Marine conservation adventure travel

Aquatic alliances between farsighted adventure operators, marine conservationists and filmmakers are giving a new twist to the “immersive” sea-travel experience – and helping to save the world’s oceans along the way. Sophy Roberts reports

Sailing off the Omani coast in an Orana catamaran chartered by Hud Hud Travels
Sailing off the Omani coast in an Orana catamaran chartered by Hud Hud Travels | Image: Oman Sail

Salalah is a remote city in the southern reaches of the Sultanate of Oman. It is low lying, flat roofed and built beside the ocean, which for centuries provided not just food for the region’s Dhofari people, but also the means for travel and trade. Khor Rori is the evidence: a ruined harbour 40km from Salalah, whence the Queen of Sheba shipped frankincense – for which this part of Oman is famous – to her other residences in present-day Yemen. Now the natural harbour lies empty, cut off from the sea by a sandbar; there is no one here, aside from a couple of archaeologists scraping dust off fallen stones.

The author in Dhofar
The author in Dhofar | Image: Bill Phelps

In front of the ruins lies the Indian Ocean. Unlike the gently sloping continental shelf of the northern Gulf, the underwater topography here is dramatic, with vast ocean plains, canyons and deep trenches abruptly meeting the coastline to form subaquatic cliffs several kilometres high. Behind the ruins rises a 1,000m-tall escarpment, which is part of the Dhofar mountain range. It catches the tail of the Indian monsoon, known locally as the Khareef, when the whole region turns a fertile emerald for two months of the year, starting from late July. During this period even the sea turns green, with the wind driving surface waters seaward, creating an upwelling of cold water from the depths. The ocean swirls with nutrients. Algae flourish. Fish gather, as do large predators, including sharks, dolphins and whales.

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This rich marine life can be found among the coral reefs around the little-known Al Hallaniyat archipelago, made up of five arid islands 25 nautical miles off the coast. In 1986, the archipelago was proposed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, as a national nature reserve. There is diving here, on a liveaboard that comes out of the fishing port of Mirbat, and a modest game-fishing lodge. Otherwise, nothing, aside from the bones of a new development, on As Sodah Island, where a luxury resort is slated to open in 2017.

A green turtle returns to the sea
A green turtle returns to the sea | Image: Getty Images/Moment Open

“It offers such dramatic wild beauty, where you can see pods of dolphins 400 or 500 strong. Put your head in the water in a mask, and the variety of fish species is astounding,” says Philip Jones, director of development for Muriya, the Omani property company creating As Sodah. “We need to act responsibly, bringing in conservation measures such as zoning for usage and mooring buoys to avoid breaking the coral. Using anchors would be like going into a garden and throwing around a rake.” The project will certainly bring the glare of high-end tourism to the region (originally Muriya was in discussion with LVMH as the management company), which is potentially good and bad, says Rob Baldwin, a British-born, Muscat-based marine biologist who has been working in Oman since 1988. “Dhofar’s coast and the Al Hallaniyat archipelago make up one of the most pristine marine environments on the planet. In this context, any tourism venture has to be fundamentally thoughtful about the impact of its actions. It is rare to find marine areas like this any more – and there’s an awful lot to lose.”

The Madagascan island of Nosy Ankao, where Miavana lodge is due to open in October 2016
The Madagascan island of Nosy Ankao, where Miavana lodge is due to open in October 2016

When I visited Dhofar, there was no one on the coastal stretch where we made camp, on the mainland near Khor Rori’s ruins. Amid elegant Omani rugs and cushions in the dunes, we slept on a curl of beach between sheltering rocks. From my thick, tasselled, black-camel-hair tent, I heard the surf pull back over sand. I listened to the sound of seabirds. While I swam both mornings, I missed the value of what lay beneath the surface: a unique “relic” population of a few hundred humpback whales – isolated from their Southern Ocean origins for some 70,000 years – that exists in this oceanic cul-de-sac. I’m going back to find them in the spring. My guide will be Baldwin, introduced to me by Sean Nelson, a British adventurer who co-founded Hud Hud Travels, the Oman-based luxury mobile safari company I first travelled with in the Middle East, and whose new company, Nelson Expeditions, accesses difficult, off-the-map territories all over the world for limited numbers of travellers with deep pockets and a philanthropic point of view. Wherever possible, Nelson’s logistically complex trips, from Mongolia to central Africa, expose clients to issues that they will engage with, from elephant poaching to the plight of marine environments. In Oman, this now includes exploring these waters and looking for humpback whales with Baldwin (six of them are satellite tagged). The idea is that client fees could ultimately contribute actively to the research and conservation projects undertaken by local NGOs, including the Environment Society of Oman, as well as international organisations, like the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A humpback whale off the coast of Oman’s Al Hallaniyat archipelago
A humpback whale off the coast of Oman’s Al Hallaniyat archipelago | Image: Alamy Stock Photo

