Alive & Kicking

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The Great Barrier Reef is far from dead

Story & Photographs by Michael AW

Coral reefs are barometers for the well-being of our planet. They are at the frontline at the effect of rising ocean temperature. It is one of the first major ecosystems to suffer from the devastating effects of the climate crisis and an indicator of the health of not only our ocean but our planet.

The Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is the world’s largest reef ecosystem. It stretches across 344,400 km and includes 3,000 coral reefs and 600 islands.

This story contests the mainstream media and popular magazines reports in the last few years about the state of the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Just Google, ‘Great Barrier Reef is dead’, you will see headlines such as ‘Catastrophic Reef Mortality Confirmed on GBR’, ‘The world’s largest organism dies after living for 25 million years and there is even an obituary published in OUTSIDE magazine by a reputable environment writer, Rowen Jacobsen mourning for the death of the natural wonder of our planet which read, “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness.” Published in the SUN print and online editions (theSun.co.uk), Jacobsen wrote, “The incredible Coral Sea wilderness, which stretches for roughly 2250km over an area of roughly 2150 sq. km, has finally succumbed to bleaching.” 

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Of course, his obituary was further perpetuated by hundreds of on-line media - NEWS.com.au, the Independent included. It was further shared several thousand times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed. So, is the Great Barrier Reef, really dead? After vigilant conversations with marine scientists and checking out both the inner and outer reefs myself, I construed, half of the Great Barrier is dead and the other half very much alive and kicking! I have evidence that reveals truths. Generalising with a statement such as ‘the Great Barrier Reef is dead’ or ‘The Great Barrier Reef is certainly not dead’ is at best half-truth and half lie. 

In recent years, the Great Barrier Reef has indeed suffered climate change-induced mass bleaching, which occurs when sea temperatures soar for an extended period and cause coral to expel its algae, the source of up to 90% of their energy and their vibrant colours. In severe cases, bleaching does massacre an entire reef ecosystem. 

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The Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass bleaching six times in the past 25 years due to abnormally high ocean temperatures, in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2016, 2017 and 2020. While the 1998 and 2016 bleaching occurred during El Niño years (a natural climate variation that brings warmer than average ocean temperatures in the region), 2002, 2006, 2017 and 2020 events did not. GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) reported that around half the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef perished in the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. 

In the 2020 event, less death was observed in the north and central portions of the reef as the less heat-resistant corals had already died off in previous years. But in the south, which remained relatively untouched in previous years, it was a different story. Many reefs all the way down south to Heron Island was affected. From nine days of aerial surveys over 1,036 reefs in March of 2020, the director of the Centre of Excellence at James Cook University Professor Terry Hughes, documented severe levels of bleaching in all three sections of the GBR – northern, central and southern – the first time this has happened since mass bleaching was first seen in 1998. The 2020 bleaching was second in severity to 2016. Corals can recover from mild bleaching, but scientists say those corals may become more susceptible to disease. Severe bleaching is detrimental to corals. When a reef loses its structure of healthy coral coverage, it also loses its habitat for a community’s fishes and other reef invertebrates such as worms, crustacean and sponges. Thus, fewer healthy corals have a much broader effect, not just on the corals themselves, but on the entire reef ecosystem. 

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Without a doubt, the Great Barrier Reef in recent years was subjected to its hottest sea surface temperatures since records began in 1900. Three mass bleaching events within five years (2016, 2017, 2020) emphasised the enormous damage at which climate change can cause. Our planet has nearly warmed 1C above pre-industrial levels, caused primarily by rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere principally from the use of fossil fuels. In 2015, under the Paris climate agreement, 169 countries agreed together to each delivers a plan that would keep global warming below 2°C, to keep temperatures increase to 1.5°C. The United Nations in a 2019 report warned that if global temperatures increased by just 0.9° Celsius, which is expected to happen, coral reefs could decline by 70% to 90%. And if it warms by 1.8°C, 99% of the world’s coral reef could all be gone. 

Reality check of the current rate of emission, forecast the world is heading for 3°C of warming by the end of this century. Even as we approach 2°C, scientists are sceptical of the resources, and the tools in development that will be able to protect the demise of coral reefs. Some scientists fear that intensifying amount of heat being absorbed by the ocean may have pushed coral reefs to the tipping point of near-annual bleaching at which many locations will bleach almost annually. As bleaching events become more severe and more frequent, it stymies any recovery. It is akin to rebuilding after a hurricane, only to get hit again by another one the following year.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies recently projected climate models, asserting coral reefs to bleach twice each decade from 2035, and annually after 2044. One climate event will not kill the Great Barrier Reef entirely, but each successive event will create more destruction. The extent to which the Great Barrier Reef will be able to recover from the collapse in stock-recruitment relationships remains uncertain, given the probably increased frequency of extreme climate events over the next two decades. 

