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Taking one last big breath, I let go of the ladder and lobbed myself inelegantly into the ocean as if doing an accidental salmon dive. Ahhh! I shrieked loudly, totally unprepared for the tropical winter water to instantly enter every crevice of my wetsuit.
The season’s trade winds were in full swing, creating small waves and breaks along the reef’s periphery. I quickly shoved the snorkelling mouthpiece in to avoid gulping a second round of seawater as I waited for the Sailor to join me, smiling with excitement yet a little anxious for what I was about to see.
We were at Mackay Coral Cay on the Outer Great Barrier Reef. This is almost the spot where Captain James Cook crashed into coral on The Endeavour before naming Cape Tribulation just opposite, and it’s the only place on Earth where two World Heritage Sites meet – our backdrop being the lush peaks of the Daintree Rainforest.
Whilst I’ve visited the reef a couple of times before, both occasions were not what I’d imagined. The fish life was pretty cool, but a lot of the coral appeared broken, bleached and not very noteworthy. It was a far cry from the pictures of vibrant coral I’d seen on reef trip billboards.
Afterwards, when I started reading the waves of news headlines about “half the Great Barrier Reef being bleached to death” because of climate change, I was even more keen to see a part of it that was still alive and thriving. After all, this reef system is 2’300km in length and there’s over 3’000 reef systems here. It can’t all be dead, can it?
With that question lingering and hope prevailing, I plunged my head into the water and started kicking.
After just a few strokes we began to see incredible life. Pastel and earthy coral gardens resembling mushrooms, flowers and fingers sat below whilst triggers of fish swam in between.
Bright self-isolating stars were scattered around, giant sea cucumbers were munching on sand (and poohing it out), a stingray was hiding and clown fish kept to their favourite anemone – everything looked as it should be.
It was a relief, and my adrenaline was pumping with joy.
We were lucky to spot two green turtles in the space of half hour which gave me goosebumps. We held back to give it space and followed behind for a little while, noticing three remora fish underneath which looked like they were attached.
I later discovered that the remora fish have little suction cups at the top of their head which gives them a free ride! Nice one guys, I’d probably do that too. But the relationship is mutually beneficial, or symbiotic. They eat parasites off the turtle and the turtle is parasite free, it’s a favourable win-win.
I learnt a lot about symbiosis and algae from our Marine Biologist which may sound (yawn) dead boring normally, but it’s pretty important stuff down in the ocean world, particularly when it comes to climate change.
The Effects of Algae & Climate Change on Coral Health
Moss-coloured algae attaches itself to the shell of green turtles (which apparently isn’t how the turtle got its name) and it also clings to coral, which is another Romeo and Juliet kind of love story.
Coral gives the algae a protected environment whilst the algae makes oxygen and food for the coral through photosynthesis. So when the algae is no longer there the coral becomes sick and may die, and it’s biggest threat right now is from rising sea temperatures induced by global warming.
I was surprised to find out that certain coral species vibrantly illuminate when they’re poorly to try and attract the algae back, a fact our ocean expert spoke of during her presentation. On previous snorkelling trips I remember searching for brightly coloured coral thinking it’s healthy, when in fact the opposite was true. It’s actually sick because the algae died after seawater temperatures increased.
Coral is such an amazing organism that it can produce it’s own sunscreen to create a favourable environment for the algae to return, which is why they glow these florescent shades. Bus like us, sunscreen only goes so far and if the algae doesn’t return then the coral will eventually starve and perish.
Another display of stress is when coral loses it’s colour and turns white. When bleaching. occurs, you’re actually seeing the coral’s skeleton because it’s chucked out the algae.
In Queensland, 2016 and 2017 were particularly devastating years which saw the most severe mass bleaching event on record. Sadly, this caused up to 50% of coral on the Great Barrier Reef to perish. Those stats are beyond tragic – half of the greatest reef system on Earth is dead.
January & February of 2020 were also hot months that led to a third bleaching event. If you were following my Insta stories at that time then perhaps you remember me moaning quite a bit about how ridiculously hot it was. Whilst there was evidence of some mortality at our spot, the majority of coral was healthy and what I imagined the GBR was like before global warming struck.
Most other outer reef sites around Port Douglas and Cairns were spared this time, thankfully, but others weren’t. This is the third massive bleaching event in 5 years, and occurrences such as this have become the new norm.
Hope & Conservation
I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I did about threats to the Great Barrier Reef and its conservation if our Marine Biologist hadn’t been with us. Today I discovered that learning about the reef was just as important as seeing it.
