Can we save the coral reefs?

Climate change and rising sea temperatures are a growing threat to the world’s coral reefs. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced mass bleaching in both 2016 and 2017, but has shown signs of recovery — is there hope for the future?

By Tamsin Wressell
Published 15 Apr 2019, 10:24 BST
The largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. ...
The largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. It has around 900 islands, more than 2,900 individual reefs, and provides a home for in excess of 1,500 species of fish.
Photograph by Superstock

My breathing is laboured, soaking up my supply of oxygen at an unsustainable rate, as the waves pound my body. My hand reaches out for an aid that isn’t there as I’m temporarily swallowed by the sea. 

This is my first dive in the ocean. It’s also my first panic attack. I find my way back to the boat and clamber aboard. When I’ve regained my composure a little, I ask the skipper to take me to somewhere with shallower, calmer waters. Thankfully he agrees. When we reach the new site, I steel myself and dive in. It’s a whole new world; a world where the coral is endless and bountiful. Earthy shades are interspersed with muted blues, reds and yellows. I catch glimpses of turtles, hiding under crevasses as they scratch their algae-covered backs on the reef. Sea cucumbers spurt out flecks of sand onto midnight blue starfish as tawny sharks swim by, changing direction with a flick of their fins and startling schools of clownfish as they emerge from the safety of their anemone homes. 

Following the widely reported unprecedented mass coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, this isn’t what I expected to find on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Life here, it would seem, is thriving. 

The largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 1,400 miles. It has around 900 islands, more than 2,900 individual reefs, and provides a home for in excess of 1,500 species of fish. It’s the only living organism you can see from outer space. Nearly three million people visit the reef each year, although tourism isn’t the main issue at the moment. Climate change and rising sea temperatures are the biggest threat. When coral is put under stress, it expels the algae that lives in its tissues and feeds it with nutrients, causing the coral to turn completely white. This can lead to the coral’s death. Tragically, since 2016, this has been the case for half of the reef — 80% of the coral along the reef’s north coast was killed off as a result of heat stress.

“We’re lucky here in the south because the coral is protected,” says Peter Gash. Peter is managing director at Lady Elliot Island, the eco resort I’m launching into the ocean from. It’s the southernmost island on the reef, and the gateway to the Southern Great Barrier Reef. 

A coral cay formed entirely by sedimentary debris, the island appeared above sea level some 3,500 years ago. For a decade in the 1800s, the island was visited by workers mining guano (bird poo) — used as gunpowder and fertiliser — which virtually wiped the land of all vegetation, save for eight Pisonia trees. Today, under the watchful eye of Peter, the island has become a conservation eco-centre, gently reverting back to an island where nature rules. Water from the ocean is desalinated to reduce the amount of drinking water being imported in plastic bottles, energy comes from solar power, and waste is composted in a pit system to support the growth of more foliage. It’s a careful arrangement of cogs, laboriously maintained to protect the island’s now 5,000-tree forest — and its surrounding reef — from damage. 

After dinner, Peter takes me on a tour around the island. “We put the forest in for the forest’s sake,” he explains from the driving seat of a buggy as we bounce over the island’s somewhat basic roads. “But, what we learnt was that it brought the birds. And the birds are pooping. What no one saw coming, is what you’re seeing out here. When the bird poop lands on the ground and the water falls on top, it soaks down into the aquifer. The tide comes in, and takes it into the sand, which washes over the reef to give it nutrients.”

It used to be worse here in the southern part of the reef, I’m told, but education and awareness have saved the reef from teetering on the edge of death. “Closer to the coast and further north, there are cities washing pollution into the ocean,” Peter continues. “Then there’s the mining, tourism, bad weather. Once the coral is affected by climate change and a cyclone comes in, it’s screwed.” 

