By freedivinguae

Saving The Great Barrier Reef: Keeping The World’s Largest Reef System Alive

he Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s natural treasure, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the largest living structure on the planet.

Sprawling at 344,000 square kilometers, the ecosystem is composed of 3,000 individual reef system and houses a variety of marine plants and animals including 4,000 species of mollusks, 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of sponge, and 300 species of hard corals.

Endangered species such as the dugong (sea cow) and the large green turtle call the Reef their home. To humans, the site provides billions of dollars in revenue from commercial fishing and tourism.

In 1981, UNESCO declared the Great Barrier Reef as a world heritage area. However, its crystal blue waters and bustling wildlife are being threatened by several environmental issues.

In the past three decades, the World Wildlife Fund or WWF reports that the Reef has lost half of its coral cover while pollution has caused an outbreak of deadly starfish. Global warming is also killing the Reef, causing massive coral bleaching that can potentially wipe out life underwater.

Saving The Great Barrier Reef

Every year, the governments of Australia and Queensland allocate approximately AU$200 million to care for the marine ecosystem and address issues that threaten its wildlife. On its website, the Australian government has detailed steps it has taken to protect the Reef by allocating funds and efforts to address individual threats to the heritage site.

The government has even doubled the funding to control the population of crown-of-thorns starfish that preys upon coral polyps. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority said that the venomous predators had caused the decline of almost half of the coral cover between 1985 to 2012.

The Department of Environment and Energy has also reported that since 2014, the government has banned port-related capital dredge within the protected natural heritage area.

In January, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced AU$60-million protection plan to save the Great Barrier Reef. The fund will cover new measures that include restoring vegetation around reef catchment (to prevent erosion), develop ways to make corals more resilient through science, and employ field workers who warn about coral bleaching.

“While [the reef] is facing increasing threats, we intend to remain leaders in reef management,” said Turnbull.

Global Warming: Biggest Threat To The Great Barrier Reef

However, a more pressing problem threatening the Great Barrier Reef and its inhabitants is climate change. The rising temperatures around the world due to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing massive coral bleaching.

“We’ve seen half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef killed by climate change in just two years,” stated Mark Eakin, who authored a recent study on the largest reef system. “This study shows that the coral reefs that have been least affected by heat stress in the past are more sensitive to heat stress than we realized. It also shows climate change threatens the diversity that is the hallmark of coral reefs.”

To address the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian government is in the process of meeting its 2020 emission reduction target by investing in new technology, investing in soil carbon, cleaning up power stations, revegetation, increasing energy efficiency, and more. The country has also pledged $200 million to the Green Climate Fund in the hopes of creating a new climate change agreement that will involve countries around the world.

However, controlling climate change should be a global effort. Eakin, a coordinator for the Coral Reef Watch, added that unless humans are able to control the increasing temperature in the ocean, the Great Barrier Reef and the coral reefs around the world could be destroyed.



By freedivinguae

Microsoft’s underwater data center has live fish cams

Microsoft agrees with Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid. It’s better down where it’s wetter.

The company’s new undersea data center off the coast of Scotland includes a couple of underwater cameras that give web viewers a glimpse of the subsurface environs.

“We installed two video cameras on the outside of the pressure vessel to observe environmental conditions near our datacenter,” says Microsoft. You could use the feeds to marvel at the engineering behind the data center or you could just enjoy the soothing view of silvery fish dancing through the water. And, gosh, there are a lot of fish down there.

The experimental data center is part of Project Natick, which is testing the feasibility of subsea data centers powered by renewable energy.

Watch this: Microsoft wants to put your data underwater

“The vision of operating containerized datacenters offshore near major population centers anticipates a highly interactive future requiring data resources located close to users,” says Microsoft.

It’s great to contemplate the implications of the technology, but it’s also okay if you just want to kick back, mix yourself a Pina Colada and follow the fish as they explore Microsoft’s creation.

By freedivinguae

Underwater Photographer Spends 20 Years Capturing Photos of Microscopic Plankton

Ryo Minemizu Underwater Photographer

Larval fish of ‘Dendrochirus.’

