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Where Can I Find Coral Reefs Near Me?

Clownfish | Photo: Krystyn Wukitsch Foran, some rights reserved
Clownfish | Photo: Krystyn Wukitsch Foran, some rights reserved

Coral reefs are increasingly popular tourist destinations for divers, snorkelers, and tidepool explorers. But unless you live along the coast in the tropics, you might not be sure just where your closest coral reef is.

Thanks to oceanographers who've spent time diligently mapping the world's tropical reefs, it's easier than ever to find your nearest reef. We've assembled a few maps to help you out, using Google Earth and a set of data compiled by the World Resources Institute. As long as you promise to be a well-behaved tourist (don't wear sunscreen while diving, stay in hotels that don't pollute the water, and don't touch the coral — see this article for more) we're happy to help. But first, a question:

Where in the world are you?

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"I'm in California."

Despite all the palm trees, California is a fair distance from the tropics. Ocean we have in abundance, and the California Coast's wildlife is well worth watching, but our location and the cold current moving along the shore from Alaska mean that the closest tropical coral reefs are 900 miles away from downtown Los Angeles, at the tip of the Baja California peninsula.

Reefs near Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
Reefs near Cabo San Lucas (bottom) and Cabo Pulmo (upper right), Baja California Sur, Mexico | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

That World Resources Institute dataset we used to make these Google Earth maps is color-coded to indicate the level of threats the individual reefs face, with red showing the reefs in the most peril and pale blue denoting reefs that are more secure — though all coral reefs are threatened by sea level rise, global warming and ocean acidification.

Sea Turtle and diver off Cabo Pulmo Photo: Octavio Aburto, some rights reserved
Sea Turtle and diver off Cabo Pulmo Photo: Octavio Aburto, some rights reserved

The reefs around Cabo San Lucas in the above map are displayed in red and orange, showing that tourism development, overfishing, pollution, and a few other things are taking their toll. Northeast toward Cabo Pulmo, though, the reefs are marked in blue.

That's because after decades of overfishing did serious damage to the reefs at Cabo Pulmo, Mexico declared the place a National Marine Park in 1995.

In the more than two decades since the park was established, scientists estimate the reef's biomass has more than quadrupled, indicating that the reef is recovering from decades of abuse. 

That's good news, as long as we can do something about the global threats to coral reefs. It means that reefs can recover, given half a chance.

In 1940, writer John Steinbeck visited the reefs at Cabo Pulmo aboard a fishing boat called the Western Flyer, on a long trip to collect marine specimens with his friend biologist Ed Ricketts. He recounted the trip in his book The Log From The Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck had this to say about Cabo Pulmo:

If we play our cards rght, Cabo Pulmo might reach that level of stunning diversity again.

"I'm in Florida."

You're in luck! Not only does Florida have its own (struggling) coral reefs, but its also a stone's throw away from some of the Atlantic's best-protected reefs.

Reefs in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Northern Caribbean | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
Reefs in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Northern Caribbean | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

The State of Florida boasts not only the only large tropical coral reefs in the contiguous United States, but a barrier reef — the Florida Reef — that's the third largest in the world, after the Belize Reef and that big one in Australia. 

 Emerald Reef off Key Biscayne | Photo: Ines Hegedus-Garcia, some rights reserved
Emerald Reef off Key Biscayne | Photo: Ines Hegedus-Garcia, some rights reserved

The Florida Reef stretches from Jupiter on the state's East Coast southward past Miami and the Everglades, out past Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Three hundred nautical miles long in all, the reef is invaluable to Floridians not only as a tourist revenue generator, but for coastal protection against tropical storms as well.

The northeastern section of the Florida Reef is worst off, due mainly to development along the coast from Miami north. The less-trafficked parts of the reef heading toward the Gulf of Mexico are in better shape, and responsible tour operators can offer a good look at this natural marvel off the Florida Coast.

A hint as to how to measure your tour operator's environmental cred: if they use one of the network of mooring buoys along the western parts of the reef rather than dropping anchor, that's a good sign.

A reef off Exuma Cay | Photo: Greg Grimes, some rights reserved
A reef off Exuma Cay in  The Bahamas | Photo: Greg Grimes, some rights reserved

Sadly, it looks as though even the less-damaged western parts of the Florida Reef are deteriorating due to the changes we've made in the atmosphere and ocean. So you might want to visit soon.

