Beauty and the reef
Britain’s richest woman, a former Miss UK, is helping Belize set up a marine reserve
HER last big purchase was a £100m superyacht, but now Britain’s richest woman has splashed out on a Caribbean coral reef.
Kirsty Bertarelli, 41, a former Miss UK turned songwriter, and her husband, Ernesto Bertarelli, a Swiss biotech magnate, have channelled millions into safeguarding the future of a 300,000-acre expanse of ocean off the coast of Belize.
It comes as the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers on the British-controlled Pitcairn Islands are planning to turn the pristine waters around their secluded South Pacific home into the largest marine reserve in the world.
The islands’ council recently voted in favour of banning commercial fishing from their “exclusive economic zone”, or territorial waters, although subsistence fishing by islanders will still be allowed.
A spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed that it is considering the plan, which would create the largest fully protected marine reserve in the world and would cover an area of 322,823 square miles.
Both projects are part of a campaign to combat the overfishing, developments and industrialisation threatening the world’s increasingly fragile coastal environments.
The Bertarellis were ranked sixth on The Sunday Times Rich List this year for the £7.4bn wealth they share.
Kirsty Bertarelli was born into a wealthy Staffordshire family. She won Miss UK in 1988 aged 17 and became a successful songwriter, helping to pen Black Coffee, a No 1 hit for All Saints in 2000.
That year she married Ernesto, the Italian-born former boss of Serono, a pharmaceuticals giant. He is also an America’s Cup-winning yachtsman. They have three children. Earlier this year the couple took delivery of the biggest motor yacht built in the UK, the 314ft-long, six-deck Vava II, for about £100m.
The family’s love of the open seas has led them into marine conservation projects via their charitable trust, the Bertarelli Foundation.
In 2010 they bankrolled the British government’s designation of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean as the largest no-take marine reserve.
The foundation’s latest project has involved giving the Belize government more than £3m to turn Turneffe Atoll, part of the second-largest coral reef in the world, into a nature reserve.
The atoll, which is home to endangered and vulnerable species including manatees, saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and rare corals, was previously unprotected and under threat.
Its mangrove swamps act as flood defences for the coastal communities in the central American country, but are at risk from prawn farming and tourist developments.
A spokesman for the Bertarelli Foundation said the family wanted to save “one of the world’s most magical reefs”.
“The Turneffe Atoll and its rare creatures are of huge value and literally world class in their sophisticated ecosystems and the potential they offer for scientific research and wider education,” he added.
The deal was brokered by the Blue Marine Foundation, or Blue, a British charity, and also involves funding from the Oak Foundation in Switzerland.
Charles Clover, Blue’s chairman and a Sunday Times columnist, said: “Protecting Turneffe is about more than just the protection of the atoll’s coral reefs, mangroves and rare species from unsympathetic development and overfishing.
“This deal will enable Belize to get within reach of its target of protecting 20% of the seas within its jurisdiction — which makes it a beacon for marine protection around the world.”
On the other side of the world the residents of the Pitcairn Islands will lay out their own plans for a huge marine reserve next week.
The British Overseas Territory, which consists of four small islands with a total of 52 inhabitants, was founded more than 200 years ago by the mutineers of HMS Bounty and is still populated by their descendants.
The islands have been rocked by various scandals in recent years including allegations of sexual abuse, but seclusion has allowed the marine environment to escape the overfishing and pollution that have affected so much of the ocean.
An expedition to Pitcairn by the National Geographic Society and the Pew Environment Group in March this year discovered a thriving, well developed coral reef at a depth of 246ft — the deepest discovered so far.
Cameras lowered over the side of the ship into deeper waters observed rare creatures and rich coral gardens untouched by trawlers. At a depth of 1,250ft plant life was detected. If confirmed it would be the deepest level at which a photosynthetic organism has been found.
Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society and the leader of the survey, described the discovery as “extraordinary”.
“This is one of the best preserved ecosystems on the planet and many of its species are only found there,” he said.
While the total land area of the islands is only 12,000 acres, the entire territory covers 207m acres.
Tourism provides 80% of local income, said Michele Christian, director of natural resources for Pitcairn. Local artworks, lobsters and commemorative stamps are sold to the dozen or so cruise ships that pass every year. Honey from the island is famously pure and is reported to be a favourite of the Queen. The UK spends an average of £1.5m a year supporting the island.
“We didn’t know what we had in our waters until we were shown a documentary made by the expedition. Now we have a greater appreciation of what a jewel they are,” said Christian.
“Declaring this reserve would put us on the map and help us be a bit more recognised. We’re quite an unknown destination and this could help our tourism.”
It would also give the island a chance to move on from the sex scandal because of which many of its men were locked up in 2006. These days a policeman, a social worker, a teacher, a doctor and a government representative from “off island” all live on Pitcairn.
To guard against impropriety, each is required to come with a companion. Including these 10 outsiders, Pitcairn’s population of 52 is down from a high of 250 in 1936.
“If tourism could increase jobs and income, then it might just attract people to come and repopulate,” Christian added.
The Sunday Times