Japanese underwater photographer Ryo Minemizu has dedicated his 20-year career to capturing some of the smallest organisms in the sea—plankton. Shooting primarily in the shadow of Mount Fuji in the Osezaki sea, Minemizu goes deep underwater to discover the beauty and diversity of these microscopic creatures.

His dedication sees him spending two to eight hours underwater every day, where he sets about photographing these tiny organisms. As they typically measure between 2 mm and 40 mm, Minemizu has had to develop special techniques to achieve his incredible photographs. Through trial and error, Minemizu developed the Black Water Dive, a night dive with underwater lighting to bring out the best of larval plankton.


“Plankton are intriguing and beautiful creatures. They symbolize how precious life is by their tiny existence,” the photographer writes. “I wanted other people to see them as they are in the sea–that was my motivation for beginning to shoot plankton underwater, which is quite a challenge. Most plankton are so small and their movements are hard to predict. I have devoted my past 20 years to presenting their tiny figures, colors, and textures to capture their vivid beauty.”

Minemizu’s photographs are full of detail. The plankton are so complex that it’s difficult to believe how small they actually are in size. Through his skilled and carefully thought out marine life photography, Minemizu is able to capture the vibrant colors and anatomical complexity of the plankton, which are some of the most abundant organisms on earth. And in doing so, he reminds us of just how vital these often unseen creatures are to the food chain.

After years of focusing on the scientific community, Minemizu is bringing his brilliant photography to a wider audience. His touring exhibition, Jewels in the Night Sea, opens at the Canon Gallery Giza in Tokyo on August 20, 2018, before moving to Nagoya and Osaka. Ryo Minemizu prints are available for sale via Fineprint Photo.

For over 20 years, underwater photographer Ryo Minemizu has challenged himself to capture the beauty of plankton.

Underwater photography by Ryo Minemizu

Batesian mimicry, larval fish of ‘Soleichthys.’ Body length: 20mm

Ryo Minemizu Underwater Photographer

Unknown a larval ‘Gymnapogon.’ Body length: 35mm

Larval Tripod fish by Ryo Minemizu

Larval Tripod fish.

Photo of Marine Life by Ryo Minemizu

‘Megalopa’ larva of ‘Eplumula phalangium.’

Ryo Minemizu Underwater Photographer

Larval fish of ‘Hoplichthys.’ Body length: 30mm

In order to photograph these microscope creatures, Minemizu developed the Black Water Dive, a night diving technique using special lights to illuminate the plankton.

Underwater photography by Ryo Minemizu

‘Hyperiidea’ on ‘Nausithoe’ jellyfish. Jellyfish umbrella width: 20mm.

Underwater photography by Ryo Minemizu

‘Megalopa’ larva of deepwater carrier crab.

Ryo Minemizu Underwater Photographer

Larval fish of ‘Liopropoma.’

Photo of Marine Life by Ryo Minemizu

‘Tornaria’ larva of Acorn worms

larval Barred soapfish by Ryo Minemizu

Larval Barred soapfish.

Photo of Marine Life by Ryo Minemizu

Larva of ‘Pleurobranchaea’

Ryo Minemizu: Website | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Ryo Minemizu.



By freedivinguae

Year’s best in underwater photography revealed

Underwater Photos of 2018

Rodney Bursiel won the grand prize in the 2018 Scuba Diving Magazine underwater photography contest for this upside-down photo showing a whale just below the surface. (Rodney Bursiel / Scuba Diving Magazine)

From a clownflsh fluttering off the coast of Indonesia to a tiny octopus clinging to a glass tube, the undersea world provides no shortage of incredible sights.

Scuba Diving Magazine collects many of these stunning scenes every year by holding an annual contest seeking the best of the best in underwater photography.

The results of this year’s contest have been announced. They provide an incredible tour of the deep-sea world from Egypt to Mexico and everywhere in-between.

The grand prize went to Rodney Bursiel for an upside-down picture of a whale thrashing just below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Tonga.

Bursiel said he encountered a mother whale and her calf after a day of searching for whales from a boat. He said the mother would watch on from a distance as the calf surfaced to breathe and went near the boat to get a closer look at it.

