What’s Actually Happening to the Great Barrier Reef?

A new expedition lets you make the decision for yourself.

What’s Actually Happening to the Great Barrier Reef?

Courtesy of Lizard Island

The Great Barrier Reef is alive. Very much so.

I’m snorkeling over the Coral Gardens, a beach-accessible reef that’s a short walk from Australia’s northernmost island beach resort, Lizard Island.

Underwater, I can hear the muffled crunch of parrotfish munching algae off of coral. Yellow and black butterflyfish swoop over giant clams. We swim a respectful distance from two cuttlefish, which select a more camouflaged coloring once they spot us.

Our guide, Dr. Penny Berents, a senior research fellow with the Australian Museum, motions our small group over to a bommie, an isolated crop of reef varying in size from a table to a soccer field. We gather over a chunk of bean-bag-sized coral that has split cleanly from the bommie, lying on its side in the sand.

We surface. “You see there, that’s cyclone damage,” she tells us as we tread water near her. Two category 4 cyclones hit Lizard Island in 2014 and 2015, severely damaging the island and surrounding reefs.

“The coral is broken. It looks like rubble. And that,” she adds, pointing to a tiny, bright blue spike jutting out from the bommie, “that is new growth, which is encouraging to see.”

This is why I’m here: to see with my own eyes what is actually happening with the Great Barrier Reef and its widely reported demise.

In response to travelers’ concern, Lizard Island, the Australian Museum, and the Lizard Island Research Station have launched Guided Reef Expeditions, small-group tours based from the eco-friendly (and rather luxurious) lodge that take divers and snorkelers to see the healthy and thriving parts of the reef, as well as the damaged parts. Consider it a crash-course in coral conservation, led by top marine scientists.

It makes a difference, exploring the reef as though we’re on a guided garden tour. I’m an experiential learner—I learn best by doing and thrive on discussions. Here at Lizard Island, my classroom is clear, 80°F water. I can pop my head out of the water to ask Dr. Berents questions in real time. I’m observing live, bleached, and damaged coral, sometimes all on the same bommie. I can corner Dr. Berents at dinner with more questions.

Already I’m seeing the reef differently, better grasping how this impressive ecosystem works. (With approximately 1,600 species of fish and 400 species of coral, the Great Barrier Reef rivals rain forests for diversity.)

Early the next morning, our group follows the footsteps of history, scrambling up granite boulders and hiking to the highest point on this three-square-mile island, a 1,178-foot vantage point with 360° views. Known as Cook’s Look, Captain James Cook climbed here in 1770 to espy a passage out of the reef, where he and the HMS Endeavour had become trapped.

I can understand why. I lift my gaze from the Coral Gardens, a short swim offshore from one of the island’s 24 white-sand beaches, to the dark, shadowy maze of the outer reef, contrasting with the emeralds and aquamarines of the sea. What I’m seeing is a fraction of the Great Barrier Reef’s vast network of 3,000 individual reefs, stretching 1,800 miles.

I’m grateful for the steadily blowing southeast trade winds; at 8 a.m. the temperature is already uncomfortably hot. As we begin making our way down, I’m dreaming of a cold beer at the sunset barbecue we’ve been invited to.

Lizard Island lodge shares the island with one of the world’s best research stations, ground zero for coral research since 1973. For Dr. Berents, the research station is another home. “I’ve been coming here since 1975,” she tells our group on the short boat ride to the research station. “We lived in tents that caught rainwater for drinking, food was delivered once a month, and my mom used to send me the cricket newspaper clippings on the weekly mail plane. It was fantastic.”

At the station, codirectors Dr. Lyle Vail and Dr. Anne Hoggett walk us past the open, airy laboratories, solar panels that produce 70 percent of the station’s electricity, and flow-through seawater aquarium system. “We host about 100 different research projects every year, with visiting scientists, filmmakers, and researchers from around the world,” Dr. Vail tells us. “We also host students. A lot of kids don’t have the opportunity to get out of cities. This gives them the chance to come here and take away an appreciation for the reef.”

Any Lizard Island guest can tour the research station, which is owned and operated by the Australian Museum, but expedition members get the more in-depth experience—as well as that invitation to the traditional Saturday night barbecue, a way for the scientists (who often have different research schedules) to meet and network.

I meet Rachael Woods, a PhD student based at Macquarie University in Australia. Over a blissfully cold beer on the beach, the sun setting behind the research station’s fleet of yellow dinghies, Woods tells me about the cyclone and bleaching coral recovery study she’s working on.

“We put tiles out on the reef before the coral spawning and come back to count the coral polyps, which we call recruits,” Woods explains. “We see around 200 recruits on a normal year. After the bleaching event in 2016, we saw eight recruits at most. Half the tiles had no recruits. We’ve never seen this before.”

The scientists who have spent the past 45 years here studying the reef agree with the global scientific community: the reef is alive, but struggling. (So much so that the Queensland and Australian governments have challenged scientists to find creative ways to restore the reef to its healthy state. The prize? AUD$2 million.)

Many factors are putting the Great Barrier Reef in peril: unexplained outbreaks of Crown of Thorns starfish, rust-colored 21-armed starfish covered in venomous spines that can drain coral of nutrients in one to three hours (since 1986, the Crown of Thorns have been responsible for 20 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral loss); drastically increased coastal runoff (the 35 catchments that drain into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon carry four times the sediment inflow from 150 years ago); and climate change, which causes stronger, more frequent cyclones and coral bleaching. Lizard Island suffered two mass coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, caused by elevated water temperatures attributed to global warming.

“The current problem on the reef is a cumulative effect,” Dr. Berents says. “In geological time, has this happened before? Sure, but not this fast, and not one thing after the other. The reef has no time to recover. That’s the difference. That’s the threat. This is caused by us. And if we caused it, we should do something about it before it’s too late.

“If you told me as a young grad student that 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has perished in the past 30 years, as long as I’ve been visiting Lizard Island, I would have thought: ‘No, that’s not possible.’ You can’t not see the damage. There are still nice places on the reef, but it’s not the same as it used to be.”

Over the next few days, I visit a dozen different spots on the reef, from inner lagoons to the outer edge. All are teeming with aquatic life—oriental sweetlips, black-tip reef sharks, potato cod. Some reefs are fuzzy with algae. Others are boneyards littered with shards of coral, the result of cyclone damage. And some have bright, strong growths. The reef is resilient—for now. Hope is everywhere, if you know what to look for.

“The best thing for the reef is if everyone sees it and says: ‘No, this is too important to lose’,” Dr. Berents says, when I ask her if travelers should continue to visit the reef. “I don’t agree with people staying away. Apathy is one of the biggest problems the reef faces. I think people wonder what they can do and despair. Having seen the reef, people are much more likely to care about it and to do something. That’s why I think this expedition was such a good idea. It doesn’t shy away from reality, but you get to see the wonderful, wild beauty of this place.”

I suppose if Captain Cook found a way out, so can we. We have time. But the time to act is running out.

Lizard Island will host three Guided Reef Expeditions in May, September, and November 2018. Visit the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation for updates on Lizard Island research.

>>Next: How to Explore the World’s Oldest Rainforest

Carrie Miller is a traveler, storyteller, and award-winning writer. She has been writing for National Geographic and other publications that share her love of exploration for more than 20 years. Her adventures – from diving with great white sharks in Australia to riding reindeer in Mongolia – have taken her around the world.
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