Beyond the grandeur and affluence of its major cities, Australia is a land epitomised by a surplus of vast unending natural beauty and strange, unique wildlife. From the giant sandstone monolith of Uluru to the dense, ancient rainforests of the Daintree, Australia is bursting with natural wonders that have held immeasurable, spiritual importance to its people for thousands of years.Today these sites draw visitors to Australia in their millions.
But there is one site in particular that faces a disconcertingly uncertain future, the Great Barrier Reef.
The reef covers an area roughly half the size of Texas and is the single largest living structure in the world. Stretching over 2,300 km’s along the coast of Northern Queensland the reef harbours a bigger variation of species than any other
single site in the world.
It’s easy to see why the Great Barrier Reef has been a site of huge anthropological pressure. With over 2 million visitors a year and the increasing pressures of global warming on its fragile ecosystem it is suffering its worst ‘bleaching’ event in recorded history and in 2016 alone lost nearly a quarter of its coral to unseasonably warm sea temperatures.
The reef is at the very top of most traveller’s bucket lists and we felt so privileged to finally get the chance to see this reef up close. The horrifying reality is that if current trends continue (and with a proud climate change denier now sitting in the Oval Office it looks increasingly like they will), we may lose the majority of this majestic ecosystem within our lifetime.
We decided to book our trip with the current issues in mind and opted for a tour with Wavelength Cruises. The company operate with an emphasis on small groups, low impact and education. The company was one of the first in Australia accredited with Advanced Ecotourism and is committed to monitoring the reef and measuring human impact as part of its operation.
The tour itself was impeccable. There was only about 20 people on board with us and the staff all had some background in marine biology and were a fantastic wealth of information. They offered us talks on board as we sailed between reefs and guided tours of the submerged coral environments. They explained in some detail the process of coral bleaching which is currently decimating the reef and instilled everyone on board with a passion for the reef and a sense of urgency in efforts to save it.
When we finally reached the first reef site, I personally felt some trepidation about entering the water. From the boat itself the reef is not glaringly obvious and with no land mass in sight it feels like you are just taking a plunge into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But as soon as you venture beneath the surface it’s quite impossible to retain any feeling of anxiety at all.
Underwater unending azure of the surface is replaced with a plethora of coloured coral polyps, anemones and a ceaseless stream of marine traffic. With your first breath any fear subsides and you glide over the reef without a care in the world. You duck-dive 10-20 metres and inspect clown-fish in their sea anemones and follow schools of giant parrot fish to the reef’s edge and swiftly turning back at the sight of the deep blue beyond.
On our second reef site, some of the crew took passengers out on a number of different guided tours. We were introduced to giant sea cucumbers and given a visual account of the coral bleaching up close. It’s obviously a difficult line to tread, weighing up the impact of your participation in tours to areas like this but with Wavelength and its focus on educating it’s customers, it certainly feels a much more justifiable and eye-opening trip.
By the time we came to leave the reef, after nearly 7 hours out at sea and 3 reef sites, a single trip out hardly felt like enough. After a few months solely on solid ground it’s almost impossible to imagine that thousands of miles away this submerged world exists at all and after nearly two years in Australia and an indeterminate amount of time before we manage to get back there again, it feels imperative that we made the effort to get out and see it.
The Great Barrier Reef and the threats it currently faces tell a wider story of human ignorance and destruction. A willingness to be in awe of the natural world and its sublime beauty whilst simultaneously decimating it for short-term gains under the feigned pretence of materialistic progress.
In Australia, sites like the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru (perhaps it’s two most iconic natural wonders) have long been places of huge spiritual significance and commanding of respect. The concept of privatisation and ownership of land was for many years considered strange and wholly unnatural. The ideology that the land owns us rather than us owning it, at once seemed to colonial settlers barbaric and primitive but as we enter the age of Anthropocene and cause irreversible damage to ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef it serves a staunch reminder of the fact that all our worldly endeavours are nothing without the world to facilitate them.