Despite the massive scale of the Florida Reef, seasoned divers in the Sunshine State often make the short hop to The Bahamas for some real reef action. This archipelago nation, with more than 700 islands surrounded by shallow tropical waters, has some of the best-protected reefs in the world. A barrier reef to the east of Andros Island (on the map above, running north to south through the "m" in "Bahamas"), runs 124 miles along the top of an immense, east-facing submarine cliff. That arrangement provides sunlight in abundance for organisms at varying depths.

Tourist reefs can be found on any of the islands, with Eleuthera and Cat Island being especially popular. The reefs along Long Island, the Abacos, and any number of basically uninhabited islets are worth a visit.

Also on the map above: the fringing reefs of Cuba, hurt by a few centuries of runoff from agriculture and cities, as well as overfishing. Those harms started to come under control a bit after Castro decided that environmental protection was good PR. Those reefs were largely inaccessible to American dive tourists until last year. Now you can go see them. Thanks, Obama.

"I'm in Texas."

Floridians sometimes claim that their state possesses the only coral reefs in the Lower 48. That's not precisely true. About 100 miles south of the state line between Texas and Louisiana, out at the end of the Gulf's broad, shallow coastal plain, are a handful of coral reefs that have become beloved of Texas divers.

Small reefs south of the Texas Gulf Coast | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
The Flower Garden Banks reefs are the little blue and orange dots all the way at the bottom of the map. | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

Protected as the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary since 1992, these little reefs are mostly out of the reach of recreational divers, with only small sections of the reefs' brain-coral-covered caps above the 130-foot limit. But those accessible sections, topping out at about 55 feet below, are compelling little islands far removed from their nearest coral reef neighbors, with many of the same denizens as reefs farther east — though in smaller numbers, and with fewer species.

Sadly, East Flower Garden Bank (the tiny blue dot on the map) was hit by two separate bleaching events in 2016, so the Banks' future is not at all certain.

"I'm In Hawaiʻi."

Hawaiʻi is the reason those claims about Florida's reefs include qualifiers like "of the contiguous 48 states." Our 50th and non-contiguous state is solidly in tropical coral reef territory. In fact, about 80 percent of the United States' coral reefs are in Hawai'i, either fringing the state's 130 or so islands, or in a chain of "island" reefs just below the surface stretching about 1,200 miles northwest of the Big Island.

That chain of submerged reefs marks the locations of former islands that once rose above sea level, created by the same volcanic hot spot responsible for the present day islands, and the future Hawaiʻian island Loihi, now a kilometer below the surface. The hotspot built the islands through thousands of volcanic eruptions as it slowly moved to the southeast. Once it passed out from underneath an island it had built and the eruptions there ceased, erosion took over, and one island after another eventually sank beneath the waves.

But even as the islands sank, the coral fringing them kept growing toward the light. The result? 1,200 miles of reef in submerged islands just below the surface. 

The reefs of the Hawai'ian Archipelago | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
The reefs of the Hawaiʻian Archipelago. At this scale, the impressive reefs around the main islands barely show up! | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

Access to the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is strictly limited: recreational diving around the Midway Island portion of the reserve has been suspended due to staffing shortfalls. You'll want to keep your eye on the regulations as they change. 

Tourists walk on dead coral reef in Hanauma Bay, Honolulu, in 1990 | Photo: Alan Light, some rights reserved
Tourists walk on dead coral reef in Hanauma Bay, Honolulu, in 1990 | Photo: Alan Light, some rights reserved

In the meantime, there are divable reefs, and even snorkelable ones, at the majority of the tourist islands, including the very popular Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, where the reefs are still recovering from trampling by 20th-Century tourists. The state strictly limited visits in 1990 and now requires that visitors watch an introductory video before swimming in the bay. Those moves have helped Hanauma's reefs begin to recover. 

There are similar, if less well-known, reefs around all the populated islands. They're all reeling from a combination of overfishing, pollution, and (especially) improper tourist practices, but even so, Hawaiʻi's reefs are in better shape than in many other places. And given Hawaiʻi's somewhat isolated location in the mid-Pacific, about a quarter of the state's reef species are found nowhere else on Earth.

