Travel

Create a Coral Reef at This Bahamas Resort Thanks to Kenny Chesney

You've always wanted to save the ocean, right?

Reef Ball Foundation
Reef Ball Foundation
Reef Ball Foundation

The waves smack you across your shoulders, but you’re not going anywhere. The 5,000-pound-plus reef ball you’re steering through the waters of Deadman’s Reef, off the western coast of Grand Bahama, makes sure of it. It floats, though, and after a few minutes of swimming with the hollow beast, you and your team get to the right spot: a line of older reef balls that have already transformed into a self-sustaining coral reef. Once you deflate your floating device, your reef ball sinks and joins them, jumpstarting Mother Nature by 500 years.

Yesterday, you helped mold and build a reef ball. Today, you’ve just planted your first coral reef. Tomorrow, you’ll transplant coral plugs onto the reef ball’s surface by hand. And between all this eco-action, there will be plenty of rum punch, plenty of snorkeling, and plenty of Kenny Chesney in the background. He did help you become a reef warrior, after all.

Reef Ball Foundation
Reef Ball Foundation
Reef Ball Foundation

The first tourist-planted coral reef

The sand is disappearing from Barry Smith’s property, Paradise Cove-one of the longest-running locally owned resorts on Grand Bahama. His two villas, once 100 yards from the waves, seem just a few years away from becoming overwater bungalows. The eco-friendly, sustainable resort, known for kayaking and snorkelling, was looking at a non-existent future.

Smith had to do something. Looking for solutions, he scoured the region for eco-initiatives, eventually coming across the work of the Reef Ball Foundation (RBF), an international non-profit working to protect, rehabilitate, and rebuild our ocean ecosystems. Reef balls-together forming a new reef-could be the answer, acting as a breakwater and protecting the sand, diversifying and strengthening the area’s marine life, and making the resort’s snorkelling even better.

But to get reef balls rolling, Smith needed Kenny Chesney. When No Shoes Reefs, Chesney’s foundation, and their partner DEEP Apparel-a sustainable clothing line with many products made almost entirely from plastic-got wind of RBF’s interest in Paradise Cove, Smith’s dream became reality. With funding and materials procured, a reef was ready to be built on the western end of Grand Bahama.

By the hotel guests.

“With DEEP and No Shoes Reefs,” says Smith, “we’re developing a meaningful ecotourism package where guests stay three, five, or seven days, and either build reef balls, deploy them, transplant coral, or contribute to all three legs of the project.” Though RBF has projects in over 70 countries-and resorts boasting coral adoption aren’t unheard of-Paradise Cove marks the first place travellers are taking the wheel, literally planting entire reefs themselves. It’s ecotourism on steroids. (Kenny, you should be proud.)

Paradise Cove Beach Resort
Paradise Cove Beach Resort
Paradise Cove Beach Resort

Sorry, what’s a reef ball?

“Traditional reef design,” explains Larry Beggs, VP of Reef Ball Foundation, “is done by large contractors and government agencies.” It’s when a battleship is dropped strategically into the ocean, or even cinder blocks and old tires. This way, Beggs notes, the average person can give back. “Once you get people involved and active and learning about the ocean, they do a whole lot of different things back home.”

Beggs goes on to explain that reef balls are made from pH-neutralized marine-grade concrete-an awful lot more sustainable than those old tires. With a rough surface and coral-adaptive plug areas, they’re a basic tapestry for Mother Nature to paint, speeding up the process with automatic height and structure. “It ain’t the prettiest thing; just a chunk of concrete. But once we put it in the water, Mother Nature will take over.”

The idea was to create something sustainable yet unremarkable. “Something we could put in the hands of volunteers, school groups, dive groups, places like the islands,” Beggs explains. The team made sure it was low-cost and required no fancy equipment, using simple tools and resources found across the globe, opening up the technology to small communities and ultimately reducing the foundation’s carbon footprint. Of course, at Paradise Cove, guests will be trained and supervised when working with any tools or the massive reef balls themselves. According to Smith, guests tackling the whole project will spend part of two days pouring moulds, part of two days deploying, and part of two days for coral propagation. “The project will last year-round, but May to September offer calmer days.” In between, guests will go snorkelling and kayaking off the property, spearfishing, or even get a lesson from Smith on freediving.

Tip: If you can’t get to The Bahamas, consider adopting a reef ball. Or for a super easy feel-good, 40% of net profits from DEEP’s No Shoes Reefs line-sun shirts, hats, hoodies-go directly toward No Shoes Reefs/Reef Ball Foundation.

Bahamas Plastic Movement
Bahamas Plastic Movement
Bahamas Plastic Movement

So why The Bahamas?

The third-largest continuous reef system in the world stretches along the islands of The Bahamas, the 140-mile Andros Barrier Reef, and it’s at particular risk. Between 70 years of island mining wreaking havoc on the region and the Caribbean receiving an outsized portion of the world’s marine trash-not to mention warming seas-the outlook, as the Magic 8 Ball might say, doesn’t look good.

But a new era may be coming for the ancestral homeland of Fyre Fest: Single-use plastics were banned in January 2020 and eco-initiatives are popping up across the islands, from Smith’s grand reef-ball plan to Bahamas Plastic Movement to West End Ecology Tours. From here, travellers can put down the mai tai and pick up the baton, putting their money, time, and energy where it counts: supporting the local economy and the local environment. Plant a reef ball at Paradise Cove, and you’re doing just that.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram @j.kehoe.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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