Since Peter discovered how the reef can be protected through land-based maintenance, other islands in the area have followed suit. Plastic has been banned, fuels are no longer burned and guests are encouraged to leave no trace. “I can point to just out here, a few feet from the shore, to some of the most stunning coral you’ll ever see and you’d find it hard to believe that seven or eight years ago, it looked like a desert,” Peter tells me.

“We all have a circle of influence. But it’s our responsibility to do what we can. I feel it’s an obligation. It’s an expectation. The difference is that a few generations ago, my grandparents didn’t know what they were doing to the planet. We do now. And we know the answer. We can no longer excuse ourselves. We all have to take action.”

If climate change continues at its current rate, there’s a real threat coral reefs will be dead within our lifetime.
Photograph by Tamsin Wressell

Eliminating footprints
Peter’s words stick with me, and I keep them in mind as I head off to see what’s happening on the other islands on Queensland’s Capricorn Coast. I travel further north, to Heron Island, where a centre has been set up for coral reef and ecological research. 

When Professor Peter Harrison, a reef researcher and marine ecologist at Southern Cross University, used these labs for his study into coral rehabilitation in 2016, he found that a rise in sea temperature of 4C would kill off the algae that keep the coral alive. The research was repeated, only this time to test a rise of 1C. The results? We’ll still have a reef, but there will be less biodiversity. This, in part, triggered the Paris Agreement — a United Nations-sponsored agreement between nearly 200 countries to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The difference is that a few generations ago, my grandparents didn’t know what they were doing to the planet. We do now. And we know the answer”

Peter Gash, managing director at Lady Elliot Island

Though Lady Elliot and Heron are both coral cays, Heron is considerably older, the sand underfoot ground down over time to a finer grain. But it too holds scars from human destruction. It was first occupied in the 1920s when a factory producing soup from turtle flesh was built here. Inevitably, the population of turtles in the area dropped dramatically during the decade the factory was in operation. The next weighty punch came in the 1950s, when tourism was introduced. Visitors spent their days riding sea turtles on the island before that was prohibited in the 1960s — the same decade when the harbour was demolished to give boats direct access to the beach, taking part of the reef with it. 

The recent years of conservation have seen the turtles return to lay their eggs. Tourism is still rife today with the island doubling up as a resort, only now, it’s an eco-friendly one. 

My days as a guest at Heron Island are filled with sunrise snorkels around a shipwreck accompanied by rays, sharks and turtles. I pause at a patch of coral and notice manta rays circling — it’s where they get their skin, gills and teeth cleaned by smaller creatures that feed on the parasites. Back on shore, I listen to presentations on wildlife and conservation by the resort’s resident marine biologists and, come nightfall, enjoy a spot of stargazing in a sky free of light pollution. 

But the imminent danger to this part of the world isn’t ignored. Signs are dotted across the island, encouraging visitors to be mindful of the footprint they leave and to report anything that might impact negatively on the reef and wildlife. Like many other snorkelling and diving spots on the Capricorn Coast, coral health charts are widespread, and visitors are asked to monitor and log coral colours. Having spotted a piece of creamy white coral near the shore, I talk to Rachael, a nature guide and also one of the island’s resident marine biologists. 

“That could be bleaching or coral disease,” she informs me. “We’ve seen some bleaching here, but it’ll take time to figure out if the algae will come back or if it’s gone forever.” 

With sea temperatures averaging 27C, the southern part of the reef is in a much safer space compared to the 35C further north. And much like Lady Elliott, nature is returning to reclaim its home here: loggerhead turtles use the island for nesting, large brown boobies roost on the shipwreck, while brain coral has stemmed from the anchors and chains that scar the seabed. 

Tourism benefits
Before I leave Heron Island, Rachael tells me how every part of the reef is different to dive on — each island holds its own story, and its own pain. I head to Lady Musgrave, an uninhabited coral cay popular with nesting turtles. On its surrounding reef bed, I dive into another world of earthy colours, this time, with bursts of lilacs, powder blues and lime greens. 