Elevator version of the Hawaiʻi reefs story: They're wonderful and worth visiting, and thanks to organizations like the Coral Reefs Alliance, which has compiled a list of tourism businesses that follow voluntary conservation guidelines, it's not hard to greatly reduce the impact of your visit those reefs.

"I'm in Australia."

Australia is blessed with the longest, largest barrier reef in the world: the simply and aptly named Great Barrier Reef, 1,400 miles long and 133,000 square miles in area. To put that in Los Angeles terms, that's about the size of the state of California minus San Bernardino and Inyo counties.

That's big:  the Great Barrier Reef is made up of around 2,900 individual reefs, including and surrounding more than 900 islands, which means the GBR accounts for about 10 percent of the planet's coral reefs all by itself.

The Great Barrier Reef and nearby coral reefs | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
The Great Barrier Reef (bottom left, in blue) and nearby coral reefs east of Australia | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

The governments of Australia and the state of Queensland know a good thing when they see one:  the Great Barrier Reef brings in more and more tourism dollars every year : A$6.4 billion in 2013, just under $5 billion American.

A moment on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia | Photo: Kyle Taylor, some rights reserved
A moment on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia | Photo: Kyle Taylor, some rights reserved

That just goes to show that habitat protection doesn't have to be a job-killer. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in 1975, back when the majority of visitors were Australians. Though extractive industry such as fishing was allowed in much of the {Park at first, the area closed to all industry has increased dramatically, from less than five percent in 1975 to a third by 2004.

That's not to say that the Reef has enjoyed perfect support from Australian elected officials: several nearby development projects have been criticized as potentially damaging to the reef in recent years, including a planned dredging operation.

And, as you know if you paid attention to the news in 2016, the Great Barrier Reef is in big trouble. Two separate massive bleaching events in 2016 attracted worldwide attention last year, causing at least one publication to trumpet the death of the reef. That obituary was premature, and not a little annoying to reef protection advocates, but it may not be premature for long.

"Who cares where I am? I want to see the biggest coral reef concentration on the planet!"

You'll want to head for the Coral Triangle, then, a realm of reefs that stretches from Malaysia and the Philippines through Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands. 

The Coral Triangle | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI
Just part of the Coral Triangle. The rest, stretching eastward from Papua New Guinea, can be seen in the Australia map above. | Map: KCET/Google Earth/WRI

This immense treasure, covering around 2.2 million square miles, include more than half of the tropical coral reefs in the world. The Triangle is home to a staggering three quarters of the planet's coral species: 600 different species of reef-building corals. Six of the planet's seven sea turtle species live here, 37 percent of Earth's reef fishes, and a whole lot of other marine animals make their homes here.

Reef fish near Alor, Indonesia | Photo: Choh Wah Ye, some rights reserved
Reef fish near Alor, Indonesia | Photo: Choh Wah Ye, some rights reserved

So do about 120 million people, more than two million of them fishers. The nations that occupy parts of the Coral Triangle are some of the fastest-developing in the world, with rapidly growing economies. They're also home to some of the poorest people in the world.

The combination of growing economies and extreme poverty is rarely good for the environment, and the Coral Triangle isn't an exception. The patchwork of different political jurisdictions makes environmental protection a lot harder here, to boot.

Shipping, runoff pollution, destructive fishing practices, and the whole host of other threats to coral reefs worldwide are on full display here. That's bad news for the coral reefs, and it's bad news for those two-plus-million people who depend on reef fisheries to make their livings.

Fortunately, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines have formed a multilateral partnership called the Coral Triangle Initiative to begin the daunting task of managing trade and exploitation to preserve the reefs.

Didn't find what you're looking for in this list? There are coral reefs in other places worldwide, too many to cover in detail in this article. From the Indian Ocean's Maldives to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, to the southern Caribbean, to the many reefs of Micronesia, the planet has a startling assortment of coral reefs to offer. That's a lot of places to visit... and a lot of places to protect.  

Banner: Damselfish on a reef in the Maldives | Photo: Sleepy Chinchilla, some rights reserved

 

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