I was certain that the photos of magenta, green and golden corals, crinoids, anemones and fish in the dive boat brochures had been enhanced. No actual coral reefs looked that exquisite in real life, did they? I prepped my camera and donned my dive gear. As my dive buddy and I landed in the water and sank deep below the surface, the brilliant world below came into view. Jacques Cousteau’s words echoed in my ears: “Through the window of my mask I see a wall of coral, its surface a living kaleidoscope of lilac flecks, splashes of gold, reddish streaks and yellows, all tinged by the familiar transparent blue of the sea.” If anything, those dazzling brochure photos failed to capture the energy and diversity of life on the actual Great Barrier Reef – truly one of the living wonders of the world.
Visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living thing. It is composed of tiny coral polyps, plantlike animals that quietly grow atop one another to construct enormous stony structures that stretch over 2,000 kilometers, support over 1,500 fish species and 400 coral species, inject $6 billion a year into the Australian economy and support over 60,000 jobs. This incredible ecosystem is world-famous as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2009 National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Mission Blue founder Dr. Sylvia Earle identified the Coral Sea in which it lies as a “Hope Spot” – a special area critical to the health of the ocean. It is also imperiled by a barrage of threats, most recently resulting from Australia’s coal mining boom, and may soon be labeled as a “World Heritage in danger.”
When I visited Australia from the U.S. for nine months as a marine biology student in 2007, I couldn’t stay away from that magical reef. My marine biology classes at James Cook University took me out to the Orpheus Island Research Station to survey coral and reef fish species. On weekends I volunteered as a “hostie” on dive boats, making beds and cooking meals for tourists in exchange for free diving. I saw a Queensland grouper the size of a Volkswagen, was bumped sideways by a curious but harmless reef shark, and nearly wept with joy the first time I saw a nudibranch – one of those tiny colorful flatworms.
As I fell in love with the diversity of reef species and photographed their striking forms and relationships, I grew to understand not only the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef but also the myriad threats it faces. Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are warming sea temperatures and acidifying seawater; commercial fisheries are throwing the food web out of balance by removing top predators and herbivores that graze algae off the reef and allow baby corals to settle and grow; and land-based sources of pollution and sediment are causing coral diseases, devastating crown of thorns starfish outbreaks, algal blooms that suck oxygen out of the water, and plumes of silt that smother corals. The Australian government formed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in 1975 to regulate harmful activities like fishing, dumping and commercial shipping traffic in a large portion of the reef, which is especially important now as researchers agree that these threats, if left unabated, may spell certain doom for this reef and others around the globe by the end of this century.
Despite its reputation as a beacon of marine conservation policy, the Australian government is prioritizing industry and short-term profit over sustainability. In blatant disregard for the inherent value (not to mention tourism dollars) that the Great Barrier Reef provides to the country charged with protecting it, the Abbott Administration and Queensland government have allocated insufficient funding to resolve pollution issues throughout the reef, and are moving to approve dredging projects to widen shipping lanes and ports within World Heritage waters with dredge spoils to be dumped on vacant coastal land. Experts predict that fine sediment particles from these activities would wash onto the reef, smothering corals and drastically increasing levels of coral disease.
So what can Australians and the millions of us around the globe who love the Great Barrier Reef do to make the government invest in its protection and restoration? We can demand that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee hold them accountable.
Last month, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee threatened to put the Australian government on probation until it proves that it is improving the state of the reef. Failing to do so could ultimately result in UNESCO labeling the reef as a “World Heritage in danger,” tarnishing its reputation as a tourist destination. The World Heritage Committee will meet on 28 June in Bonn, Germany to decide whether to implement this recommendation. They must know that the world is watching and expects them to hold the government accountable.
If we squander the Great Barrier Reef, what’s next? Anything could be up for grabs if we sacrifice this Hope Spot for short-term gains. For the sake of our children and the health of our planet, we must act to save the reef while we still can. As Dr. Sylvia Earle says, we are in a “sweet spot” in time:
Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean or what we could take out. Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible right now… Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us.
Nearly half a million people from around the globe have already joined the World Wildlife Fund’s campaign calling on world leaders and UNESCO to draw a line and pressure the Abbott Administration to halt industrialization near the reef and invest in its recovery. Join me and become a WWF Reef Ambassador at reef.wwf.org.au.
Courtney Mattison is Editorial Manager for Mission Blue – a U.S.-based global initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance dedicated to protecting 20% of the ocean by 2020. National Geographic Explorer in Residence and Time Magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet” Dr. Sylvia Earle founded Mission Blue to explore and raise awareness about Hope Spots – special places that are critical to the health of the ocean, Earth’s “blue heart.” She is also the subject of the Netflix original documentary, Mission Blue.