My head within the water and my again to the sky, I float over big clams and previous towering stacks of vivid coral. Clown fish dart under, their brilliance solely overshadowed by assured purple parrotfish. Lazily, I start my paddle again to shore, after I spot a sea turtle grazing on seagrass. Unperturbed by my presence, it calmly swims to the floor, the place collectively, we float.
It’s precisely how I all the time imagined Australia’s Nice Barrier Reef: vibrant, vibrant, a world of its personal. But when the headlines have been to be believed, what I’m seeing is unattainable. The coral should be a mirage; the turtle, a ghost.
Once I talked about my journey plans to pals, I used to be stunned to be requested if the reef was nonetheless alive. It’s been greater than half a decade since a catastrophic mass bleaching occasion grabbed the world’s consideration, but rumours of the reef’s premature demise persist.
It began in 2016, when Exterior journal printed a satirical obituary asserting the reef had “passed away after a long illness.” Twitter lit up. The tongue-in-cheek article could have been meant to emphasize the urgency of local weather change, however readers took it at face worth. In reality, solely about 30 per cent of the reef was misplaced through the nine-month marine warmth wave.
The backlash uncovered a rift deeper than Marianas Trench between the tourism business and the scientific group. The latter argued that the alarmist messaging was crucial for political and societal change. Tourism operators countered that it could solely result in apathy — doom and gloom doesn’t make for a cheerful vacation.
Six years on, the reality stays someplace within the center. The reef hasn’t died, but it surely’s not effectively. Bleaching — which happens when a sustained rise in temperature causes coral to expel their symbiotic algae, turning them white — is a pure occasion that some coral can get well from.
The issue is the frequency; there have been at the least three recognized mass bleaching occasions since 2016, together with one this yr. Warming waters aren’t the one concern; there’s additionally ocean acidification, outbreaks of coral-eating crown-of-thrones starfish, and cyclones, a by-product of local weather change.
But, scientists stress there’s nonetheless an opportunity to save lots of the reef, and lots of conservationists imagine tourism will play a essential position on its street to restoration.
One in every of these folks is Andy Ridley. The founding father of Earth Hour, he’s now primarily based in Cairns, the place he’s working together with his newest group: Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef.
“The story of the reef is nuanced,” says Ridley. “You’ll discover areas which are actually broken, and also you’ll discover areas which are nonetheless extraordinary and pristine.”
Ridley began Residents after realizing that massive gaps of data nonetheless exist concerning the reef’s total well being. Though usually referred to as the world’s largest residing construction, it’s really made up of three,000 particular person reefs and 900 islands stretching for two,300 kilometres off the coast of Queensland.
Its sheer magnitude means solely 5 to 10 per cent is repeatedly surveyed, whereas an estimated 70 per cent has by no means been documented. A reliance on modelling means we’re nonetheless studying what’s recovering, what’s not, and the place the high-value coral — answerable for offering new life to the remainder of the reef — is situated.
Ridley goals to alter that. Since 2020, he’s been working with scientists and Indigenous sea rangers (environmental managers who mix conventional information with trendy conservation practices) to survey, map and mannequin the complete reef system via the annual Great Reef Census. This information is utilized by researchers and the Nice Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to change administration practices, corresponding to easy methods to greatest reply to crown-of-thorn outbreaks.
It’s an formidable challenge, and one which wouldn’t be potential with out tourism operators.
“You’ll be able to’t do analysis with out boats, and should you think about all of the experience sitting amongst tourism operators and dive instructors — it’s all there,” he says. In accordance with Ridley, the sense of “us versus them” that existed in 2016 has since been changed by co-operation.
Greater than 20 native tourism operators have donated time and assets to the challenge, together with Passions of Paradise, which deployed a wholly autonomous underwater drone to hurry up survey work in 2021.
Tour operators are additionally instrumental to ongoing reef restoration. Port Douglas-based Wavelength Reef Cruises — run by marine biologists John and Jenny Edmondson — has spent the previous 4 years working with the College of Expertise Sydney to plant greater than 70,000 coral fragments throughout 27 websites. The work is finished by employees on tourism boats, who are likely to the coral nurseries whereas their visitors discover the reef, with an 85 per cent coral survival price.