“The Great Barrier Reef is mostly hard coral,” says Natalie Lobartolo, a marine biologist for tour operator Lady Musgrave Experience. “This means the colours are quite muted. The soft coral around the reefs of Southeast Asia, that’s where the colour really pops. People come here and think that, because the coral’s not as bright as it is on documentaries, it’s dead. That’s a dangerous thing to think. You give up on it.”

It was reports of coral bleaching that brought Natalie back to Australia six years ago, after living in Spain. Today, she runs tours taking tourists on day trips to the island to raise awareness of the danger the reef and its wildlife faces. Plastic pollution is one of the issues Natalie finds herself talking about more and more these days. She tells me of the dangers turtles, which have recently been added to the endangered list, are facing on the reef. 

“Their throats are filled with spines to help them swallow jellyfish. Plastic bags, unfortunately, look like jellyfish. They get caught in their throats, making breathing almost impossible. So the turtles spend more time at the surface, trying to breathe, and that’s when they’re more susceptible to being hit by boats, too.” We stroll on the powdery white sand of Lady Musgrave Island, spotting turtle nesting sites tucked in the shade of the trees. 

I wonder aloud whether the droves of tourist boats that come here on an almost daily basis are adding to the problem.

“Do we shut off the reef entirely or keep it open for tours that are educational and raise awareness? I fear if we close it off, then it can just be forgotten about. We can turn a blind eye if we don’t see the pain the reef is going through”

Natalie Lobartolo, marine biologist for tour operator Lady Musgrave Experience

“It’s a great debate with our national parks — do we shut off the reef entirely or keep it open for tours that are educational and raise awareness?” Natalie says. “I fear if we close it off, then it can just be forgotten about. We can turn a blind eye if we don’t see the pain the reef is going through. And we do have time to turn this all around; we just need to play our parts.” Cancelling trips here for fear of seeing bleaching, Natalie says, will mean losing out on tourism and money for conservation. 

The coral here at Lady Musgrave started to bleach at the tips in August 2018. If climate change continues at its current rate, there’s a real threat coral reefs will be dead within our lifetime. But there’s new growth that can be spotted here too, with turquoise tips spindling out of the blue branching coral. 

I dive once more off Lady Musgrave’s shores before it’s time to check out the neighbouring carbon-positive Pumpkin Island — a privately owned island that runs as an eco-retreat and, quite remarkably, manages to offset 150% of its annual carbon emissions. The same panic that hit me on my first dive starts to bubble up inside me as I sink down further into a world that isn’t mine. 

It’s a feeling I surrender to, giving space for it to grow. I’m a human. And it is, after all, humans that are ruining this place. 

I close my eyes and breathe deeply, with the last thing Peter Gash said to me ringing through my head: “Each and every one of us has been responsible for this, but we’re all here now because we care. It’s really a death by a thousand cuts. And we’re in the process of putting a thousand Band Aids on. We have to keep in mind how inspiring nature is — if we give it a hand, it’ll take it. And it’ll run with it.”

Top tips for responsibly exploring reefs 

Do your research: It’s important to go with a responsible tour operator — check their credentials and that they’re committed to conservation

Watch your fins: When snorkelling or diving on the reef, be mindful of kicking too much as fins can damage coral 

Choose an eco-friendly sunscreen: A lot of sunscreens include harmful chemicals that can damage coral. Use a biodegradable sunscreen, like Aethic, which produces a triple-filter, eco-compatible sunscreen 

Monitor changes: Lots of resorts and dive centres supply coral health charts you can take into the water to monitor the coral’s colour and report any possible bleaching concerning

Take nothing: Many eco-resorts have commandeered the motto ‘take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints’ — listen to it



Tourism Queensland.

Oyster Diving referral or open-water course.

Emirates fly from Heathrow to Brisbane Airport in Queensland, with a stopover in Dubai, from £700 per person. 

Published in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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