Over the past two months, the Great Barrier Reef has received a great deal of attention in the media. How much of this reporting is sensationalism? How much is political jockeying between conservationists, the government and the coal mining industry? And how does all this affect your plans to dive this disputed World Heritage site?
Coral Bleaching: What is it and what causes it?
There is no doubt that the recent El Niño has affected the Great Barrier Reef. This is the third time, since 1998, that the reef has been put through tremendous natural stressors resulting in ‘coral bleaching’. Obviously it is not due to Clorox being dumped into the seas – so what does coral bleaching mean and how does it occur?
Coral bleaching is a term used to describe coral that has turned white. Healthy coral is often a deep brown or khaki-green colour. This coloration is due to symbiotic algae (also known as zooxanthellae) that co-exist with the coral polyp and provide it with carbohydrates. When the coral is stressed during periods of increased sea temperatures, the symbiotic algae depart. Their departure is an illusion. The coral polyps now appear beautifully coloured or fluorescent, despite appearing ‘prettier’, these corals are far from happy. As long as the water temperatures are elevated, the algae are not present to provide sustenance to the coral. If the algae do not return, the coral runs out of energy, turns white and will eventually die. If however, the water temperature is lowered, and the algae return, the symbiotic relationship resumes and the corals may recover.
Global warming results in minor increases in sea temperatures that in turn has catastrophic consequences for coral reefs. Who is to blame for the global warming? Well the buck stops with us! Human activities that produce heat-trapping carbon dioxide are responsible for global warming and the resulting increase in land and sea temperatures. Scientists have discovered that the oceans are more susceptible than land to even minor fluctuations in temperature. With a slight increase in our oceans, sea levels rise, storm patterns change and increase in severity, the ocean-conveyor belt that is responsible for regulating the Earth’s temperature is disrupted, the health and longevity of life giving coral reefs and even the reproduction of krill – a very important link at the bottom of the food chain are all affected.
Multitude of Great Barrier Reef reports
The media is buzzing with reports about the current state of the Great Barrier Reef. There have been calls for the UN to list the reef as “in danger”. Despite requests for the Great Barrier Reef to no longer have World Heritage status, it retains this title at this time. Prof Terry Hughes, director of ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University has undertaken aerial surveys over seven days criss-crossing the entire Barrier Reef. The reef is approximately 2,300 kilometres long, with the affected area being about 1,100 kilometres in the area between New Guinea to Cairns. Hughes has estimated more than 95% of the northern Great Barrier Reef is “severely bleached”. A shockingly low 4 out of 520 reefs have remained untouched by the recent El Nino effects. This came as a devastating blow as the unspoiled northern section was seen as a critical source of genetic material to reseed the southern Barrier Reef. In an interview with the BBC, Nick Heath, (spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund), confirmed this “We have been working to save the reef in [recent] years, and we always took for granted that we had the bank in the northern quarter that was safe, and seemed resilient in previous bleaching episodes, but now it’s cooked to an inch of its life…”
Australia’s Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt has also viewed the reef from the air. His take on the situation, “There’s good and bad news – the bottom three quarters of the reef is in strong condition..”, “as we head north of Lizard Island it becomes increasingly prone to bleaching.” Mr Hunt is confident in the assessment by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (the governmental body responsible for protecting the reef through restrictions on fishing, coastal development and other commercial activity). In a statement, the park authority Chairman, Dr Russell Reichelt, explained that the extent and degree of bleaching varies greatly across the reef. The late arrival of the wet season has possibly saved areas of the reef from coral die off. (Unfortunately the late arrival of the wet season also happened to cause devastation to Fiji via cyclone Winston.)
Political – Economic – Ping-Pong
The Department of Environment announce that the state and federal governments are investing a projected AUD$2 billion (US$1.5bn) over the next decade to protect the reef. The Commonwealth Government of Australia issues a lease for a new coal mine in Queensland – the extraction of coal contributes to global warming and to add insult to injury, the coal will be exported across the Great Barrier Reef, increasing shipping and dredging in the area… The Marine Park Authority plays down the severity and extent of the bleaching in one press statement and later elevates its bleaching alert to the highest level. Conservationists declare that this is the worst bleaching since 1998… A community Facebook page, ‘Capt Trevor Jacksons Coral Bleaching Media Exaggerations Reality Check’ has beautiful, current images taken on the reef. Many of the photographs on the page are from sites that are included in our liveaboard itineraries, as shown on the Dive The World map of The Great Barrier Reef. These areas are fortunately in the bottom three quarters of the reef as per Minister Hunt’s statement and the majority of the worst affected areas are north of Lizard Island.
A diver’s perspective
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland postulates that if there is not significant, immediate change, the world will lose ALL coral reefs by 2040! “This is not in the future, it’s happening right now,” he says.
We are not scientists or world leaders. We are lovers of the oceans, its inhabitants and all life it holds. We love experiencing its wonders personally through the recreational sport of scuba diving. We say ‘why wait?’ Make personal life changes to positively impact our climate and make the most of every opportunity. Book that ticket, confirm that liveaboard diving holiday – and start with the Great Barrier Reef – who knows, it may be gone before you know it!
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