In the heart of the Coral Sea, 746 miles east of Australia, lies the New Caledonian barrier reef. Its corals wrap themselves around the archipelago’s largest island, their 900-mile circumference surpassing the length of Britain. This jewel of the French Pacific is a sanctuary for marine biodiversity. Whilst most of the world’s barrier reefs are severely threatened, this reef thrives, and the presence of both large predators and a huge diversity of fish is a testament to the health of its ecosystem. It is also home to endangered species of turtles, whales, and dugongs, whose New Caledonian population is the third largest in the world. The reef is also resplendent in its beauty. According to David Sheppard, Head of IUCN’s Protected Areas Programme, ‘the tropical lagoons and coral reefs of New Caledonia contain some of the most beautiful reef systems in the world,’ and are ‘home to dramatic displays of coral diversity, massive coral structures, together with arches, caves and major fissures in the reefs. There is nothing else quite like them in the world.’
Nonetheless, the reef came under threat in 2016 when rising sea temperatures resulted in coral bleaching. Single-cell plankton called dinoflagellates live on the coral’s surface, which use nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus to photosynthesise. This energy release allows the coral to build the calcium skeleton which, in turn, houses the dinoflagellates. Warm sea water causes the coral to expel these dinoflagellates, causing the reef to turn pale and, more worryingly, vulnerable to disease. Scientists feared the worst when this occurred, however the corals recovered better than anticipated. Despite fears of further bleaching, there is hope for the reef as scientists, politicians, and the local population try to protect it. In 2008, around one third the reef was given UNESCO’s World Heritage Status and, in August 2018, the New Caledonian government established four protected areas to serve as sanctuaries for sea birds, sea turtles, and humpback whales. It is hoped that these efforts might help protect one of the world’s few remaining healthy coral reefs for years to come.