As one of the sublime seven wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef attracts more than two million visitors a year, is roughly the size of Malaysia or Japan and stretches over 2,100km—making it one of the world’s largest reef systems.
A popular tourist destination, this is where tropical island life is pitched as the perfect getaway from urban living—where snorkelling, diving and lazing about are high on your daily agenda. It’s about reconnecting with nature, slowing down the mind and embracing the beauty that is this vast coral reef coast. It’s the ideal place to log-off, drop out and tune into a mindful way of being.
From wellness escapes to family-friendly adventures, the Reef is just about anything you want it to be—from the luxurious and exclusive quarters of Lizard Island [where children under 10 aren’t allowed] to the quaint and personable energy of Heron Island with a resort and research station. It’s for the adventurous at heart, those keen to embrace nature and described by Sir David Attenborough as one of the “greatest and most splendid natural treasures that the world possesses”.
But for every glamorous tick of approval it warrants from travellers, tourism boards and social media influencers who embrace the almighty hashtag with gusto, the Reef is also in danger thanks to warming sea temperatures, rising sea levels and extreme weather episodes such as cyclones and storms that are changing the core of this ecosystem.
From wellness escapes to family-friendly adventures, the Reef is just about anything you want it to be.
The Reef has experienced five mass bleaching events since the 1990s and these days it’s happening more frequently. The first coral bleaching in this pocket of far north Queensland occurred in 1982, with severe bleaching events occurring in the summers of 1998, 2002, 2006, 2016 and 2017.
Come this summer in Australia, and experts warn another underwater heatwave will impact coral life. Extensive aerial and underwater surveys show that almost a quarter of the corals on the Reef died from the 2016 event in the northern section of Far North Queensland, while a year later, sections further south were hit from Port Douglas to Townsville.
According to marine biologist Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, more coral bleaching events will continue to impact the reef if we don’t do something about it.
“Killing coral has really reduced the ability of the reef to produce offspring,” says Hoegh-Guldberg. “The idea that these large remaining stocks of coral also get whacked at the same time as we’re losing the ability for the reef to regenerate… It’s really serious. Fast forward to today, where we’re driving underwater heatwaves that are more and more regular on almost an annual basis. And at the same time we have acidification and pollution that are slowing the ability for corals to grow back.”
A report titled Lethal Consequences: Climate Change Impacts On The Great Barrier Reef published in October this year revealed that the future survival of coral reefs around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, depends on how swiftly greenhouse gas pollution levels are slashed over the coming years and decades.
According to esteemed Australian scientist Prof Tim Flannery, we can make a difference to the fate of the reef—it’s not as impossible as it may seem. He says the correlation between our day-to-day existence and what happens deep in those oceans are interconnected.
“If people don’t believe we are having an influence on the planet, I think they just don’t see the big picture,” says Flannery. “Just look at the earth at night and see how it’s lit up like a big Christmas tree. You tell me that is having no impact? We have driven the great whales to almost extinction; our cities are so influential in so many ways. We have drained whole rivers and are very powerful entities on the planet. The atmosphere is a very small and dynamic part of it—it’s 500 times smaller than the ocean, so with all those lights on and trees, chimneys and billions of cars means we’re changing the composition of the atmosphere. Man up and understand it’s you who is doing it and start to change.”
Just look at the earth at night and see how it’s lit up like a big Christmas tree. You tell me that is having no impact? We have driven the great whales to almost extinction; our cities are so influential in so many ways. We have drained whole rivers and are very powerful entities on the planet.
Coral bleaching occurs when the water is too warm forcing coral to expel algae [zooxanthellae] living in their tissues—in turn causing the coral to turn completely white. Bleaching is occurring worldwide—not just in the reef with almost half of the coral reef lost in the Caribbean in 2005 due to a massive bleaching event.
“We killed off half the coral at the Great Barrier Reef by 2012 and killed another half of what remained in the last five years or so,” says Flannery. “It’s not hard to see if you keep doing that there won’t be much coral left.”
The return period for global bleaching events has decreased from 27 years in the 1980s to only 5.9 years in 2018. In the future, regional-scale bleaching can be expected to occur in hot summers in both El Nino and La Nina years.
The idyllic Heron Island, located in the Great Barrier Reef, is named after the heron birds that inhabit it. Surrounded by 24 hectares of coral reef, it’s the ideal spot to see coral within metres of walking into the water and barely be knee-deep to witness the beauty. The island has been a World Heritage-listed marine national park for the past 37 years, and it takes all but under 30 minutes to do a lap of its circumference.