“Last time we were with the whales, they were within 100m of the coast. We came out of the desert and were looking into the mouth of a humpback,” says Nelson. “It was unimaginable. We’re not always that lucky because marine-based expeditions aren’t like doing the Big Five. We have a backup, though. Dhofar’s rock stars may be the humpbacks, but southern Oman provides very important breeding grounds for green and loggerhead turtles. That’s the curious thing about this country. People think Oman is about desert when, in fact, it is all about the ocean.”

Petit St Vincent guests on a guided reef diving trip in St Vincent and the Grenadines
Petit St Vincent guests on a guided reef diving trip in St Vincent and the Grenadines | Image: Richard Murphy PhD – Ocean Futures Society

All about the ocean. Those words were ringing in my ears as I started to look into where marine conservation and tourism were joining up with philanthropy, from “lone soldier” trips like Nelson’s, to remote parts of the world where some of the more forward-thinking tourism companies have been trying to ring-fence marine reserves for the future. It turns out that a number of specialist outfitters are offering highly focused marine-conservation experiences, such as swimming with blue whales. Among them is Amos Nachoum, a formidable conservationist and photographer and president of BigAnimals Expeditions, who leads underwater expeditions for individuals and institutions such as Apple, IBM and National Geographic. And there are other initiatives being driven by the likes of Monterey, California-based Marine Conservation Expeditions (MCE). The firm, founded in 1988, caters to travellers who can finance documentaries. They get to join underwater filmmakers, oceanographers and conservationists on trips to distant parts of the world, from Belize to Micronesia, with the resulting films and events used to educate local communities on environment protection.

A giant manta ray in Mozambique
A giant manta ray in Mozambique | Image: Andrea Marshall

“There is something increasingly valid about people coming from outside the tourism world and poking their noses into it, because they see issues in a different light and speak to people in a different voice,” says Greg Sacks, co-founder of the Toronto-based custom-trip planning company Trufflepig, who introduced me to MCE. “Before, people on holiday didn’t want to be challenged by real questions. That’s now changing. Clients are coming through our doors who may have philanthropic capacities, but above all want to educate their children in a way that might make a difference in the future. And oceans need that attention. Why now? We’ve taken some time to get here. As human beings we tend to be fascinated by looking up, not down. It takes a pretty sophisticated traveller to get beneath the surface. But now the issues are more in our face. We can’t escape them. Nor do you have to be a diver to notice or care.”

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In Mozambique, Luke Bailes, who owns Singita, a luxury safari and conservation company with properties in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, is putting together a significant new project to protect a sizeable section of coastline in Inhambane province, just south of the Bazaruto archipelago. The concept is comparable to a 140,000-hectare swathe of savannah country in Tanzania, where Bailes has supported hedgefund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones to rehabilitate and protect an ecosystem of a viable size, using high-end tourism as a means of generating revenue. To pull this off in Mozambique, Singita will be working with philanthropic investors and leading conservation biologists in the area, including the Marine Megafauna Foundation, whose work led to the recognition of a new giant species of manta ray in 2009 – one of the largest described in the past 50 years.

“An eddy effect is created by the drop-off in the ocean and the currents, which throws up huge amounts of plankton,” says Bailes. “It’s a very unusual phenomenon. You can dive and find many whale sharks next to each other, as well as five of the seven marine turtle species known to man. It is therefore a highly sensitive site that needs time and thought, working with national government. While we can’t yet commit to an opening date for the lodge – we’re aiming for 2018 – there is also an urgency to what we’re trying to do, which is based on the conservation crisis sweeping all down Africa’s east coast. In 2010, when I first flew in a helicopter from Kenya to Mozambique searching for a coastal conservation project of scale, I observed not only the density of human populations on the ground, but the carcasses of manta rays on the beaches. The body part used to filter the plankton is employed in Chinese traditional medicine. It can have a higher price on the black market than shark fins. It is a desperate state of affairs – how humanity’s insatiable demand for plundering resources is spreading into every corner of the earth, including the bottom of the ocean. If we are a conservation company using tourism to save threatened species, that now has to include engaging with the seas.”

