and they are perfectly situated to support myriad marine habitats. There are the seagrass meadows that are safe havens to juvenile fish and feeding grounds for green sea turtles as well as absorbing untold amounts of carbon. There's the highly diverse and startling healthy old growth coral reefs which escaped the intense 2016 bleaching event that affected most of the Maldives' reefs. Then there's the mangrove systems that act as fish nurseries, give shelter to migratory birds and also perform carbon sink duties. Six Senses realised early on that these habitats required respect and protection to prevent them from being ruined. And now, after more than ten years of research, conservation and outreach they are a beacon of hope and a vision of what change towards the better looks like.