As part of Virtuoso’s ongoing commitment to sustainable travel, we’re profiling the experts, trendsetters, and industry leaders making a difference in sustainable tourism today. Here, a conversation with Cliona O’Flaherty, a resident marine biologist at Kokomo Private Island Fiji.

Sustainable Travel Spotlight: Cliona O'Flaherty
Cliona O’Flaherty. (Kokomo Private Island Fiji)

With palm-fringed beaches, lush rain forest backdrops, and private villas featuring infinity-edge pools that seemingly spill into the bluest of lagoons, Kokomo Private Island Fiji is a pinch-me slice of South Pacific heaven. The best part? The 26-room luxury paradise is also a champion for sustainability. One of the resort’s biggest difference-makers: Resident marine biologist Cliona O’Flaherty, who’s offering guests a chance to help make the planet and oceans healthier for future generations.

O’Flaherty’s earth-first initiatives have travelers rolling up their sleeves to plant mangroves and corals, adopting and photographing manta rays, and helping clean up surrounding reefs. The sustainability goes way beyond the beach, too – which we showcased in a Virtuoso Life feature last year.

“There is almost no excuse for any tourism company to not be making some sort of conscious sustainable effort, be it a small eco-friendly backpacker hotel or a high-end luxury resort like Kokomo. And everyone can play a part,” says O’Flaherty.

The beach at Kokomo Island Resort Fiji
Kokomo’s private beach is surrounded by the resort’s Walker Restoration Reef. (Korena Bolding Sinnett)

We chatted with O’Flaherty – who was recently named a 2019 Sustainable Practices Champion by Women in Travel – about how she ended up in Fiji, what’s new on the sustainability front for the resort and its guests, and why she wants to see more women get into the natural sciences and dive industries.

You grew up in Ireland – how did you make your way to the South Pacific?
My dad was also a zoologist, which spurred my passion for conservation and wildlife. After I graduated in 2014 with my zoology degree from Trinity College in Dublin, I signed up to volunteer with a marine conservation organization on Beqa Island, Fiji. The combination of precious marine life, beautiful people, and Fijian culture helped me choose Fiji as my new home. Over the next couple of years, I worked on different aspects of marine conservation, including mangroves, coral, fish, and sharks. In 2017, I was lucky to secure a position as a resident marine biologist and dive instructor at Kokomo. It’s been one of my greatest adventures yet.

An aerial view of Kokomo Private Island Resort in Fiji
The view from above: Guests arrive at Kokomo via private seaplane. (Korena Bolding Sinnett)

We’ve highlighted some of the ways Kokomo promotes marine conservation and sustainability in the past, but can you tell us what’s new?
We’re collecting mangrove propagules and have built a mangrove nursery area for them to grow and prosper. About every six weeks, we transplant the mangroves to nearby villages. Mangrove forests are a vitally important protection against tsunami and cyclones in small coastal areas; they’re home to approximately 75 percent of all coral reef fish species at some point in their life cycles; and they’re excellent sequesters of excess carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere.

Last August we launched our Adopt-a-Manta initiative; guests can adopt manta rays by making direct contributions to our Acoustic Manta Tagging Project – the first of its kind in the South Pacific – in collaboration with the Manta Trust Fiji. This year, we’re hoping to expand our turtle conservation efforts. We’re lucky enough to have green turtles residing on our shores throughout the year, so we want to try and protect them and any others in our surrounding waters as best as possible.

A Manta Ray in Fiji.
A manta sighting in the waters off Kokomo. (Korena Bolding Sinnett)

How can resort guests get involved with your work?
Guest interaction is a key element of our marine conservation initiatives at Kokomo. Guests can help plant heat-resilient corals in the Kokomo Coral Garden nursery, where they’ll grow for six to nine months until they’re ready to be replanted in our house reef. During manta season, from April to August, guests can join us on snorkel excursions to help observe and take photos and videos for ID purposes. We’ve helped add more than 100 new mantas to the Fiji database since Kokomo opened in March 2017.

Guests can help plant, maintain, and transplant mangroves – this is great for kids, who learn about the importance of mangrove habitats. We’ve placed floating sea bins in the waters surrounding Kokomo that remove trash and microplastics and filter chemical pollutants; we have little to no trash in our waters, but sometimes small amounts appear after a large storm or cyclone. When that happens, guests can participate in reef cleanup. It’s another great way for kids and teens to learn how different pollutants affect marine life.

What’s a typical day like for you?
First, I’ll check in with the Kokomo kitchen to see if they need us to forage any fresh sea greens. Then we snorkel or free dive to check in on our growing coral propagules and the previously transplanted corals spread across our Walker Restoration Reef. Sometimes we’ll go down with scuba tanks to do some maintenance work on the nursery. As we swim to and from the nursery, which is about ten minutes from shore, we’ll remove any unwanted pollution from the reefs that may have washed up or blown in overnight. After lunch, we check on the mangrove nursery and the sea bins on the jetty; we’ll also collect data on our resident sea turtles and mantas. Guests that wish to participate are invited along on these daily activities – the afternoon turtle surveys are very popular.  We also lead glass-bottom boat tours and guided snorkel and scuba trips for guests on request.

A coral reef at Kokomo Private Island Resort in Fiji.
Kokomo’s Walker Restoration Reef. (Korena Bolding Sinnett)

How does it feel to be a Sustainable Practices Champion?
Winning was definitely one of the greatest highlights of 2019 for us, particularly as it was the first year for the category. It was just so great to see other tourism companies competing to be the most sustainable and environmentally conscious, and to stand up in Sydney [at the awards ceremony] with such strong female role models in the tourism and travel industry. It definitely inspired me to encourage more women to pursue work in the natural sciences and dive industries. I’m very lucky to be part of an all-female marine biology team at Kokomo. My colleague Viviana Taubera is a phenomenal diver, and we share the same passion to inspire and educate the guests that are willing to learn about our marine conservation projects. We’ve noticed a lot of younger females interested in pursuing similar careers and seeking advice from us. We love inspiring young mermaid and mermen warriors to protect our oceans.

Travelers who book their stay at Kokomo Private Island Fiji through a Virtuoso advisor receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.

Top Photo: Korena Bolding Sinnett

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