Prizes were also awarded in specific categories for photos taken on compact cameras, wide-angle shots, macro photography and conceptual pictures

Scroll down to see a few of our favourite photos from the contest, or check out the full selection of winners and finalists.

Underwater Photos of 2018

Yap Katumbal finished second in the compact camera category for this photograph of a two-inch-long coconut octopus curled up inside a glass tube at the bottom of a dive site in Indonesia’s Lembeh Strait. (Yap Katumbal / Scuba Diving Magazine)

Underwater Photos of 2018

Tom St. George was awarded third place in the wide-angle category for his shot of reddish-orange water in the Cenote Carwash near Tulum, Mexico. He says the water’s unusual tint comes from runoff water that has been stained by decaying leaves. (Tom St. George / Scuba Diving Magazine)

Underwater Photos of 2018

Christian Vizi used a champion Chilean freediver as a model for this photograph, which he took near Quintana Roo, Mexico. He says he wanted to create the illusion that the diver was entering a magical world. Vizi was awarded third place in the conceptual category. (Christian Vizi / Scuba Diving Magazine)

Underwater photos of 2018

While finishing off a wall dive near Bunaken, Indonesia, Christian Bachmann came across a fast-moving clownfish. He says “patience and a little luck” were required to get this photo, which finished second in the macro photography category. (Christian Bachmann / Scuba Diving Magazine)


By freedivinguae

New Caledonia Is Taking New Steps To Protect Their Coral Reefs

Coral reef slope with damselfish and shark in background at ChesterfieldBASTIEN PREUSS

On the northeast side of Australia sits the archipelago of New Caledonia, a French territory in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Originally occupied by the Lapita people, the area was re-christened New Caledonia by Captain James Cook based on its resemblance to parts of Scotland. After a series of colonizing efforts, Napolean III took possession of New Caledonia in 1854 and it became an overseas French territory in 1946. While New Caledonia has been exploited for forced labor, sugar cane cultivation, and nickel mining, it has managed to maintain some of the healthiest and diverse coral reefs in the world.

New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)KEVIN CONNOR, PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS

Earlier this week, on August 14, the government of New Caledonia voted to protect 100% of their reefs by establishing four Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that cover 28,000 square kilometers and extend to remote areas that serve as havens for seabirds,  sea turtles, and humpback whales. New Caledonia joins the Phillipines and Thailand in taking protective measures to conserve coral reefs threatened by commercial fishing, tourism, and global climate change.

The first steps towards these conservation efforts were taken in 2008, when New Caledonia’s lagoons were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2014 with the founding of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, which covers New Caledonia’s entire 1.3 million square kilometer Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ). Now, in the International Year of the Reef, new protections have been allotted across the Astrolabe, Pétrie, Chesterfield, and Bellona reefs as well as Entrecasteaux reef, which is part of the original UNESCO World Heritage site. The government of New Caledonia hopes that leaving these reefs undisturbed by human activity will help the lush biodiversity within these coral reefs thrive.


Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommends that nations strive to protect 30% of their EEZs, these new restrictions represent only 2.15% of New Caledonia’s EEZ. Nonetheless, they help protect 1,700 species of fish, 473 species of coral, and several species of marine turtles, sea snakes, sea snails, seabirds, and marine mammals. With drastic reductions in ocean wilderness areas worldwide and the capacity for MPAs to facilitate recovery and resilience to ecosystems threatened by climate change, these new protections demonstrate how the actions of a small entity, like New Caledonia, can help change the way we use ocean resources.



By freedivinguae

Beached dolphins ‘should not be returned to the sea’

Well-meaning beach-goers are being warned not to return beached dolphins to the sea.

Dead dolphins were found on two Pembrokeshire beaches after people tried to refloat them.

RSPCA Cymru said cetaceans often move on to land because they are seriously ill and in some cases, to die.

Returning them to the sea can be “hugely counter-productive” because it can cause further injury or death, the charity explained.

‘Wrong thing to do’

A dead striped dolphin was found on Coppet Hall beach in the Saundersfoot area on 5 August.

