“Is the reef dead? Is it thriving? That’s what people always want to know when they come up here, but it’s really not that simple.”
I’m on a boat, about an hour and a half into the ocean from Port Douglas in Australia’s tropical far-north Queensland. It’s a little cloudy, very warm, and packed with tourists donning stinger suits for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
We’re visiting three sites on Opal Reef, at the outer edge of the Great Barrier, just one of roughly 2,900 reefs that make up the whole. Starting around Bundaberg and running all the way to the tip of Cape York, the reef covers a distance of over 2,300kms, roughly a three-and-a-half day drive. Point is, this thing is vast; it’s the only living organism visible from space.
The trip has been paid for by Reeftip, a new spiced rum distilled at the southern tip of the reef that donates 10% of its profits to aid the reef. That’s what we’re doing here today, inspecting the work being done and the scale of the work still to be undertaken. As the above might suggest, this is no small undertaking.
Opal is one of the most iconic spots on the reef, hence why tourists are brought here daily. Back in 2014, Opal was selected as one of the sites for the filming of the landmark Blue Planet II series. However, what the team captured during their time here, apart from the psychedelic coral and the breathtaking fish, was one of the most devastating environmental disasters in human history.
In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef underwent a mass bleaching event unlike anything seen before. 90% of the coral turned white, with an estimated 29% mortality rate overall. Some of the hardest-hit northern reefs lost as much as 75% of their shallow-water coral.
We’re talking billions of organisms, obliterated thanks to the man-made warming of our planet and our relentless addiction to fossil fuels and the profits they bring. Even the catastrophic Black Summer fires of 2019-2020, in which 3 billion animals were estimated to have died or been displaced, didn’t come close to the scale of destruction wrought upon one of our country’s most iconic national treasures.
Since that time, the reef has undergone four mass-bleaching events, although none as severe as in 2016. Last summer was the first-ever bleaching event to take place during a La Niña year, when ocean temperatures are supposed to be cooler. Climate change is not the only threat to the reef but it’s overwhelmingly the biggest factor.
That all being said, the overall picture of the health of the reef is blurry. While a 2020 survey indicated that the reef has lost 50% of its coral since the 1990s, the latest data from the Australian Insitute of Marine Science (AIMS) suggests that coral cover on the reef may be at a 36-year high. What is going on here?
“The real challenge is understanding what a healthy reef looks like now,” Professor David Suggett told The Latch. He’s the head of the Future Reefs Program at the Univerity of Technology Sydney and has been working in coral science for nearly two decades.
“Our biggest challenge is that we’ve got a shifting baseline when we look at the reef. If we look at the recovery, we can see that it’s actually okay. But, in relative terms, compared to 20 – 30 years ago, it’s changed dramatically”.
Suggett is also head of the Coral Nurture Program which is helped through funding provided by Reeftip to build resilience in parts of the reef that have been bleached or killed. The programme is in the business of shoring up the damage while ongoing research at UTS tries to establish if and how reefs can survive in a world 1.5 degrees warmer and above.
The way he describes it is that the overall coral coverage on the reef is heading on a downhill trajectory. Under the current climate conditions, which are only expected to worsen, “it’s not sustainable,” he said.
It’s not an unsupported assessment. The Great Barrier Reef’s Marine Park Authority’s 2019 outlook report asserts that the outlook for the region’s ecosystems “has become very poor.” It details an overview in which 40% of the health indicators are poor or very poor, with an “unprecedented decline” in coral that has not outpaced recovery. This will not happen unless “the rate of anthropogenic climate change is halted and reversed,” it reads.
Swimming out into the reef, you wouldn’t know it. The sites we visit are beautiful beyond words. We see thousands of fish of all sizes, from schools of tiny damselfish to rainbow, coral-munching parrotfish. There are turtles, sharks, and even clownfish, the international symbol of the reef thanks to Pixar.
There’s also coral as far as the eye can see, which, admittedly, is not very far. The reef looms up from the sandy ocean bottom in wonky columns created over thousands of years, with the current generation growing from the compressed, stony remains of the previous ones. Much of it seems to be in good nick, with forests of branching neon-blue, pale violet, and large, brainy green globules. It’s all overwhelmingly stunning and the three hours we spend in total passes in the blink of an eye.
While there is evidence of bleaching, the reef looked good to me. However, I am no scientist and have very little idea of what I’m really looking at. It’s also my first time seeing it so I have nothing to compare it to.
