Seeing the Great Barrier Reef Before It Dies


Seeing the Great Barrier Reef Before It Dies
Story and photos by Michael Buckley

The world's largest and most famous barrier reef is under threat from multiple angles, nearly all of them man-made. A diving writer checks out the damage from different vantage points from below and above.

Great Barrier Reef Underwater
Bleached anenome

So what do Captain Cook and the Great Barrier Reef have in common? Well, they met by accident, and they didn't hit it off. When Cook's vessel HMS Endeavour slammed into the reef off the coast of Terra Australis toward midnight on June 11, 1770, that could easily have sunk the ship. Fortunately for Cook and crew, a chunk of coral embedded itself in the side of the ship, providing a rough plug which was patched over with a sail. After heaving some 50 tons of canons and ballast overboard, the crew managed to refloat the ship and slowly limped back to the shore, where extensive repairs got under way. Captain Cook christened this stopover "Cooktown"—and claimed the entire continent for the British Crown. Had the ship sunk, with all hands on board, the history of Australia would have been entirely different.

Cook is long gone, but the coral reef is still there. Sort of. Some species of hard coral can live for many decades, even centuries. Now the coral of the Great Barrier Reef is fighting for survival. The world's largest underwater living ecosystem is under serious attack, with some southern sections seeing a 5 percent die-off rate, central sections experiencing 20 percent, and northern sections racking up an incredible 90 percent die-off rate.

Jellyfish sign

If only the box jellyfish would die off instead. The world's deadliest jelly patrols these waters, which is why all the snorkelers on our Zodiac-style vessel are covered from head to toe in stinger suits. The sting of the box jellyfish can be fatal—or at the very least, extremely painful.

We are snorkeling about 20 miles off the coast from Cape Tribulation, named by Cook to commemorate the site of his coral debacle. And I am looking at broken and bleached staghorn coral. The guide says this is due to a cyclone passing through a few years back. That is only partially true. There are a multitude of other reasons why the coral is losing its colorful algae—and dying.

bleached coral

The prime suspect is acidification, which can be blamed on climate change, which can be blamed on humans doing silly things to the atmosphere. Right now, fingers are being pointed at El Nino, responsible for warming the oceans to the point where corals give up the ghost and call it quits. Corals are extremely sensitive to warmer temperatures. The list of reasons goes on. Time is ticking, and something drastic needs to be done to save the reef.

Coral reefs cover only 2 percent of the world's oceans but provide safe harbor for something like 25 percent of the globe's fish species, hiding from predators in the coral. That gives coral reefs a huge role to play—and the Great Barrier Reef is the biggest of them all, stretching for several thousand miles along Australia's northeast coast. But what can be done exactly to save the reef? It is not easy for coral scientists to play God and fix the ocean.

On to Port Douglas

Ocean Coral

From Cape Tribulation, the Captain Cook Highway weaves along splendid scenic coast all the way to Port Douglas. In stark contrast to Cape Tribulation, which only sees a few boats of snorkelers venturing out by day, the main marina at Port Douglas is bustling with luxury yachts, powerful cruisers, fishing craft, jet-skis and every other kind of marine vessel. Upwards of 400 tourists pass through this elaborate dock daily, and that represents big income for locals. The reef is the mainstay of the local economy.

I board a large cruiser for an hour-long sprint out to the reef. Here, the reef seems to be in great shape: our dive-master shows off the treasures of the deep, with sightings of reef sharks and a huge potato cod lurking under the coral. And then something bizarre: the dive-master draws my attention to a flowery white formation in shallow water. This looks very familiar—yet completely strange. It is only when I spot the clownfish within that I figure it out: this is a bleached anemone. There's more than just coral giving up the ghost here. They might have to rewrite Finding Nemo.

One of the hazards of the hour-long commute to the reef is the chance of high seas. On the return trip to shore, we get hammered by a sudden upswell of big waves. Even the boat staff look green around the gills. As divers and snorkelers reach for sick bags, barfing up the substantial buffet lunch, the dive-master cheerily tells me the fish will get extra food today, as bags will be emptied overboard.

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