In winter this year we sailed north on the trade winds, as nature intends. The humpback whales were also migrating north – from the Antarctic to warm tropical waters to have their calves in the safety of shallow waters.
We were sailing through crystal blue seas fringed with ribbons of glowing sand being continually washed by the tidal currents – serpentine rivers of silica and shells slowly forming great islands and then being washed away over time.
At midnight, Frankie and Amy were on watch, chatting excitedly under the stars as they steered past the rough waters of Breaksea spit; the northern edge of Fraser Island. The spit extends underwater for many miles like a tongue, and is alive with sharks and rays, sea birds and marine mammals – all hunting the shoals of fish that congregate along the edges of the deep. They had been listening to the sound of a whale breathing as it surfaced in the darkness every few minutes, swimming apace with the sailing boat which lit up the waves in her red, green and white sectors of the navigation lights. Suddenly, silhouetted against the sky they witnessed a full breach – the whale had dived deeply and come up fast, leaping clear of the water and landing just off the starboard bow with an enormous splash! They screamed and jumped around, sniffing the plankton fug of the whale’s breath as the rest of the crew came tumbling up to wonder at the great patch of white water receding behind us… did it mean to come so close?
At dawn the coral cay, Lady Elliot Island hove into view, and we were soon swimming among manta rays and turtles. It proved to be the best snorkeling of the trip thanks to the green zone that covers the whole island protecting the fish and other animals from fishing activities. Despite the numbers of people flying in daily to be guided in their appreciation of nature – the island itself was covered with lantana and other weeds. We set sail for Lady Musgrave Island where I remembered the larger reef as being even more diverse and spectacular… despite having a pitifully small green zone.
Arriving at Lady Musgrave is a real highlight as the swell often booms as it breaks on the reef on the weather side, and by tucking into the lee to drop the sails, the boat passage then allows access to the shelter of the great lagoon. What a relief! It is a spectacularly beautiful place.
We picked up a mooring and excitedly jumped into the water for our first exploration. The coral was healthy and the reef sharks were circling – but it seemed the fish were absent and even the small green zone itself was ghostly quiet. Later we snorkeled the scary edges of the reef and discovered the same thing – what a disappointment, but overfishing isn’t the greatest threat we pose here.
Much of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by bleaching as a direct result of high sea surface water temperatures which is a recent phenomenon driven in part by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This can obviously have catastrophic effects – not only on the coral and other life forms that live in that zone, but on all life on earth – as it has the potential to change the “life blood” of global currents and subsequent weather patterns globally.
Ironically, another result of global warming – rising sea levels, may be just what the Great Barrier Reef needs to survive. The coral bleaching is occurring in shallow water, and an increasing water depth would give it more protection from warming water and a new lease of life with room to grow! Rising sea levels are what formed most of this reef to begin with.
Ecologically speaking it is not actually the coral itself that is endangered but the habitat. Similar to many marine invertebrates and other world travellers, coral larvae live as free-swimming plankton that are carried on ocean currents until they find a good place to live. I believe that the current focus of efforts to breed coral (or worse) may be really misguided – coral animals will find suitable locations to live on this planet and I think we will see expansions of their range away from their current range as sea temperatures rise… and into deeper water at the edges of the Great Barrier Reef. Coral is not as threatened as the future existence of humans is, and to think that we must attempt to save the GBR as we know it without challenging our practices is clearly stupid. We need to act immediately on the biggest risk to our healthy future which (aside nuclear warfare) is the rate at which we are releasing carbon dioxide. Whether it is through heavy industry, deforestation, overpopulation or over-consumption, all these modern issues have the same influence on the carbon cycle. This is something we can help to change through our daily practices and choices – not only in terms of food miles, energy consumption and who we support politically and through our purchases. We can do it! Especially as an example to our young people. So I believe that with regard to Eco-tourism, Adventure and Environmental Education programs – if it isn’t primarily driven/powered/sustained primarily by sail, wind or solar; then it doesn’t meet the most basic of standards.