Coral Reef Education Institute aims to preserve Kona’s reefs by getting everyone involved

  • Heather Howard and her partner Paul Badgley’s love for aquatic life spurred them to create Coral Reef Education Institute. (Courtesy photos)

KAILUA-KONA — If I had to pick one thing I love most about Kona, it would be the water.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been in awe of the sea. My first was the Atlantic. Deep blue, full of seaweed, jellyfish, and mysteries. Pushy seagulls that snatched sandwiches straight out of your hand at the Jersey Shore. Then it was the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the chilly Tasman off the coast of New Zealand. While beautiful in their own way, none of these could compare to Kona’s crystal clear waters and the life teaming beneath the surface when I arrived as a backpacker in 2013.


The foundation of Kona’s underwater universe is its coral reef. With incredible visibility, biodiversity, and a geologically young fringing reef that is close to shore, Kona offers some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Hawaiian Islands and in the world.

“From the moment I put my face in Kona’s water with a mask on, I wanted gills,” says Heather Howard. “I fell in love with the reef and diving.”

I’m sitting with Heather and her partner Paul Badgley at Kona Coffee and Tea on a hot July morning discussing their love affair with the Pacific Ocean and Kona’s coral reef. The salty pair met working in Kona’s dive industry and bonded over a mutual concern for ocean conservation. In May 2019, they founded the Coral Reef Education Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and Coral Reef Activities, a concierge business whose net profits go to fund coral reef research and education.

“The ocean’s provided for me my whole life; I want to give back,” says Paul.

A fisherman and scuba diver since he was a teenager in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, Paul estimates that he’s spent more time in the water than on land in his lifetime. Paul came to the Big Island in 1994 as a boat captain and divemaster to work on the Aggressor. Over the years and thousands of dives, he became increasingly concerned about the negative changes he was seeing in Kona’s waters, as well as those being reported in oceans around the world.

In 2015, Hawaii experienced one of the worst coral bleaching events on record. Due to increased ocean temperatures over the summer months, 95% of cauliflower corals and 50% of corals overall were lost. Similar bleaching events over the past few years have been reported in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In 2005, the U.S. lost half of its reefs in the Caribbean to a massive bleaching event.

What is coral bleaching exactly?

According to NOAA, when corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. While bleaching doesn’t mean immediate death for coral, it becomes extremely stressed and chances of mortality are greatly increased. When changes in temperature persist for long periods like they did in the summer of 2015, bleaching events become highly fatal.

Coral reefs that are already stressed have a more difficult time recovering from bleaching events. A key stressor for coral reefs in Kona and around the world is us — humans. (Gulp.)

In 2018, over 1.5 million tourists visited the Kona area on the Big Island, and many of them did some kind of ocean activity. Careless tourism and harmful sunscreens are two major stressors for the reef. Standing on or touching coral can cause it to break, erasing decades and even centuries of growth in an instant. Most sunscreen brands contain chemicals like oxybenzone that have been scientifically proven to cause harm to coral and other marine life. New reef-safe sunscreens are now widely available, using the active ingredients zinc, zinc oxide, or titanium oxide.

Heather, a divemaster who has worked extensively in Kona’s dive industry since 2010, saw a need for partnership between the scientific community and tourism businesses.

“I want future generations to be able to see Kona’s reef like I’ve seen it,” says Heather. “I believe it’s possible to protect and restore the reef, if we change human behavior through education and provide opportunities for everyday people to get involved.”

The Coral Reef Education Institute’s mission is to bring together scientists and government agencies, divers, tour companies, island residents, and tourists to share information and provide working solutions to protect and restore the reef across the Hawaiian Islands. Their vision is to create a generation of ocean stewards and for Kona to become the coral reef education hub of the United States.

One of CREI’s partner organizations is Reef Check, an international organization founded in the 1990s that trains divers to monitor reefs and upload data to their website. The nonprofit organization publishes studies on the state of coral reefs all over the world, including in Hawaii, based on the data.

Heather and Paul began working with Reef Check in 2010 as surveyors. Through CREI, they offer Reef Check training to local divers with the aim of building an army of citizen scientists. CREI also hopes to begin working with the Division of Aquatic Resources in Kona to explore options for coral propagation and regeneration in “in-water” nurseries.


CREI offers educational information and online courses on their website, with plans for more extensive curriculum in the near future. Interested readers can get involved in several different ways, including booking activities through, becoming a member or making a tax-deductible donation to CREI on their website, or volunteering their time. Interested volunteers should contact Ocean tour companies on all islands are invited to get in touch if they are interested in partnering through Coral Reef Activities concierge. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram @coralreefeducationinstitute.

Emily Gleason is business writer who can be found at She contributes a monthly business feature, Imua in Business, to West Hawaii Today.

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