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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 left stunned.
Half of the Great Barrier Reef is dead? … WTF? Did I miss that memo.
At the time of it’s mortality, during a prolonged el niño event between 2016-2017, I don’t remember seeing any news about it on TV or the internet and nobody ever mentioned anything.
When I think back to crazy bushfires at the beginning of the year, the world over knew that Australia was under siege. I couldn’t help but wonder that the reason why the GBR didn’t receive the same attention was because it was hidden underwater where few people see.
The reef spans 2’300kms in length, almost the size of the USA’s west coast- which means there’s a shedload of dead coral. It was hard for me to comprehend the scale of loss at one of Earth’s most iconic Natural Wonders; a place that I live right next door to.
The news made me even more eager to visit a part of the Great Barrier Reef that was still alive and thriving. Although realistically doubtful that I would see anything close to the vibrant & healthy coral I’d encountered in Southeast Asia, I was quietly optimistic.
What Lies Beneath
When the Sailor reached the tip of my flippers, I plunged my head into the water and started kicking.
Our first snorkel began with the option to follow our Marine Biologist who became our underwater guide. She had already given a detailed presentation about a few of the intriguing characters we were likely to encounter on the reef and was about to clarify some more misconceptions. As a Master Reef Guide, she is an expert in educating tourists about the GBR and explaining scientific gobbledygook in a meaningful way.
We followed her for about 15 metres and a huge wave of relief rushed through me. As I looked down I could see pastel and earthy coral gardens (which I heard were healthy colours) that resembled mushrooms, flowers and brains. Triggers of fish weaved in between, whilst 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.
The images below were far greater than the one I had in my head – everything looked as it should be, and my adrenaline was pumping with joy.
As I had a few kids feet kicking into my face, we departed from the group and made our own discoveries. I was soon covered in goosebumps when we spotted our second green turtle.
As it slowly came up for air and dived back down, we followed behind for a little while. Slowly it began to steer us further out towards a bed of finger-shaped coral that looked a little less sprightly. Algae appeared to cover the lifeless branches like moss does a stone and there were very few fish around. I presumed that this coral may have been the victim of bleaching as a result of rising sea temperatures.
On the way over The Marine Biologist mentioned that this site had seen some mortality in recent years but that over time, the reef has potential to regenerate. Essentially working as a fluid ecosystem, she explained that where some corals dies it leaves space for new ones to grow on top and take its place.
We saw evidence of that later on when observing some smaller corals that had grown above dead ones. It reminded me a lot of the herbs that I have growing in my back garden. Once my dill died, the parsley germinated in that pot and took over. I didn’t imagine that the same structure worked underwater too.
Just a swim away, The Biologist pointed out some smaller coral fragments that were planted onto a parent reef. When I looked closely, I could see a small metal clip that held them in place.
She spoke about the Coral Nurture Program that her tour company is a part of, which is a long-term stewardship initiative between a few reef operators and scientists to help sustain parts of the GBR.
Whilst a reef can often regenerate over time, more frequent bleaching events from climate change and other factors such as cyclones give these organisms less time to fully recover. Other factors such as destructive Bumphead Parrotfish that break the coral when they feed, as well as the Crown Of Thorns Starfish who eat coral to death, also have an impact.
This intervention is designed to help the reef recover and assist in its adaptation to climate change. So at certain times of the year, crew go out and plant fresh coral that they’ve nurtured in their nurseries and so far her team has planted over 1’500 across two sites. It was eye-opening to see the results of this first hand today.
A Big Little Love Story
A few vibrant corals gleamed brighter shades and I remembered our expert mentioning that certain species illuminate when they’re poorly, which really surprised me.
On previous snorkelling trips I used to search for brightly coloured coral thinking its healthy, when in fact the opposite was true. It’s actually dying and putting on a ‘florescent show’ to try and attract the algae back.
She explained that algae is to coral what Romeo is to Juliet.
This symbiotic love story exists because algae lives in the tissue of the coral, making oxygen & food for it through photosynthesis – and the coral repays the algae by giving it a protected environment. Smooch smooch, kiss kiss. So when the algae is no longer inside, the coral becomes sick and will eventually starve & perish if the algae doesn’t return.
She went on to mention that some coral here illuminated more than normal earlier on in the year during a long heatwave (which was actually the hottest recorded temperature on the Great Barrier Reef … if you were following my Insta stories then perhaps you remember me moaning about how crazy hot it was) but that it since recovered.
I was surprised that it could regain health so quickly and pointed out the more vibrant corals below which I thought were stressed, but apparently it was perfectly healthy. I was told that because it wasn’t a sunny day the coral appeared more colourful in the water.
Coral Bleaching – is it a death sentence?
Another small nugget of hope I was pleased to learn is that bleached coral isn’t dead, and neither is it always a death sentence.
Bleaching happens when algae leaves the coral tissue causing it to turn white. If only mild or moderate bleaching occurs and conditions return to normal- i.e. sea temperatures lower once again, then coral usually recovers by attracting the algae back in a matter of months.
This year saw the third mass bleaching event on the GBR in five years. Thankfully most sites that experienced this level of bleaching have already recovered or are expected to over the coming months.
In more extreme cases where up to 80% of coral has been affected, mortality is typically higher. However some reefs may still recover in 9-12 years if there isn’t a second bleaching event or cyclone.
The issue right now though in the age of climate change is that reefs which have experienced extreme bleaching are being bleached again before they have a change to regenerate. These events used to happen every 25-30 years before global warming, but now they’re occurring around every six years.
This is why curbing climate change and science-led human interventions are pivotal in ensuring the reefs survival.
* * *
After our first snorkel, everyone climbed in the glass-bottom boat and the atmosphere was buzzing. I felt so inspired and relieved, and couldn’t wait to tell the world “hey guys, the Great Barrier Reef is still great! Come see it”. But at the same time, I also felt a bit of eco-anxiety wash over me.
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 still perish. We’re already at 1°C, and the effects on our reef so far have been fatal.
Visiting the GBR today made me fully appreciate what’s at stake, and I wondered whether it will still be here a decade from now – a possibility I never thought was even imaginable.
The ‘King of Coral’ – Charlie Veron doesn’t think so.
“The reef is in strife, and to say otherwise is bullshit…It won’t be here in 15 years.”
Whilst a number of experts and volunteers are working hard on initiatives to keep the GBR thriving – like the Reef Restoration & Adaptation Program who is hoping to double the likelihood of sustaining the reef in a good condition by 5050 through a series of interventions – their success is only possible if global greenhouse gas emissions are also reduced.
We may not have a world full of Jacina Ardern’s yet, sadly, but I had to remain optimistic. Climate action has come a long way in recent years and so far a number of countries have planned to be carbon neutral by 2050, just as more of us are finding ways we can reduce our individual footprint. But we need to keep our finger on the pump.
I left the Great Barrier Reef today as an ambassador. Whilst it’s certainly not as dead as we think, we do need to take better care of it. I just hope we get there in time.
Help spread the world and pin it for later.
What are your thoughts on climate change and the future of the reef? Do you think we can we turn the tide on global warming to keep it alive for future generations?