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Right now, about half of the Great Barrier is still alive and this is a cause for hope. It is not too late to turn this around with rapid action on carbon emissions. If the world moves on, business-as-usual, the remaining splendour of the Great Barrier Reef as we know now will a dead zone by 2050. What we do or not do, in the next 10 years determine the fortitude for coral reefs to remain as our world natural wonder. There’s undoubtedly no time to lose to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, for Australia, the government is reluctant to make sensible choices. Queensland, where GBR is, and the Federal government are both supporting fossil fuels with subsidises, new coal mines, fracking for gas, and that’s a tangible policy failure in terms of their responsibilities as stewards of our planet. 

 

To persuade authorities to protect what remains of the Great Barrier Reef, we need to convince them with powerful images – not of damaged reefs but of the natural heritage we may lose. I hope these pictures in this essay have the power to change peoples' mind and inspire you to experience the splendour of nature’s most beautiful wonder on our planet. For this photographic mission, I embarked on the MV Spoilsport operated by Australia’s most reputable liveaboard operation, Mike Ball’s Dive Expedition based out of Cairns, the gateway to the GBR. Incidentally, my first photographic sojourn to the Great Barrier Reef was with Mike Ball in 1987. Since then, I have returned several times, on each occasion awe-struck by its diversity and immensity. This present-day journey began on 3rd December which will take me into the Ribbon Reefs, North Direction Island, then across to Osprey Reef and Bougainville Reef diving some of the signature tourist sites on the GBR. All the pictures in the following pages are captured are the state of the reefs we have now, in the last month of 2020. 

The amazing crew of MV Spoilsport took me to photograph several famous sites on central reefs and the Coral sea. At one of my all-time favourite sites, Pixie Pinnacle, I found several of my favourite fish of the GBR - the Sling-jaw wrasse. I swam through overhangs to meet with lionfish, leaf fish, moray eels, shrimps, and was attacked by one very brave female Ocerallis clownfish (aka Nemo). Once out in the blue, I swam into a school of Big-eyed trevally and Blackfin barracuda. Predictably, we found Potato Cods at Cod Hole and there were many more sharks then I remembered at North Horn of Osprey Reef. All the reefs visited were teeming with ornamental reef fishes and pelagics. 

But what about the corals? It was better than expected. The first few days of exploration, the hard-coral coverage, the reef-building corals at the Coral Kingdom, Goggle Gardens, Pixie Pinnacle are healthy and flourishing. Even on the reef top, live coral coverage averages about 80%! There are many young colonies but some meadows are expansive- these are the survivals of 2016, 2017 and 2020 bleaching events – perhaps they are the super corals! I was delightfully impressed with the reefs at Lighthouse Bommie – this is one of the highest traffic tourist diver sites of the Great Barrier Reef. Yet the aesthetic and health of the hard corals on the reef top and reef slope are almost pristine! Among the lush lettuce, coral meadow thrives several anemones with Spine-cheek and Tomato clownfishes. The most vibrant coral colonies seen during the trip are those on the fringing reefs of North Direction Island. Here, the reef top at three to five metres are covered almost in its entirety with several species of vibrant, colourful, young, hard coral colonies – these are the generation Z of corals, born after 2016! The expanse of reefs here is some of the most luscious I have ever seen in 38 years of diving around the world. 

I plan my luck. On the 6th, 7th and 8th December, the few days after the full moon, marine experts predicted the annual coral mass spawning event on the reef. In the darkness of the night, the hard corals of several species simultaneously spewed fireworks of sperm and egg bundles. My night dive on 7th December at North Direction Island was like diving within a pyrotechnic firework at midnight on New Year’s Eve beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Magic in the sea takes on a new dimension. This annual spawning event will help repopulate and regenerate the other 50% of reefs that were destroyed by previous bleaching events. Coral reefs’ resilience is not infinite, however. We need the strongest possible action on the climate crisis, to protect the remaining healthy reefs and to give time for damaged reefs to recover. The Great Barrier Reef is now at a critical tipping point and could disappear by 2050. We need a transformative reduction in carbon emission in the next 10 years, otherwise, we will pass the point of no return. I hope the reefs in this essay will remain the same or in better shape in 2050. If we fail, then these pictures will serve as a memoir of what we once had. 

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