The charity said people had tried to refloat it while it was in an unwell, thin and emaciated state.

Two days later, a sick dolphin was found dead on Newgale beach after several attempts were made to return it to the water.

Ellie West, RSPCA animal collection officer, said: “It is a very distressing fact that often these animals are found on land with severe welfare problems, or have moved there to die.

“Returning them to the sea is not helping them, however well-intentioned someone may be.

“If anyone sees a beached cetacean, they should ring the RSPCA. We can then do whatever we can to help – or at least alleviate the animal’s suffering as quickly as possible.”

She said there was also a risk of people contracting a zoonotic disease from handling them.


By freedivinguae


As the global coral crisis continues to unfold, once shocking news has become commonplace: Case in point, Australian scientists now report that coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has fallen sharply in all three sections of the reef for the first time in 35 years of continuous monitoring.

Their recently completed annual survey follows the back-to-back bleaching events of 2016–17 that killed off half of the Great Barrier Reef’s corals. After surveying 50 reefs in the Great Barrier Reef system between September of 2017 and May of 2018, researchers at the government-funded Australian Institute of Marine Science found that mean coral cover had fallen from 22 percent to 14 percent in the central section of the reef over the past year, and from 33 percent to 25 percent in the southern section. Reefs in the northern section were not surveyed, but reports from aerial surveys showed that mean coral cover had plunged to just 10 percent in 2017, according to the AIMS report.

Now scientists are questioning whether those reefs—which also face threats from cyclones, pollution, and predatory crown-of-thorns starfish—will be able to bounce back, given that bleaching events occur with increasing frequency as greenhouse gas emissions accelerate climate change. (When ocean temperatures exceed corals’ tolerance, the symbiotic algae that supply their food and color in exchange for shelter turn toxic and are expelled. Deprived of nutrition, corals turn white and can die unless waters cool.)

“The geographic scale of recent bleaching means that breeding populations of corals have been decimated over large areas, reducing the potential sources of larvae to recolonize reefs over the next years,” the AIMS scientists wrote in their report. “It is unprecedented in the 30+ year time series that all three regions of the [Great Barrier Reef] have declined and that many reefs have now very low coral cover.”

Separately, new research by coral scientist Terry Hughes and his team indicates that “recovery will be slow and painful and will likely be mostly local and it won’t go back to the same system,” as he told attendees at the annual meeting of the Australian Coral Reef Society in May.

“The barrier reef has just gone through one hell of a natural selection event,” he said. “To me, the bleaching is a game changer. It’s a new system.”

Hughes and his colleagues laid “recruitment panels” along the length of the Great Barrier Reef to collect coral larvae. They then retrieved the panels in January of 2018 to determine how many larvae had successfully spawned and settled on reefs where they would grow into new coral colonies, a process known as recruitment.

“The amount of recruitment this last season is a tiny, tiny percentage of the normal level of recruitment, which is directly related to the loss of adult brood stock,” Hughes, the director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, told the gathering of coral scientists in Exmouth, Australia.

That means there are far fewer corals to recolonize devastated reefs. In the course of their fieldwork, the researchers also surveyed the number of juvenile corals. “The juveniles seemed to have survived better than adults,” he said. “In most places we’ve looked, the juvenile density is half what it used to be.”

Hugh Sweatman, a senior research scientist at AIMS and the leader of the organization’s Long-Term Monitoring Program, said in an email that healthy coral cover could be considered 75 percent or greater, though that is “quite rare in my 40 years’ experience.”

He noted that, over thousands of years, coral ecosystems have faced ongoing disturbance from cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish infestations, and sediment runoff that blocks sunlight. “Thus a reef can be ‘healthy’ in terms of retaining ecosystem functions and capacity to recover, but if you survey it soon after a disturbance, the coral cover will be low,” Sweatman said. “The more revealing measure of reef health and ecosystem function is the rate at which coral cover returns.”

With some 3,300 individual reefs spread over 133,000 square miles of ocean along 1,400 miles of Australia’s northeast coast, the Great Barrier Reef, as Sweatman notes, “is a big place, and few disturbances affect the entire area.”

