Holiday makers around the world are often attracted to sun, sand and surf. But beyond the sandy beaches of many tourist destinations lie graveyards of dead or dying coral. The destruction of coral reefs has become a worldwide trend with many reefs disappearing faster than our rainforests.

We've destroyed irreplaceable ecosystems, reversing half a billion years of evolution. 

At the 2016 US State Department’s 'Our Oceans' conference in Washington DC, Leonardo DiCaprio urged the world to take stronger action to protect coral reefs from the devastating effects of climate change. 

Coral reefs have slowly been dying in the last century, and at an alarming rate in the last fifteen years. Reports show that the death of coral reefs on a global scale only began in the 1980s. Prior to this, patches of dying coral - known as localised coral bleaching - only happened every few decades and in tiny areas due to unusually warm or calm sea conditions.

The Guardian reported that this evolved to mass global bleaching events in the last thirty years, correlating with rising sea temperatures. The report highlights the relationship between human activity and ocean conditions, stating that “since 1950 more than 90% of the excess heat our carbon emissions have trapped in the atmosphere has gone into the oceans. As a result their surface temperature has increased by 1C in just the past 35 years.”

It is estimated we have already seen the death of 50% of the planet’s coral reefs in the last thirty years, despite some corals having lived for more than 500 years. Coral will continue to die if the marine environment changes too much. This includes rising water temperatures, added carbon dioxide in the water (known as ocean acidification), pollution, and even certain sunscreen ingredients. 

Coral spits out colourful algae when it is stressed and this is how it loses its colour, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Bleached coral is a warning sign that the coral is dying. It can only recover if conditions return to normal, but will otherwise die and be covered by a blanket of algae slime.

Thailand's coral reefs are no exception. 

The average live coral cover in some areas of Thailand has disappeared by up to 80% in the last decade. 

In 2010, Thailand experienced a mass bleaching event that decimated coral reefs and was recorded in coral reef research. Between 1988 and 2006 the amount of coral covering the seafloor in the Similan Island group ranged from 25% to 31%, but dropped to 8% in 2010. The Phi-Phi Islands lost half of its coral between 2006 and 2010. The Surin Islands, a popular day-trip north of Phuket, was worst hit. Live coral cover was 55% in 2006 and dropped to 11% in 2010.

The new Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach is making plans to repair the damaged corals at their house reef. 

The Marriott has partnered with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Department of Marine and Coastal resources at the Phuket Marine Biological Center, to support coral reef and mangrove ecosystems. They already have a number of initiatives underway to protect the fragile marine life in Phuket. The most visible is the resort’s Tri Trang Reef Education Center

Full-time marine biologist, Katie Bimson, who works for the IUCN, encourages guests at the Marriott to explore the reef by diving or snorkeling, and she runs kid’s programmes to teach them about the marine ecosystem.

Many people don’t realise that many corals are considered ‘threatened species’ by the IUCN.

The Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach is the only resort on Phuket Island to have a healthy coral house reef just outside, making it a unique place for snorkeling, and even beach diving. Many people don’t realise that many corals are considered ‘threatened species’ by the IUCN. Katie points out, “you can see that sections of the reef were affected by the last bleaching event but they are starting to recover which is promising. You can see many new juvenile corals.”

The Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach is the only resort in Phuket to have a healthy house reef in swimming distance of the beach


Divers at the house reef of Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach free remove old fishing nets that are polluting the reef and trapping marine life. Photography by Shin Arunrugstichai Photography


Katie quizzes Marriott guests, “coral reefs are hard like a rock, need sunlight like a plant, and feed like an animal. So what are they?” Most people have no idea.

Katie explains that, “coral reefs are a unique combination of rocks, plants and animals. The corals are translucent organisms called ‘polyps’ that attach to rocks on the seafloor and host colour-giving algae in order to grow and survive.” The polyp is like the landlord of the relationship; it produces a hard calcium-carbonate skeleton which provides structure to the thin membrane of the animal, where the algae reside. In return, the algae is like a ‘colourful tenant’, responsible for the beautiful colouration of the coral reef, and removing carbon dioxide, which is converted into oxygen and sugars via photosynthesis, feeding the coral and enabling it to form a reef-building calcium carbonate skeleton.

What can you do to help protect coral reefs?

As travellers, we have an important role to play in protecting coral reefs. One of the best things you can do is become educated on the conditions that are required for healthy coral reef ecosystems. This gives you the ability to understand why a reef is unhealthy, and take steps to help reverse this both on your holiday and back home. 

Katie believes that the best way to educate yourself about dying coral is to practice safe snorkeling or diving and see it for yourself. In some places, you can see what a fantastic underwater city looks like when it is healthy and brimming with dazzling colourful corals and marine life. Only by seeing this can you appreciate the contrasting devastation of grey dying coral.

For those of us who cannot go snorkeling or diving, you can view 360 degree underwater “street views” that capture the effects of coral bleaching in places such as American Samoa:


American Samoa in 2014 © Google Streetview © Catlin Seaview Survey


American Samoa in 2015 © Google Streetview © Catlin Seaview Survey


American Samoa in 2015 © Google Streetview © Catlin Seaview Survey

When The Ocean Agency launched the Google Underwater Street View more people went virtual diving than have ever been diving in person. The imagery is the most viewed underwater imagery in history (with views in the billions) and it makes up the world's largest visual archive of underwater panoramic images.

Time Magazine also published 360 degree images of dying coral. Before bleaching, the corals turn a fluorescent colour as they push the bright algae out of their skeletons.

In addition to taking the time to learn about coral reefs, we also recommend familiarising yourself with these top five tips for coral conservation.

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Many organisations, such as National Geographic, have some great resources to help you reduce your personal carbon footprint and protect sea temperatures from rising.


Image sourced from National Geographic Channel

Image sourced from National Geographic Channel

Disappearing coral affects each and every one of us, regardless of where we live. Even more so if you are one of the half a billion people worldwide who relies on nearby coral reefs for food, income or shelter from waves.

Biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at Australia's University of Queensland, said: “Whether you're living in North America or Europe or Australia, you should be concerned.”

"This is not just some distant dive destination, a holiday destination. This is the fabric of the ecosystem that supports us."

July 23, 2023
5 min read