Travel writer Hannah Nicholl has just embarked on a year-long sabbatical in which she’ll explore some of the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Lucky for us, she’ll be writing about her experiences for Green Is The New Black. Her first stop was the Great Barrier Reef, where she went diving and this piece is dedicated to the challenges facing the ecosystem there.
Bryan is a rather large and weathered chap. He likes to spend his afternoons snoozing and his evenings out with one of his many younger mistresses. Bryan also happens to be about 140 years old and a green turtle living on the Great Barrier Reef. I encountered Bryan on my second day of diving as part of a three-day live-aboard while we were about 30 nautical miles east of Cairns. With a shell as large as a double bed, he made an impressive sight as he glided over me and settled in his sandy nook. He then sat there obligingly as several other divers hovered nearby and took GoPro snaps.
Throughout Bryan’s life, he’s had to put up with a variety of changes, and not just tourists. In 1879, when he was a hatchling and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, CO2 levels had not yet noticeably crept up. The global temperature was yet to stray, and the water in the reef would have been cooler, the coral healthier, and given that plastic was not invented until 1907, he certainly didn’t have to dodge any rogue plastic straws floating in the sea.
Today, however, life for Bryan is very different and the realities of anthropomorphic climate change can be seen all across the Great Barrier Reef. A report from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority released in September of this year declared the five-year outlook as ‘very poor’ (a downgrade from ‘poor’ in 2014). Coral bleaching, which is brought about by a combination of warmer sea temperatures and higher CO2 levels, has affected vast swathes of the reef. Scientists reported that almost half of the reef had actually died in 2016 following ‘an unprecedented bleaching event’ with some areas failing to recover and thus becoming wastelands.
I was lucky enough to be diving in some of the healthier parts of the reef, but even there it was apparent that there were areas that had once harboured healthy coral but had now crumbled away into white rubble.
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Photos by @DavidDoubilet | This is Opal Reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef, off Port Douglas, Queensland, in December 2009. The coral “bommie” is covered with tightly packed hard corals, mostly of the Acropora species, that compete for space and sunlight. This is a picture of a robust and healthy coral reef. We returned to this exact bommie in December 2018, after back-to-back thermal events in 2016 and 2017, to document this coral reef through the lens of time. A new report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses that 60% of the world’s reefs are heavily threatened. #Ocean #Coral #Climatechange #CoralReefshroughTheLensOfTime #GreatBarrierReef
Turtles ALWAYS go home
But it’s not just climate change that’s impacting turtles and the wider reef. One day while out on a dive, one of the divemasters explained to me that turtles have incredible homing devices that use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Scientists found that if you put a magnet on a turtle’s shell, it loses all sense of direction, but as soon as it’s taken off, it can find its way straight back to where it came from.
Turtles may voyage around the world, but females will always return to the exact place they hatched themselves to lay their own eggs year after year. When that beach is developed or disrupted in any way, the turtle won’t choose somewhere else to go — it will persevere in that same site despite the changes to its environment. When you think of it like this, taking away a beach can destroy an entire turtle population. On this particular dive, I was fortunate to see several turtles, but the likelihood of seeing them at all is declining, and it’s no longer the certainty it once was.
What I learned about fish
What also struck me was how fast some fish could adapt their behaviour. During one of our night dives, a silver giant trevally swam alongside me. It was using my flashlight to identify smaller fish in the dark and dart out and eat each one that swum across the beam of light. As soon as we would anchor in a new spot, hoards of fish would arrive below the boat, waiting for scraps. My boat was careful to collect leftover food from meals and prevent any from being thrown overboard to ensure that the fish do not become over-reliant on tourism.
Some fish are not as opportunistic. On another one of my dives, I came across a Barrier Reef Anemonefish family (you might know him as Nemo). These kinds of fish are becoming harder to find as their numbers were severely impacted by the desire to have them in fish tanks. The fish don’t reproduce in captivity, and so need to be caught in the wild, which happens to be on the reef. Sadly it sounds like Finding Nemo did more to popularise the fish than it did to get people to leave them alone.
The Great Barrier Reef remains an astonishingly beautiful place — the coral bommies, or outcrops, are brimming with colourful corals of all different shapes and sizes. There are too many fish to count — I tried to memorise different kinds so that I could look them up once I got back to the boat, but in fact, there were too many to remember. Being there and witnessing its richness was an incredibly moving experience, especially as the future is not looking good.
So what can be done?
The problems facing reefs represent some of the largest environmental issues in a big, interlinked jigsaw. The wider movement to solve the climate emergency is critical, given that reefs will be the first ecosystem to disappear. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that a global temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would severely harm coral growth. We must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming for coral reefs to have even a reasonable chance for survival.
Reducing the amount of plastic in the ocean is another essential way of preserving fish and marine life that make up the reef ecosystem. While I didn’t see too much rubbish on my dives, it is still a constant threat. Also, thankfully, the Great Barrier Reef is protected within a marine reserve, so there is less of a risk from overfishing in comparison to many other reefs. Still, unsustainable fishing practices do affect the ecological balance of coral reef communities, warping the food chain. Fertiliser is also known to run-off from farms in Queensland, which causes algae blooms that eat up significant portions of the oxygen in the water, thus starving the fish. For this reason, as well, driving the use of more ecologically sustainable farming practices on land is also important.
Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine. Their destruction isn’t a prediction — it’s already happening. In my lifetime, over 50% of the world’s coral reefs have already died, and up to 90% will die this century if nothing changes. The reefs that remain are damaged and struggling. They are a prime example of irreversible change, but this doesn’t mean we should look away.
Show them EVERYTHING (not just the pretty part)
One of the marine biologists on my boat mentioned a discussion she’d had with a keen diver the week before. He loved the reef and thought it was beautiful, but was completely dismissive of anthropomorphic climate change, or the idea that the reef could disappear. Fossil fuels were still the way forward for him. They provide energy and jobs. Tourists to the reef pay to see its splendour and the dive operators do not seem to showcase the damage (we were only shown relatively healthy reefs even though these now make up a minority). I believe that visitors should be shown the ugly truth about the reef’s demise — I suspect that particular diver’s opinion may have changed somewhat if he were confronted with a bleached and desolate dive site.
Want to experience the Great Barrier Reef for yourself?
This is how to do it:
1. Diving is the best way to get up close and personal with the reef’s inhabitants, but it’s also possible to snorkel.
2. Cairns is the main departure point for many liveaboard tour operators. I went with ProDive.
3. International flights depart almost daily from Singapore. Remember to allow 24 hours after your last dive before flying.
4. Only use “reef-safe” sunscreens as some ingredients in standard sunscreens can harm marine life.