Putting the Great Back into a Reef

Published on Apr 29, 2015 by Luke Hunt

Cover Image
This story first appeared in The Edge Review
By LUKE HUNT / Lady Elliot Island

Australia’s reputation as the Lucky Country blessed by sunshine and idyllic beaches has taken a cyclonic beating over recent years. Massive storm systems over Southeast Queensland hammered the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), devastating coral cover and it has struggled to recover ever since.

But scientists also noticed that the reef’s ability to rehabilitate itself was beinghampered by dredging and harmful farming practices with excess nutrients in the water leading to coral bleaching and encouraging the reef’s biggest threat, the coral-eating crown of thorns star fish, to breed in uncontrollable numbers.

Then plans for a major expansion of the port facilities at Gladstone to handle increased coal exports upset environmentalists advocating an end to the industry. Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)launched a campaign to have the GBR listed as endangered by UNESCO.

While damage to the reef might be unprecedented it is restricted to the southern end of the marine park, which was punished by a very rare cluster of cyclones in the first decade of this century.

“The reef is in far better condition than the conservation movement would have you believe,” said Col McKenzie, Executive Director of the Association of Marine Park Tourism operators.

“The conservation movement seems determined to stop the export of coal and has seized on the dredging and port development issues to advance their agenda while they effectively generate negative publicity that is convincing long haul flight tourists not to visit the GBR.”

A public outcry over damage to the reef also prompted the Australian government to act.
Through The Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan the release of inorganic nitrogen by farmers will be cut by 80 per cent by 2025, natural wetlands are to be revived while capital dredging has been abolished along with the dumping of spoil within the GBR Marine Park.

It also includes a A$2 billion, 10-year plan to improve water quality and ensure the reef’s future, which operators hope will help counter much of the negative publicity surrounding the marine park.
“As the GBR is 2,300 km area and has the area of Japan or Italy, it is extremely rare to have a cyclone effect a large percentage of the reef,” McKenzie said. “Sure some individual areas were affected but too much of the tourism area.”

Those tourism areas include Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, a stunning white sand beach where pulling on a stinger suit for protection against the highly venomous Irukandji, a tiny box jelly fish with an excoriating sting, is an awkward introduction to local tropical waters teaming with marine life.

Two people in Australia are believed to have died from Irukandji stings, both in 2002.

Nearby Hamilton Island has been home to the rich and famous – including rock stars like George Harrison. And Qualia Resort has undergone a AUD$350 million upgrade since the island was acquired by Bob Oatley, the founder of Rosemount Estates, in 2003 for just AUD$200 million.
Its lagoons are filled with expensive yachts and lavish lifestyles with nearby upmarket restaurants made for the seriously moneyed.

But if your tastes are geared towards a more natural, rustic destination then Lady Elliot island is a trip. A tiny outpost and basic eco-resort at the southern most end of the reef with access restricted to twin props on a runway of native grass, Lady Elliot is also proof of the reef’s ability to regenerate.

Swimming with turtles over shallow reefs, giant coral trout, reef sharks and deep dives for the experienced snorkelers among manta-rays are just a few minutes from shore. Glass bottom boats operated by knowledgeable and friendly staff who deploy visiting snorklers to collect information on marine life seen on the reef, adds a sense of purpose to the experience.

Russell Reichelt, Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GRMPA) said Lady Elliot island was laid almost bare by Cyclone Hamish five years ago but coral tables almost six metres across had recovered and were now sheltering some of the largest coral trout on the reef.

“Tourism operators say that sometimes media reports of major cyclones can affect their short term bookings. They imagine that there location has been affected even though the storm may have been occurring 1000kms from where their holiday was planned to be.

“So perceptions can play a role in tourists’ choices”

He said recent dives around Lady Elliot were comparable with his first experiences on the reef in 1968.

“Yet Lady Elliot Island and reef are at the southern end of the Reef which scientific surveys suggest is under most pressure from storm damage,” he said.

Direct flights from most major Southeast Asian cities, including Singapore Airlines and Qantas, to Brisbane are daily and Hamilton and Lady Elliot islands are a short hop by charter flight.

Getting there is also getting easier. Townsville airport, towards the centre of the GBR, is being expanded to handle international traffic.

Luke Hunt toured the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Australian government’s International Media Visits (IMV) program.