The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 was a natural disaster almost without precedent in human history. On the north and west coast of Aceh, where the tsunami was its most ferocious, the direct damage to coral reefs, while occasionally spectacular, was surprisingly limited. In contrast, the damage to the human environment was extensive; mortality rates in many villages approached 80% and almost all infrastructure, including fishing boats, was destroyed. Reef condition, however, varied widely within the region and was clearly correlated with human activity prior to the tsunami; where local management had been effective, coral cover was high and fish assemblages were diverse, where reefs had been exposed to destructive fishing and/or inappropriate coastal development, coral cover was low and reef fish assemblages where depauperate. The destruction to the human environment caused almost all agricultural, industrial and fishing activity to cease. While the villages have now been rebuilt, population density, agriculture and fishing have yet to return to pre-tsunami levels. Under these conditions, the reef recovery has been dramatic. Coral cover has increased three to six fold at most of the previously damaged sites and these reefs now support abundant and diverse young fish assemblages. This is a dramatic example of what can be achieved in a resilient reef system when human activity is curtailed.