Located 72km from Gladstone in Queensland, Heron Island is a slice of heaven on earth. You won’t find day trippers here, there’s barely any phone reception and it’s a two-hour ferry ride from Gladstone, making it the ultimate place to unwind on a secluded island.
There’s a cocktail bar, restaurant, outdoor pool overlooking the coral cay where you can spot manta rays lying low in the shallow waters. Sunset is a treat—a crisp orange hue falls on the horizon at dusk lighting the island in an orange liqueur-tinged glow. It’s the place to do whale watching between June and October, where sea turtles including loggerhead varieties come to nest, and is a prime location for diving expeditions—with a mere five- to 10-minute boat ride to get you to some of the best coral reef exploration sites. You get to swim with colourful fish, witness the fragility of coral and plant life that’s the lifeblood of the Reef.
Coral bleaching occurs when the water is too warm forcing coral to expel algae [zooxanthellae] living in their tissues—in turn causing the coral to turn completely white.
Flannery is not alone when it comes to raising awareness about climate change and the Great Barrier Reef—celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Hemsworth, Olivia Newton-John, Ellen DeGeneres and international campaign and runway models like Jarrod Scott, are all doing their bit to raise a collective awareness.
“Every time I come back to the reef it’s like saying goodbye to an old relative who is slowly weakening and dying,” says Flannery. “I find it very upsetting. Heron Island won’t be here if I live to be in my 90s and rising sea levels and death of coral will contribute to that. The clear-eyed view is we are seeing a system in transition. I don’t want to be one of those people who run off to see the last of something, I want it to be around for generations to come.”
According to the Melbourne based scientist, tourism is one way to get people thinking about the Reef—it generates publicity but also puts climate change at the front and centre of the discussion. And while bleaching has depleted a lot, there is still plenty to see.
“Most people say whatever and ignore it, but it’s like an iceberg, the problems are invisible but they’re eating away at our future,” says Flannery.
The latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, launched in South Korea last month, has warned governments that the window of opportunity to tackle climate change is rapidly running out.
“Global temperatures have risen 1°C in the era following mass industrialisation and this has directly affected Australians, with worsening extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, bushfires and coastal flooding,” said the Climate Council’s acting CEO, Dr Martin Rice.
The IPCC report found that current national pledges are not enough to limit warming to 1.5°C.
“It’s clear that concerted action from all countries, particularly significant greenhouse gas polluters like Australia, is critical if we are to keep temperatures below the 1.5°C limit,” says Rice. “Inaction has already cost us dearly. A 1.5°C world, our best possible future, will change our lives. It’s going to be tough to meet that target but we must strive to do so because a 2°C world would be much worse.”
The Climate Council, Australia’s leading climate change communications organisation, says the sea surface temperature around the Great Barrier Reef in early 2016 was the hottest since records began in 1900. And the resulting devastating bleaching was at least 175 times more likely due to climate change.
For scientists like Flannery, it was a biodiversity conference in Japan in 1999 that inspired him to pursue a life of campaign and commitment to climate change. His book The Weather Makers was released in 2005 to critical acclaim, earning him Australian of the Year in 2007.
The Weather Makers was inspired by a talk given at the conference by professor of environmental biology and global change at Stanford University, Stephen Schneider.
“I was invited to attend the same conference as Stephen and after listening to him speak it was a landmark moment for me in my career to make climate change my main focus,” says Flannery. “I knew a lot of the statistics about climate change in the back of my head, but I hadn’t calibrated the risk properly until then. That’s when I decided my life was going to be about climate change. I wrote The Weather Makers and told Stephen that. He was a total hero of mine, and one of the toughest I ever knew. He lived and breathed by his word, educating about climate until the end.”
As one of Australia’s leading thinkers on climate change, the reef holds a special place in Flannery’s heart. While it saddens him to see it vanish before his eyes, he says governments need to act at a policy level and society must put pressure on them.
“As a scientist, you have your ego taken out of you early on. Your research paper isn’t your baby and has to suffer its own fate when the information is put out there. I don’t like rockstar analogies and prefer to take a back seat,” Flannery says of his many accolades. “I don’t want to be that person who claims that space. Climate change is real and we must all act collectively. We are all equal and need one another to make that difference to our future and that of our coral reefs.”