Many Caribbean resorts have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon with initiatives that range from eliminating plastic straws and single-use water bottles to rooftop solar tiles and reverse-osmosis plants that supply drinking water.
The Iberostar Group has taken the sustainability issue up a notch with its Wave of Change movement, launched two years ago and spearheaded by Gloria Fluxa, the daughter of Miguel Fluxa, the owner of Iberostar Hotels & Resorts.
An avid scuba diver with a passion for protecting the oceans, Gloria Fluxa incorporated coral restoration and coastal health into one of the three pillars of Iberostar's global initiative to encourage responsible tourism. The other two pillars are the reduction of plastic use and the promotion of responsible seafood consumption.
I spoke with Megan Morikawa, a marine biologist with a doctorate in coral restoration who was named Iberostar's director of sustainability last December. Morikawa oversees Iberostar's new land-based coral lab at Playa Bavaro, the beach area that fronts the five-hotel Iberostar Bavaro complex near Punta Cana on the east coast of the Dominican Republic.
The lab, which was officially unveiled on World Oceans Day on June 8, was created to help protect essential ocean life from rising global temperatures, but getting it up and running quickly became a race against time in order to defend against a fast-moving coral pandemic, according to Morikawa.
"We saw this underwater white plague coming as we hatched our plans for the coral lab," she told me. "The plague is called Stony Coral Tissue Lost Disease, and was first spotted off the coast of central Florida in 2014.
"We don't know how the disease started, but it cut a ghostly wake of bleached-out coral bones from Florida to parts of the Yucatan, Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Maarten and arrived in the DR in March," she said.
Morikawa and her team, joined by a band of experts from the scientific community, Iberostar staff, government officials and NGOs, finished the lab eight months ahead of schedule, just as the coral disease started infecting local reefs.
"I never expected that we would build a lab facility in a year, but we had no choice and we were running out of time," Morikawa said.
Warmer tropical waters can account for the coral "bleaching," according to Morikawa, and experiments in the land-based coral lab are geared toward simulating future ocean conditions so researchers can develop and grow heat-resistant coral strains to replenish the ailing reefs.
The beachfront facility, built in the footprint of a former yoga palapa, is open to visitors, including children in Iberostar's Star Camp program.
"We welcome guests," Morikawa said. "They're curious, and they come in and they see a functioning lab and the large tanks where we are studying the effect of climate change on the 12 species of coral most affected by the [disease]. We have signs and videos explaining the importance of coral colonies in the oceans.
"Our goal at the lab is resilient reef restoration."
Iberostar plans to open coastal lab facilities in other locations within the next two years and hatch a number of offshore underwater coral nurseries to supplement the one near the Iberostar Hacienda Dominicus at Bayahibe on the south coast.