“Coral is superb at making an attempt to develop — nature tries to win out. If it’s sorted, then its restoration is healthier than folks would possibly count on,” says John Edmondson.
And in April 2022, the brand new, $6.6-million (AUD) Reef Magic pontoon launched at Moore Reef off the coast of Cairns. For guests, it provides a secure platform to expertise the reef. For researchers, it has a lab to guage samples, together with these from a trial of “reef stars”: sand-coated metal buildings upon which coral fragments can develop.
Vacationers may also become involved, by aiding in surveying on snorkel or dive excursions. (Simply final yr, citizen scientists found a beforehand unrecorded 400-year-old big coral.) The knowledge gathered helps scientists higher perceive coral spawning occasions and the way people can intervene to enhance the reef’s resilience.
It’s sufficient to present even a skeptic (me) a sliver of hope. But, as I stroll alongside the pier in Cairns and take a look at the huge boats docked — every able to carrying lots of of tourists out to the reef on any given day — I can’t assist however assume there’s an excellent white shark within the pool. Vacationers must fly to get to Cairns, and greenhouse gasoline emissions proceed to be the main reason behind local weather change.
Conflicted by my very own complicity, I ask Ridley what he thinks.
“If folks cease flying right here, then the boats cease,” says Ridley. With out boats, analysis slows. And with out vacationers, he argues, the reef might lose its best advocates.
I see his level, however I’m nonetheless wrestling with it after I arrive on the Museum of Underwater Art in Townsville. Created by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, the museum’s important drawcard is its 158-tonne underwater greenhouse, full with planter containers and a chandelier. Made from cyclone-resistant porous cement, it’s designed to be colonized by coral over time.
It’s not the primary construction constructed on the John Brewer Reef. Within the late ’80s, this was the location of a seven-storey floating resort, with 200 rooms, a tennis courtroom and an evening membership. Wanting on the horseshoe of pristine reef round me, it’s arduous to imagine. It’s additionally the reminder I want. Tourism will all the time exist, however it may be extra conscientious than it’s been prior to now — a power for good, and never only for enjoyable.
I bounce in. Sunshine cuts via the water’s floor, making large faculties of damselfish a shimmery wall of blue. Beneath, there’s proof of the latest bleaching: whitened staghorns and fluorescent coral, a sign of stress. However for probably the most half, what I see is a testomony to life.
Author Jessica Wynne Lockhart travelled as a visitor of Tourism and Events Queensland, which didn’t overview or approve this text.
Find out how to assist the Nice Barrier Reef
Vacationers are contributing to information that’s key to defending Australia’s Nice Barrier Reef. Right here’s easy methods to become involved.
Be part of within the analysis
You don’t have to be a marine biologist or perhaps a PADI-certified diver to assist out. For this yr’s Nice Reef Census (Oct. to Dec.), Port Douglas and Cairns-based tour operators corresponding to Reef Magic and Passions of Paradise will equip guests with the abilities and instruments to participate. From Townsville, Adrenalin Snorkel & Dive repeatedly hosts citizen-science day journeys, and year-round, anybody with a smartphone can contribute underwater observations to Eye on the Reef.
Be taught conservation from an Indigenous perspective
The Nice Barrier Reef is dwelling to greater than 70 conventional clans. They’ve travelled to the reef for over 60,000 years, with teams such because the Yirrganydji Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers instrumental in defending its future. Guests can study extra on a tour with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel, which blends Aboriginal storytelling with Western science.
Be taught from the scientists
Lizard Island, a distant island within the coral sea, is dwelling to one of many nation’s most necessary marine analysis applications — the Australian Museum Lizard Island Analysis Station — and considered one of Australia’s most luxurious lodges. From October, visitors at Lizard Island Resort can have the chance to take part within the Nice Reef Census, in addition to meet immediately with marine biologists to learn the way their analysis is supporting the reef’s resilience.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION