Coast of Apo Island – Philippines (credit: Thinkstock)
Providing a habitat for at least a quarter of all the world’s ocean species, coral reefs are often described as the world’s underwater rainforests. Yet, surprisingly, these magnificent and oftentimes enormous sea structures created by tiny marine invertebrates only represent a mere fraction of the entire marine environment on the planet. Found primarily in tropical and subtropical waters, coral reefs are typified by a spectrum of colors and marine life. However, while many of the world’s best coral reefs can still be visited, it’s as critically important to understand how to protect the fragile marine environment as how to view it. The following are five of the best and largest coral reefs in the world to visit.
Apo Reef, Philippines
Situated approximately 12 miles off the west coast of Mindoro Island, Apo Reef is the world’s second largest contiguous coral reef and largest atoll in the Philippines. Declared a Protected Area in 1996 and on the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s Tentative List, Apo Reef is the largest of the three islands that comprise Apo Reef Natural Park and covers an area of 13 square miles amid hundreds of colorful coral species and even more marine species, which includes native sharks, manta rays and sea turtles. As one of the most acclaimed dive spots in the country and throughout the entire world, Apo Reef can be reached by outrigger boat in two or three hours, depending upon the departure point. Suggested diving operators on Mindoro Island include Apo Reef Club and Pandan Island Resort.
Spanning 370 square miles in the Caribbean Sea, the Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest coral reef system in the world. Known for possessing one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, the Belize Barrier Reef is the most popular tourist attraction in its namesake country and exceptionally popular for snorkelers and scuba divers, particularly in the easternmost section at Lighthouse Reef. Located about 50 miles southeast of Belize City, Lighthouse Reef is a five mile wide atoll that’s home to several dive sites, but none more important than the dazzling Great Blue Hole, which with a depth of 407 feet is the deepest sinkhole (blue hole) in the world. Also the largest reef in the Northern Hemisphere, the Belize Barrier Reef has a length of 186 miles and is home to more than 100 species of coral, 500 species of fish and hundreds of invertebrate species. Among the recommended dive resorts and tour operators in Belize are Hamanasi and Belize Underwater Scuba in Hopkins, White Sands Dive Shop and Belize Pro Dive Center in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Spread across an area of 1,400 square miles off the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Island covers such a massive area, it can be seen from outer space. Also known as one of the largest living things on Earth, the world’s largest reef ecosystem and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef features 3,000 coral reefs from 600 hard and soft coral species and over 2,000 marine species, including 1,625 fish species and six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles. Belonging on every diver’s bucket list, the Great Barrier Reef can be best reached in about 45-90 minutes from the primary city of Cairns or neighboring communities like Port Douglas and Airlie Beach. Among the large number of tour operators to consider are Pro Dive Cairns, Down Under Cruise & Dive, Deep Sea Divers Den.
One of the great travel destinations in the South Pacific, Fiji is not just a single island but instead an archipelago of more than 330 islands. Often referred as the Soft Coral Capital of the World, Fiji is world renowned for its multiple scuba and snorkeling sites, particularly around the two most populated islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. But smaller locations are also known for extraordinary underwater sports like Turtle Island, Beqa Island and Kadavu, home to the breathtaking Great Astrolabe Reef, one of the world’s largest barrier reefs. In all the Fiji Islands features more than 4,000 square miles of coral reefs and is home to a rich biodiversity of marine life, such as an estimated 1,000 fish species, a vast collection of invertebrates like sea cucumbers, giant clams and sea stars and several hundred species of coral and sponges. Several affordable or upscale dive resorts can be found in many of the islands of Fiji and a sampling of the best are Jean-Míchel Cousteau Resort (reopening September 1), Matava, Waidroka Bay Resort and Beqa Adventure Divers.
New Caledonia Reef, New Caledonia
Extending across more than 930 miles in the mesmerizing blue waters of the South Pacific, New Caledonia Reef is the second longest double barrier reef and some of the most mystifying lagoons in the world. Located about halfway between Fiji and western Australia, the enormous barrier reef completely surrounds Grand Terre and Isle of Pines, the two primary islands of the French-governed archipelago of New Caledonia. One of just a handful of double barrier reefs in the world, the New Caledonia Reef is home to an incredibly diverse collection of marine life including at least 1,000 fish species and more than 10,000 mollusk or crustacean species, with new species discovered and documented on a continual basis. The barrier reef is part of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, known as the world’s largest marine park, and boasts one of the world’s largest lagoons covering a surface area of over 9,000 square miles. The main island of New Caledonia offers a number of top-rated dive shops or dive resorts such as Alize, Lagoon Safaris and Tieti Diving.