Is time running out to see the World Heritage-listed reef before it's cooked by rising sea temperatures? It depends who you ask, as Andrew Stafford found.
Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.
They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.
But what if the promise was broken?
In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30%) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.
Around 75% of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.
During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $443 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.
“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”
According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.
The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.
Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.
Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.
Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.
But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.
We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.
Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.
The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.
But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.
Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.
Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.
As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”
He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”
Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”
Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.
“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.
“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”
“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.
For them, the promise has been kept.
John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”
Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.
Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50% of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48% of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42% to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10% to bleaching.
That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.
It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.
Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.
“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”
Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5%.
“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.
“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.
“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”
The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.
With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.
Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”
Hughes (no relation to James Cook University's professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.
“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.
The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40% decline in juveniles.
Hughes speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity."
We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.
I ask Miller how there can be such a stark difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.
“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”
John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … further around the corner it’s just fine.”
He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.
But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.
“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”
The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.
“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”
The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The gloomy and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.
“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”
John Rumney puts it in starker terms.
“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50% dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50% of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.
“We're on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.
“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.
“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is no longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”
The writer was a guest of the Climate Council. The Climate Council provided some accommodation and travel. BuzzFeed writers do not guarantee coverage.
Professor Terry Hughes works for James Cook University. A previous version of this article said he worked for the Australian Institute of Marine Science.