Yet the back-to-back bleaching events of 2016–17 struck two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. The southern third was spared extensive bleaching only by the propitious appearance of a cyclone that cooled waters during the first bleaching event. Storms, meanwhile, are increasingly intense and causing more damage to coral reefs. Then there are the outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish that eat corals.

All of which “means that the intervals between the acute disturbances decreases—less time for recovery to occur,” Sweatman said. “At the same time, coastal development often leads to more sediment and pollutants, which slow the process of recovery (plus there are coral diseases and sub-lethal temperatures, which may also slow recovery). So greater loss of coral must be made good in shorter times as recovery rates slow … they all point to lower coral cover.”

Hughes and other coral scientists have repeatedly said the only long-term hope for the world’s coral reefs is a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

“Personally, I am not totally pessimistic,” Sweatman said. “In the short term, the north and central [Great Barrier Reef] reefs may substantially recover. But in the longer term the outlook is very poor unless there are dramatic changes.”

For Hughes’ part, “I’m scraping the barrel here looking for some sources of optimism,” he told his fellow coral scientists at the conference in May. “The glass is still half full. About 51 or 52 percent of the corals that were alive two years ago are still out there.”

“So my final take-home point is that we need to look after these billion survivors, and I don’t think there’s much we can do in terms of restoring them based on growing corals in aquariums,” he added.





By freedivinguae

Whale Sharks of Isla Mujeres

Swimming with a whale shark – the ocean’s largest fish is something that seems to be on many diver’s bucket lists. These animals can reach up to lengths of over forty feet/twelve meters, and weigh over 41,000 pounds, so getting up close and personal with just one of these gentle giants is something truly humbling. Imagine now, the ability to immerse yourself within not one, but hundreds of migrating whale sharks. Sounds too good to be true, right? If you’ve been looking for the opportunity to swim alongside feeding whale sharks, breaching mantas, and potential encounters of even more marine species, then the waters off Isla Mujeres are where you should be looking.

Freediver Sarah Barrett swimming beneath a whale shark. Image by Amanda Cotton
Freediver Sarah Barrett swimming beneath a whale shark. Image by Amanda Cotton

Every year the Yucatan Peninsula-specifically the waters surrounding the state of Quintana Roo become a feeding ground for hundreds of migrating whale sharks. The sharks are there to feed on a massive spawn of bonito (small Atlantic Tuna) eggs that are present from May through September. A Cotton Photo (ACP), founded by underwater photographer and Women Diver’s Hall of Fame member Amanda Cotton, has been heading down to Isla Mujeres for the last eleven years to partake in this incredible gathering.  As full disclosure, as well as being a writer and videographer for, I’m also a team leader for ACP on this expedition.

Black/White up close image of a whale shark filter feeding
Black/White up close image of a whale shark filter feeding

ACP’s Whale Shark Expedition, strategically scheduled around the lunar cycle each year to maximize the chance of ideal encounters, is a total of six days-two for travel and four days on the water. Traveling to Isla is a breeze (see below for travel info.) There is a team briefing the night you arrive on the island to hear the rules/guidelines of the coming days, as well as meet the rest of the group. The mornings start with a 7:30am launch time from Playa Norte, where you wade out into the water to meet the boats. For this reason, I recommend bringing along a dry bag for your belongings you wish to keep dry. It’s about an hour ride out to the stomping grounds. As you get closer to where the whale sharks are feeding, you will hear the captains in the surrounding area staying in radio contact in order to let each other know where the sharks are.

You’ll know you’ve found the feeding grounds when you glance over the side of the boat and see nothing but countless dorsal fins breaching the surface. This is a truly spectacular sight to see. The only thing better is the first moment you enter the water and realize you must keep your head on a constant swivel as to avoid being bumped into by a whale shark. These guys are the size of a school bus, so they’re not stopping for anyone! I will admit some days are better than others out on the water, but any day where I lose track of the number of whale sharks is a good day in my eyes. I think at one point, with my Paralenz pointed in one direction, I counted 6-7 whale sharks in the frame. Another amazing occurrence is when you come upon a whale shark feeding in an upright or vertical position known as static feeding, or what the locals refer to as “Coke bottling.” A shark will sit in this position for anywhere from a few minutes to over twenty, constantly sucking water in and filtering out the eggs. Just remember to keep an eye out behind you as well, because more often than not, there’s another whale shark you don’t see swimming right behind you!