She pointed to some of the smaller coral fragments that were actually clipped on to a parent reef and spoke about the Coral Nurture Program that Sailaway are a part of. It’s a long-term stewardship initiative between a few tour companies and scientists to help sustain parts of the GBR.
At certain times of the year, crew go out and plant fresh coral to encourage new growth. It’s not intended to save the reef, sadly it’s not that easy, but it will hopefully maintain its health, biodiversity at prime sites and allow guides to educate visitors on its threats.
Another small nugget of hope I was pleased to learn is that bleached coral isn’t dead. If only mild bleaching occurs and conditions return to normal (i.e. sea temperatures lower once again) then coral often recovers by attracting the algae back in a matter of months.
In some more extreme cases where up to 80% of coral has been affected, reefs may still recover if there isn’t a second bleaching event or cyclone, but this can take up to 9-12 years. Nowadays we’re seeing bleaching occur more quickly than coral can regenerate, at around every six years as opposed to every 25-30, preventing a total recovery.
And when bleaching is caused by extreme or prolonged periods of rising ocean temperatures then mortality is typically high, and it can just take one hot season to wipe out a whole reef.
In the 2016 documentary Chasing Coral, they filmed at Fitzroy Island just off Cairns and the reef there only took two months to diminish. I visited the island just before filming took place, totally oblivious to the widespread bleaching that was taking place. Again though, I remember it being a long hot summer.
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As we climbed the glass-bottom boat after our first snorkel to visit the Mackay’s beautiful sandy island, the atmosphere was buzzing. Everyone was stoked with the diversity of life that we encountered and each of us couldn’t wait to share our discoveries.
I was feeling grateful and reassured to have witnessed this inspiring site today, struggling to believe that somewhere so otherworldly could be living right here on planet Earth.
I couldn’t wait to write about it, to share my pictures and show people that the GBR is still “great”… in some parts at least. But amidst my relief, I also felt a wave of sorrow.
I was already aware that if global warming increases to two degrees, predicted by 2050, then all coral reefs around the world would die. If warming is curbed to 1.5 degrees, then 70-90% would perish. We’re already at 1°C, and the effects on our reef so far have been fatal.
Seeing the GBR today made me fully appreciate what’s at stake. Half of the 348,000 km2 reef system is still alive, flourishing in some parts and so much marine life depends on it for survival. My Port Douglas community also rely on the tourism that it brings for theirs, as do many other parts of Queensland.
Everyone should have a chance to visit and marvel at this great natural wonder, except it feels like that window of opportunity is slowly fading. It’s not if my grandkids will ever get to see the reef now, it’s if my children will. It breaks my heart, and I don’t want to live in that world.
I wondered how many people- particularly Australians, put off visiting the Great Barrier Reef because they think it’s dead and thought about the consequences of this.
Tour operators like Sailaway are able to help with conservation efforts because of our patronage, and the compulsory GBR environmental management fee (which generates between AUS$10-15 million a year) also goes back into conservation.
There’s also the education and appreciation factor. The more of us that visit the reef, the more we fall in love with it. The more we fall in love with it, the more we’re likely to act on climate change and put pressure governments to improve environmental policies.
So far, 80% of tourism occurs on only 10% of the reef and our visit is hugely beneficial- or symbiotic. Tourism is not the problem here, climate change is. And this trip was the perfect lesson on why we need to curb it.
I’m usually a climate optimist and I’ve been trying to keep positive about the GBR’s future, but it’s been hard and upsetting. There’s no quick solution and the scale of it is beyond any one of us.
Then I remembered all of the good that’s happening and what to be hopeful for.
A number of experts and volunteers are working hard on initiatives to keep the reef thriving. The Reef Restoration & Adaptation Program for example is hoping to double the likelihood of sustaining the Reef in a good condition by 5050 through a series of interventions – if global greenhouse gas emissions are also reduced.
Climate action has come a long way in recent years and people are slowly drumming up enough noise to make politicians listen. Whilst, sadly, we might not have a world full of Jacina Ardern’s yet, so far New Zealand and a number of other countries have planned to be carbon neutral by 2050. Strangely though, one country that needs it the most hasn’t made that pledge – Australia. But there’s still a wiggle room of time left.
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef today not only made made me fully appreciate how special this place is, but I understand it’s diversity and vulnerabilities better. I’ve also helped to sustain a business that relies on tourism to operate, which in turn helps to regenerate the reef. It’s also given me another reason to want to be a better global citizen and environmentalist.
I can think of many more reasons why we should visit the Great Barrier Reef. Have you been yet?
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What are your thoughts on climate change on the future of the reef? Do you have any nuggets of hope, or perhaps you can lighten the mood a little and share your favourite reef trip!