This weekend wasn’t just another day at the office. I was on a boat at the edge of Belize’s Great Blue Hole with Sir Richard Branson, Fabian Cousteau, Aquatica submarines, the Discovery Channel and a team of experts and film-makers on an expedition aimed at raising Ocean awareness and highlighting the need to protect at least 30 per cent of the Ocean by 2030.

There is nothing like a voyage to one of the most amazing places on Earth to remind all of us just how beautiful our planet is and how critical it is that we protect its assets. And what better place to mark the final month of the International Year of the Reef than here at the mysterious sunken heart of the Belize Barrier Reef, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that stretches 900km from Mexico to Honduras.

All this year at Ocean Unite and with our partners, we’ve been celebrating the beauty and bounty of the world’s reefs, and drawing attention to the many threats they face, from plastic pollution and chemical run-off, to the bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures. The recent report from the IPCC warning that coral reefs would decline by 70-90 per cent under 1.5°C of global warming – and be almost completely lost if we reach 2°C – is a global alarm bell that must not be ignored. It’s an “all hands on deck” moment!

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Belize

The first-ever submersible descent to the very bottom of the Blue Hole that Fabien Cousteau and Sir Richard Branson achieved this weekend with amazing sub pilot Erika, brought the issue of sea level rise up to the surface – a reminder of how quickly things are changing in our ocean today and why we need all need to act together. The Belize Barrier reef is absolutely stunning. It’s size and scale incredible. Being able to learn first-hand from some of Belize’s wonderful ocean activists and reef custodians of the sheltering protections that it and the mangroves that grow on several of its islands provide, was enlightening.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Belize

Everyone knows that coral reefs are spectacular, but it is less common knowledge that reefs are a vital source of food and livelihoods to people in over 100 countries and protect our shorelines from storm damage. They play host to a quarter of all marine species – marine cities with countless inhabitants, big and small. Coral reefs attract tourists as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry that creates jobs and opportunities in coastal and island communities around the world. And they are incredible natural seawalls protecting millions of us, our families, communities and businesses from ocean risk hazards like the storm surge from extreme storm events. They are among the most precious and fragile ecosystems on Earth and it is high time we valued and protected them accordingly.

Investing in the protection and restoration of coral reefs is good for business, good for local people, and good for the Ocean. For example, a new study led by UN Environment calculates that if we get to work now to protect the Mesoamerican reef, a healthy reef could deliver $34.6 billion in added economic benefits by 2030. That’s an extra $2.5 billion a year. By contrast, if business continues as usual, and the reef continues to decline, its value to local economies could fall by $3.1 billion per year. The figures are similar for other reefs, like the Coral Triangle in South East Asia. This new look at the coral reef economy clearly shows that shifting from the current trajectory of declining reef health could unlock tens of billions of dollars – money that can be channelled into climate-smart development, education and new jobs, and mitigate the risks from climate change. It’s a win-win opportunity for communities, businesses and nature.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Belize

Making this positive shift away from the ongoing slide towards reef deterioration – with all the financial, social and environmental benefits that it promises – is within our reach. The UN study shows that proven interventions, like establishing no-take marine protected areas, enhanced wastewater management, and reducing coastal erosion through afforestation, can all make a huge difference. Local people are also rewarded with improved storm protection, more sustainable local fisheries and all the opportunities delivered by a buoyant tourism sector.

What’s needed now is for governments and businesses to invest in a healthy reef future. Thanks to natural wonders like the Great Blue Hole and the surrounding reefs, Belize has become a top destination for marine tourism, including diving, sailing, whale and shark spotting. But to keep this global reputation, it is vital that it protect its waters, beaches and biodiversity – all of which are closely tied to the health of the reef.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Belize

Creating and expanding large-scale no-take MPAs or replenishment zones is an effective way to achieve this, and the Government of Belize is taking proactive steps in this direction. Earlier this year, Belize committed to strongly protecting 10 percent of its waters before the end of 2018. I had the pleasure of being at the meeting between our co-founder, Sir Richard Branson and the Belize Prime Minister. Hopefully we will be able to announce some good news about steps the Belize government will be taking to meet its commitments in the coming weeks.

There are 26 days left for this incredible country to meet the deadline it set and show the world this can be done a year ahead of the global deadline set by the Convention on Sustainable Diversity and Sustainable Goal 14: Life Below Water. Belize is also a member of the new Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator, launched in response to the devastating hurricanes of 2017. Caribbean leaders, global organisations and individual supporters are uniting to create the world’s first “climate-smart” zone by accelerating climate action, with a specific focus on ocean health. This inspirational initiative is determined to turn tragedy into hope, and a safer, greener (and bluer) more prosperous future for the people of the Caribbean.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Belize

Protecting 10 per cent of the Ocean by 2020 is an important target, especially considering that today just over two per cent is strongly protected in marine reserves. But 10 per cent is just the beginning. For years, scientists have been telling us that at least 30 per cent of the Ocean should be declared strongly protected in marine reserves by 2030. This is critical both for marine biodiversity and to build climate resilience. At Ocean Unite, this 30-by-30 goal is at the core of everything we do – it’s like every second breath we take! And, like enhancing coral reef health, establishing marine reserves has been shown to generate high financial returns. It’s estimated that strongly protecting 30 per cent of the Ocean would cost about US$ 225 billion, but the financial net benefits could be as much as US$ 920 billion by 2050. With these projected profits, we’d be crazy not to invest in Ocean protection.

The Great Blue Hole is one of seven marine protected areas in Belize that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site, and gazing at it from a helicopter and side of the boat it’s easy to see why. The same kind of protection should be extended across great swathes of the Ocean to form safe havens where nature can replenish, and fortify itself against climate change, excessive fishing and other threats as our planetary insurance policy. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, coastal reefs to the high seas, we need governments everywhere to scale up their ambitions and accelerate their actions to achieve the 30x30 Ocean vision.

We managed to jump in and have a swim too. The water was delightful!

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This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.