Manta Ray feeding alongside the whale sharks
Manta Ray feeding alongside the whale sharks

Rules & Regulations

In the past years, the Mexican government has put in place some rules in order to protect the migrating whale sharks, as well as keep the environment safe for tourists. The first of these rules is that there is no scuba with the sharks. Freediving/snorkeling is the only way to get into the water with these animals, which is more than suitable seeing as how they spend most of their time on the surface. You must wear some form of flotation device, which, when traveling with ACP, means either a wetsuit or a skin of some kind. There are of course life jackets on the boat if you feel more comfortable wearing one, but it is not required if you’re wearing a suit.

Up close view of the mouth of a whale shark
Up close view of the mouth of a whale shark

When it comes to photography, lights and strobes of any kind are not allowed. Again, the sharks spend most of their time on the surface on the water so there is more than enough ambient light for photos. As most other wildlife trips go, the touching of these animals at any time is prohibited. The captains do a pretty good job of making sure that everyone stays at least a meter away from the sharks at all times.

Later in the afternoon, you will start to notice the number of boats lessoning, and the whale sharks, after gorging themselves on eggs, will soon begin to dive down to the depths to digest the day’s haul. All boats must leave the area by 2 pm. Then all that’s left is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the boat ride back to Isla Mujeres.

ACP group after a day on the water
ACP group after a day on the water


What You Need to Know


You will be flying into Cancun International Airport. If arriving on the trip’s official start/end dates, ACP arranges a shuttle that will take you from the airport to the ferry terminal. The Ultramar ferry runs every half hour from 5am-midnight. Tickets can be purchased in front of the ferry terminal inside their shop. I recommend buying a round-trip ticket, as the ticket does not expire. The price of a round-trip ticket will cost you approximately 300 pesos, or roughly 17 USD/14 EUR, just remember to keep your return ticket if you purchase one! After the 20-25 minute ferry ride over to Isla Mujeres most hotels are within walking distance if you are staying anywhere between the terminal and Playa Norte, however, a taxi stand is conveniently located to the left once you exit the terminal.

Where to Stay

The great thing about ACP is the hassle of finding/dealing with a hotel is taken care of. Hotel arrangements are made ahead of time and details are sent to you on a series of multiple emails that let you know where you are staying as well as maps to help you visualize. As it gets closer to the trip dates, you will also receive emails with reminders, last minute details, transportation information, etc.


Another great thing about Mexico is their use of both the Mexican peso and the US Dollar. You can use whichever is more convenient for you, however since the exchange rate is currently 18.63 MXN/1 USD/.86 EUR, if you either convert your currency to pesos ahead of time (i.e. airport, banks, ferry terminal) or choose to be charged in pesos with your credit card you will end up saving money in the long run.

Where to Eat & Drink

There are many restaurant options available on Isla, especially on the main street Miguel Hidalgo, located near Playa Norte. This is the street you’ll find most other vacationers as there are shops, bars, convenience stores, and of course restaurants. You can choose from Mexican, Italian, American, and almost everything in between. There are countless little bars on this strip for drinks/dancing, but my favorite would have to be Kokonuts and Faynes. They have great people, 2 for 1 happy hour specials, and music and dancing at night!


If you’re feeling adventurous, there are golf cart rentals at some of the hotels on Isla, and since the island is so small it doesn’t take much time at all to get from one end to the other! There is an “Observation deck” called Mirador Océanico on the south side of the island which has incredible views, various sculptures for photos, and little shops and stores around that area. There are also restaurants along the south end as well. Check out Casa de los Sueños for great barbecue and an even better view!