The intent of Bailes’s endeavour is not dissimilar to a project on Madagascar: Miavana, a luxury lodge opening in October 2016 on the island of Nosy Ankao, 3.5km off Madagascar’s northeastern tip. The 14 villas – occupying the western flank of the longest and largest of the islands in the archipelago – are being built using a local team, with the support of a Malagasy partner and a Mauritius-based family that was one of the original stakeholders in North Island (the “Noah’s Ark” conservation and rehabilitation project in the Seychelles started in 2002 and where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose to honeymoon in 2011). Miavana is being designed by South African architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens; they created North Island, as well as Miavana’s sister property, Chinzombo in Zambia. Beyond the aesthetics, which look promisingly luxurious, Miavana aims to develop and enlarge the marine-reserve potential to help ensure the archipelago’s long-term protection.

For three years prior to putting a pole in the ground, the lodge developers have been actively supporting conservation efforts to reduce net fishing, which damages reefs and removes the breeding stock of fish. The development team on the island has also been monitoring wildlife movements, including four species of turtle that nest here, as well as whales that enter the area in winter. The result is that Nosy Ankao and its archipelago are now part of a 15,000-hectare marine reserve, which, together with the identified biodiversity hotspots on the adjacent mainland, makes up the Loky Manambato Protected Area, covering some 250,000 hectares and managed by local NGO Fanamby.

“When there is community involvement, success is quick and sustainable,” says Dr Owen Day, a marine biologist and director of ecosystem-based adaptation for Caribsave, a pan-Caribbean not-for-profit. In Jamaica, Day has spent the past four years collaborating with seven marine protected areas. One of Caribsave’s projects involves the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary, which is partly supported by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who owns the adjacent luxury GoldenEye resort, and the Oracabessa Foundation. “It’s a small sanctuary, just one square kilometre, but it has worked exceptionally well, with fish biomass increasing by 1,300 per cent and coral cover by 300 per cent in the past four years since the fishing exclusion zone was created,” says Day. “On the reserve’s perimeter, where locals can take what we call the spillover, they are catching fish far bigger than they did before. In other words, the fishermen, by agreeing to conserve an area and letting the fish breed successfully, are benefiting from the results. It’s a win-win for locals and tourists, while the coral reefs also become more resilient to pollution and climate change.”

According to Day, there’s an urgent need to scale this up and replicate the model across the Caribbean. To this end, Caribsave is now raising grant and donor capital for a multimillion-dollar programme with pan-Caribbean reach, while also brokering partnerships between fishing communities and tourism companies. “Without healthy populations of reef fish, the Caribbean could lose its coral reefs and ultimately its white beaches. Then it’s over for everyone. The trouble with modern tourism is developers can make a lot of noise about marine conservation – I see this all the time – but the substance of their input is often very light. We’re now seeing change, led by a few individuals.”

Philip Stephenson, an American philanthropist and passionate diver, is a resort owner who puts his money where his mouth is. In 2010, Stephenson bought Petit St Vincent, a private-island resort in St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean. I visited in April, to learn to dive at PSV’s recently opened Jean-Michel Cousteau-owned dive centre. Over the past three years, Stephenson, who has a marine conservation foundation, has donated $1.5m to projects around the world, contributing to significant exploration, conservation and education initiatives. These include Mission Blue, the organisation founded by oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle, which identifies “hope spots” in areas that can or should be protected and restored. In addition, Stephenson is now trying to work with local communities to improve the reefs and waters in PSV’s immediate proximity, by collaborating with fishermen and stakeholders. Ultimately, he wants to create a marine reserve – for the benefit of PSV’s clients and for the sustainable health of the wider archipelago (PSV’s diving school is open to anyone, not just resort guests). More than anything, his private foundation is putting money behind the educators – “including multiyear donor commitments to my three childhood heroes, Earle, Cousteau and Dr Robert Ballard, best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic,” says Stephenson. Because he recognises the biggest issue of all: that most people are like me. They look at the surface of the ocean, like I did on that night I slept on an Omani beach, not thinking about the riches – and the troubles – that lie beneath.

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