The majestic Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s most iconic dive site, for many a good reason. It is of immense size, stretching 2,300 kilometres along the north east coast of Queensland, covering an area 5 times the size of Tasmania. With its nearly 3000 reefs, along with many hundreds of islands, cays, shallow estuaries and areas of deep oceanic waters, the Great Barrier Reef hosts a truly great area of biodiversity. More than 1,500 species of fish call the Great Barrier Reef home; as well as 600 different types of coral, 134 types of shark and ray, over 30 kinds of marine mammal and even 215 bird species. Due to these impressive facts the reef is listed under all four of the Natural World Heritage criteria and is classed as one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It is even the only living thing on Earth that is visible from space!
Given this, it doesn’t come as a surprise that worldwide sadness was felt when reports were released earlier this year that the Great Barrier Reef was being silently devastated by a mass coral bleaching event. Through news programmes and social media, people quickly became familiar with the vastly unknown term, ‘coral bleaching’. Petitions were signed, images were shared, reports were watched, but still the actual meaning and outcome of this event is still a bit of a misunderstanding.
Corals get their wonderful colour from algae, called Zooxanthellae, which live on the coral and provide them with the majority of their food. Coral bleaching occurs when corals become stressed due to a change in their environment and they automatically expel the algae, leaving them their natural white colour. The cause of the stress can come from changes in temperature, light or nutrients in the water.
When corals are bleached they are not dead and can recover, however they are missing their primary food source and are more susceptible to disease. Therefore if conditions don’t return to normal fairly quickly, the corals will die off.
The mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef corals, reported earlier this year, was actually a world-wide bleaching event that began mid-2014 and is the longest and the worst coral bleaching event ever observed. 93% of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected with a current 22% mortality, a number which could still rise. 85% of the coral deaths have occurred north of Cape York whereas south of Cairns escaped significant coral deaths. This particular bleaching event was due to unusually high sea temperatures. Recovery for the Great Barrier Reef will depend on how quickly the waters return to their usual temperatures. Yet, as recently as June 2016, the waters have been recorded as still being 2.5˚C above average. These high sea temperatures are partially to do with the recent strong El Nino, but also very much caused by climate change.
It is of upmost importance that work is done to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from further coral bleaching events and destruction in general. Not only does it provide hugely diverse habitats for the many creatures that call it home, including numerous species that are not found anywhere else on Earth, it is also a key contributor to the Australian economy. The Great Barrier Reef supports approximately 69,000 jobs in industries such as tourism and fishing. It draws thousands of visitors a year to just catch a glimpse of its many wonders and therefore contributes around $5.4billion to the Australian economy each year.
Surprisingly, everything we do on land to reduce our carbon footprint, will in turn reduce the chance of further coral bleaching and help protect the Great Barrier Reef. So walking or cycling rather than driving where possible and keeping switches turned off will help our oceans! To further this, try wherever possible to use biodegradable washing liquids and toiletries and minimising the use of chemically enhanced fertilizers. Planting trees and avoiding deforestation will also in turn affect the health of the world’s oceans. For those visiting, or who live near the Great Barrier Reef support reef friendly businesses and practice safe and responsible diving or snorkelling. Or even volunteer for a reef clean up!
If you are considering traveling to the North Queensland coast to dive the Great Barrier Reef you will have plenty of trips to choose from! From day trips on speedy catamarans to several nights on relaxing sail boats. To really appreciate the reef, I would highly recommend more than a day trip, or setting sail from further north than Cairns. Our trip felt a bit rushed and that we only visited very over used bits of the reef. www.divingcairns.com.au is just one of many websites which show the numerous options for visiting the Great Barrier Reef.
When planning your visit please look out for the Eco Tourism Australia logo, this will ensure that the company you are joining have the reefs sustainable future at heart and will be taking steps to ensure this. Visit www.ecotourism.org.au to discover more about how companies achieve their Eco Tourism status.