For more information about this expedition, check out or shoot them an email at

View from La Casa de los Sueños, south side Isla Mujeres



By freedivinguae

Breakthrough as New Caledonia votes to protect coral reef

New Caledonia is home to thousands of marine species including dugongs and nesting green sea turtles.
 The coral reef in New Caledonia is home to thousands of marine species including dugongs and nesting green sea turtles. Photograph: Marc Le Chelard/AFP/Getty Images

New Caledonia has agreed to tougher protections around a huge swathe of some of the world’s last near-pristine coral reefs, in a move conservationists hailed as a major breakthrough.

The Pacific nation, a French overseas territory, is home to a rich array of wildlife including 2.5 million seabirds and more than 9,300 marine species such as dugongs and nesting green sea turtles, many of which thrive in and around remote zones off the island nation’s coast.

The archipelago boasts some of the world’s healthiest reefs, including Astrolabe, Petrie, Chesterfield and Bellona, which are considered exceptional examples of coral ecosystems.

After years of work, the New Caledonia government on Tuesday voted to set up marine protected areas (MPAs) surrounding the reefs, and to strengthen an existing one around Entrecasteaux, which is already a Unesco world heritage site.

The move will see 28,000 square kilometres (10,810 square miles) of waters safeguarded from commercial and industrial fishing and other exploitation, helping conserve habitats and allow marine life to feed and reproduce undisturbed.

Tourist activity around the reefs is also set to be more rigorously controlled.

According to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, New Caledonia had 27,000 visits in the first three months of the year, making up about 6% of trips to the South Pacific region.

“This is the kind of leadership we need to see in coral reef conservation and we applaud it,” said John Tanzer, the head of oceans for WWF International.

“With good management, these marine protected areas will help maintain fish populations and ecosystem health that will build the reef’s resilience to the impacts of climate change in future.”

Christophe Chevillon, head of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy in New Caledonia, which helped draft the plans, said it would elevate the territory as a global leader in ocean protection, but more could still be done.

“Although we believe this to be a major breakthrough, we are convinced that New Caledonia can still go further and lead the way for other Pacific countries,” he said.

“In fact, the 28,000 square kilometres protected only represents 2% of the Coral Sea Natural Park.”

The MPAs fall within New Caledonia’s enormous 1.3 million-square kilometre Coral Sea Natural Park, which was established in 2014 and covers the country’s entire exclusive economic zone.

Protections here, such as limiting shipping and banning shark, turtle and whale fishing, are not as comprehensive as under an MPA.

Coral reefs, which only cover 0.1% of the ocean’s surface but support a quarter of known marine species, are on the decline globally, threatened by climate change, pollution and overfishing. WWF estimates the world has already lost about half of its shallow water coral reefs.


By freedivinguae

85 meters: Freediving national record set by Santa Cruz native

The timer called out the seconds: “Plus 7, plus 8, plus 9, plus 10. … Plus 20.”

Shelby Eisenberg had just 10 seconds to let go of the gray tube bobbing off the coast of Grand Cayman and plunge into the depths of the Caribbean. Just 10 seconds to begin her attempt to go deeper than any American woman had ever dove while using only the oxygen in her lungs.

Shelby Eisenberg, a Santa Cruz native, uses a monofin to propel herself 85 meters down into the Carribean Sea off Grand Cayman on Sunday on her way to setting the women's United States constant weight freediving record. (Joakim Hjelm Photography/ contributed )
Shelby Eisenberg, a Santa Cruz native, uses a monofin to propel herself 85 meters down into the Caribbean off Grand Cayman on Sunday on her way to setting the women’s United States constant weight freediving record. (Joakim Hjelm Photography/ contributed ) 

Her window was closing, creating more pressure on her than she would feel at her target depth of 85 meters, under 22,400 gallons of water. Yet to go that far, it was imperative she remain calm.

“I knew it was my last chance, my last day. I had to take a couple of relaxed breaths,” Eisenberg, a Santa Cruz native, said. “I just had to tell myself — because I can stay there breathing all day long — I had to tell myself, ‘OK, you’re ready. One more breath won’t make you more ready.’”

Eisenberg put her hands up, then she dove down, a graceful mermaid leveraging her monofin through the clear, cobalt water. When she reached her target depth, she snatched a tag off a weight tethered to a rope, then sped her way back to the surface. As she emerged into the glorious, oxygen-rich air, the smile on her face said it all.