The boat we’re on is one owned by Wavelength Reef Cruises, one of the top tour operators in Port Douglas. Local operators like these have a historical perspective that fly-in-fly-out holidaymakers simply don’t. One of the crew tells me that, back in the day, you could jump into any part of the reef and it would look like what we’ve just seen. Now, you really need to know where to go to ensure tourists don’t leave feeling hopeless.
Someone who really does know is Emeritus Professor Terry Hughes. He’s one of the world’s foremost experts on the reef and spent 15 years as Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. The journal of Nature has dubbed him a “reef sentinel.”
“The reef today is a checkerboard of black, white, and grey squares that reflect the recent history of bleaching,” he told The Latch.
“Some were bleached as recently as earlier this year, others haven’t bleached severely since 2016 or 2017 so they’ve had five or six years for the beginnings of a patchy recovery.
“There are still enough good spots that the tourism industry can continue to give their clients a good experience. So they’ve abandoned, quietly, of course, some sites that were very badly damaged and which still look very poor and they take the tourists to the better places”.
He reminds me that the area I saw couldn’t have been larger than the size of a football pitch and that “there are 70 million football fields on the Great Barrier Reef.” Ascertaining overall health, from one dive, is entirely unreasonable.
So, what about the AIMS data? The report that suggests the reef has more coral than we’ve seen in the last nearly four decades? At the time it was released, some jumped at the opportunity to claim that environmentalism, and climate change as a whole, is a hoax and that nature is doing just fine without us, say, putting protections in place or limiting our economic reliance on coal and gas. Others disagreed.
“Coral cover is it’s a lousy metric of the condition of a reef because it tells you nothing about the mix of species or the size or ages of the car,” Hughes said.
It would be a bit like trying to understand what’s happening with the population of Australia by measuring our total weight. “It’s a metric, I guess,” Hughes said, but it tells you virtually nothing about the health of the population.
“For people to claim that the Great Barrier Reef has now fully recovered, is, you know, sort of magical. It doesn’t make sense biologically in terms of recovery to a mix of species and sizes that looked like it used to”.
As Hughes said, much of the coral killed in 2016 was half a century old or more. You can’t replace that in just six years. What you can measure though is the number of faster growing, ironically more heat susceptible, coral that takes their place. It’s like looking at bushland after a fire, he explained. Sure, you might see many grasses and small greenery coming through, but you couldn’t describe it as the recovery of an old-growth forest.
There is no doubt that the reef is toxic, but that toxicity comes from our own discourse. Suggesting the reef is either taking its last gasp or living its best life will anger one or the other side of the increasingly drifting political divide — primarily because the reef is the canary in the proverbial coal mine on climate change and subject to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to support it. Affirming or denying its health is either seen as being a climate alarmist or a climate denier.
The truth is that the reef is changing. It always has been ever since it started growing in its current location an estimated 10,000 years ago. However, there is confidence in the view that the reef won’t look anything like what it does now, or what it did thirty years ago, in the future. For each increment of warming the planet experiences, the future of the reef drifts further from our current, Disney conception of it.
“We’ll still have a reef at one and a half. It’d be different, in the same way that the reef today is different from 10 years ago,” Hughes said.
“Two degrees will be a bit of a struggle, and the higher it goes, the more altered the reef will be. I think three degrees will make it untenable for whatever marine ecosystem is there to be recognisable as a coral reef. There’ll be some tropical ecosystem there, but we don’t really know what it’ll look like except that it’s almost certainly going to have far fewer corals in it.”
This is why Suggett and his team are doing the work they do, rapidly trying to learn as much as possible about whether or not corals can adapt and survive in warmer temperatures. He refers to their work as an “insurance policy” as the expectation is that things will get worse.
“You’d hoped you’d never been in this position,” he said.
“If we rewind 20, 30 years ago, when the first calls were made by reef scientists saying ‘if we don’t sort our emissions out now, we will have repeat bleaching events, almost annually, by the year 2020’. We’re living that reality now. The forecasts were there. Now, we’re in a reactive, rather than proactive, mode.”
‘Great barrier reef dead’ is one of the top suggestions when you plug the name into Google. It’s a narrative that tourism operators hate. As they explained to me, it’s not accurate and it threatens their livelihoods. But if it’s not dead then surely it’s alive? Really, there’s no one answer.
The reef is both doing well and doing very badly, depending on how you measure it and from what perspective you see it. Either answer inspires inaction from tourists or from the government. The reality is just vastly more complex than what a single word can capture.
From my very limited view, over one day on the reef, it was beautiful and not something I’ll ever forget. But I know it’s just one football field amongst millions. There’s still time to see the reef, but it’s not likely to stay in its current form for long. What comes after may still be worth visiting, you just might not recognise it.