She had just set the national record for a controlled weight freedive, ending a six-year-plus monopoly on the mark held by Ashley Futral Chapman of North Carolina. Chapman held the record at various depths before setting her personal best, 84 meters, in September 2016.

After breaching the surface, Eisenberg still had to wait another 30 seconds to go through a brief series of tests and have the judges confirm her record, but she wasn’t worried.

“I knew I had it because I felt completely in control,” Eisenberg, 27, said. “I had a coach at the surface smiling back at me and judges smiling back at me, so I knew I was OK. It was just, ‘OK, don’t get too excited.’”

She stayed calm. The same couldn’t be said for the judges and safety personnel who witnessed the feat Sunday at the Deja Blue International Diving Festival. They circled around her and broke into whoops and splashes once the judges flashed the white cards that signaled the dive was legitimate.

Francesca Koe of San Francisco, who is well-acquainted with Eisenberg because of their Bay Area connection, was among the three judges in the water that day.

“Everyone has aspirations and dreams, we just didn’t realize she was training for weeks on end since January trying to do this,” Koe said. “We were all on pins and needles. She looked super strong and super clean.”

The record-setting dive came as a surprise to many. Eisenberg, who goes by the nickname “Shell,” has only been freediving for six years and competing for four.

A former Westside resident — her parents Sandy and Geoff still live there — she attended the University of Hawaii after graduating from Kirby School in 2009. There she began experimenting with freediving as a way to get a better look at reef and sealife. In 2012, she took her first freediving course (similar to SCUBA diving, participants must be certified) and she entered her first competition in 2014. Last year Eisenberg became a professional freediving instructor for Performance Freediving International, a company that trains and certifies people in the sport, including the cast of the upcoming “Avatar” sequel.

“It’s something that’s always been really difficult for me to describe and put words to,” Eisenberg said of the freediving experience. “You’re deep in the ocean, deep in nature. Even though there are a lot of people on the dive, there’s a feeling that it’s just you in the water, and it seems to get clearer as I go deeper.

“There’s not a lot of emotion down there, just peace.”

Though she had previously set two records for pool diving, which is measured by length, her personal-best ocean depth before arriving in the Grand Cayman last week was 74 meters, which many believed did not put her in striking distance of Chapman’s mark.

Over the course of the weeklong competition, she drew closer and closer. Then, in her last dive before setting the record, she missed an attempt. Knowing she had just one more dive before returning to her home in Hawaii, however, Eisenberg decided to go for the gusto.

“Shel’s 85-meter dive was incredible on so many levels,” John Hullverson, president of USA Freediving, said in a statement. “Not only was she able to withstand the nine atmospheres of pressure her body was under at that depth, but for her to endure the hypoxia, increased lactic acid buildup in her muscles and urge to breathe throughout the nearly three-minute dive — and then complete her surface protocol so cleanly — is a testament to what kind of shape she’s in.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last national record for Shel.”

Eisenberg doesn’t think so either. She’d like to tack on another meter or two this year alone. But she has no intention of plateauing there.

While 104 meters is the women’s constant-weight world record, only a couple of U.S. men have reached 100 meters, and no U.S. women. Eisenberg would like to be the first, but she said she wouldn’t mind if someone else beat her to it.

“One hundred meters is the life goal, but I’m not in a rush,” she said. “It’s easy to get excited and that’s how people get hurt. Of course, it’s on my mind. I’ve got to get to 90 meters before I get to 100, and that’s a little more on my mind. … Then we’ll see where we go from there.”

Her motto now is the same as it was when time was running out on her record attempt: Take a breath, then take the plunge.

Contact Julie Jag at 831-706-3257.

For the Record: Freediving marks

Constant Weight

World: 129 meters, Alexey Molchanov, Russia, 2017

World women’s: 104 meters, Alessia Zecchini, Italy, 2017

U.S. men’s: 101 meters, Kurt Chambers, Hawaii, 2016

U.S. women’s: 85 meters, Shelby Eisenberg, Hawaii, 2018