Coasts, Coral and Conservation - Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is under threat from rising sea temperatures, but conservation projects that offer hope for this natural wonder are underway. Stretching for some 1,430 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the world and the only living organism visible from space. Find out what’s being done to secure this global treasure.

Photo: Esplanade, Cairns City, Australia

Fraser Island

My feet sink deep into the powdery sand beneath me. The wilderness around me is untouched. There’s a dune lake and rainforest inland just feet away, but looking out toward the coral surrounding Fraser Island, I see shades of brown start to pierce the water as the tide rolls out. It looks like someone ran over it with a hot knife, cutting off its intricate twists and turns to create a flat sea of reef around the island. A lot of reefs grow this way in the bays of islands along the Great Barrier Reef, changing their shapes to a smooth surface to avoid emerging from the water levels and being damaged from the sun.

Electric-blue starfish pop in the shallows, while the deeper waters are where life becomes much more abundant. This is the world’s largest sand island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the southeastern coast of Queensland. It was formed by a volcano, and the sand is made of coral that’s been broken down over the millennia. As this is one of the older islands in the region, the sand beneath my feet is as fine as icing sugar. Research by scientific journal Nature Geoscience has shown that Fraser Island is older than the Great Barrier Reef itself. Without it, it’s likely the iconic reef would never have come into existence. It's speculated the island acted as a barrier for sediment, facilitating the widespread coral reef formation that we see today.

Photo: Fraser Island, QLD, Australia

Coral Restoration

Around 900 islands are dotted along the coast in this part of Australia, with over 2,900 individual reefs making up the structure. It’s a delicately balanced ecosystem that provides a home for more than 15,000 species of fish. Following mass coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, efforts to restore the Great Barrier Reef have been ramped up. With waters warming up, coral expel the algae that live in their tissues and supply them with nutrients, turning the coral entirely white. Once bleached, it’s under a lot more stress and doomed to die. “Ask how the reef has been doing and you’ll get a different response depending on who you talk to,” says Peter Gash, a leader in sustainability and coral reef conservation here on Lady Elliot Island in the southern part of the reef. “But you don’t just dive the Great Barrier Reef — you dive in this spot and that spot, because they all have different stories to show.”

Just north of Fraser Island is Lady Elliot Island, and it’s here where Peter has dedicated his life’s work. Planting a forest on the island created an ecosystem that supplies nutrients to the reef: The trees attract birds, and with them come their droppings. These soak into the ground and wash over the reef as the tide comes in, or during rainfall, providing the coral with nutrients that help them to recover from the harmful effects of rising sea temperatures. “We’re lucky here in the south because the reef is protected — education and awareness have saved the reef from teetering on the edge of death,” Peter adds.

Photo: Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Abundant Sealife

I see this for myself the following morning, when I take my first dive. The browns of the coral are interspersed with little pockets of lilacs and dusty blues. Faint pops of red, yellow and blue draw my eyes to the coral, filled with schools of little clownfish. Turtles peek out from crevasses, scratching their algae-covered backs on the reef. Garfish and bamboo sharks aimlessly dart through the surrounding waters. I’m just 33 feet down, around 50 miles from Australia’s mainland coastal city, Bundaberg. But life here is thriving. Work has been underway to help repair the coral damaged on the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. At Fitzroy Island National Park, fragments of coral that have survived the mass bleaching have been grown in a nursery since 2018. Late last year, researchers here witnessed the coral spawning for the first time. In the wild, coral spawning is a naturally occurring annual event, with multiple species of coral releasing sperm and eggs in sync. These float to the water’s surface, fertilize and eventually form new coral when they settle back on the seabed.

There’s more hope coming to the reef’s northern fringes, too. Following the success in Indonesia of Hope Grows, the world’s largest coral-restoration project, the team of scientists, marine biologists and researchers are bringing their knowledge to these shores. They’re attaching coral fragments to steel structures that latch onto existing reef sites to restore and regrow the reef. Meanwhile in the south, off the coast of Mooloolaba, a team of researchers and volunteers from the University of Queensland have discovered a thriving, healthy coral not too far from shore. Keen to learn more, I make my way to Heron Island, a coral bay that’s renowned for its beautiful coral reef and protected sanctuary of marine life. It’s a newer island of coral, and the ground here is more sand-like than that of Fraser Island. During a sunrise snorkel, the ocean is alive with turtles, rays and an impossibly bright yellow sea slug.

Photo: Sealife in Australia

Signs of Growth

I head next to Heron Island Research Station. With 12 resident staff, it’s the largest and longest-established coral reef research facility on the Great Barrier Reef. Today, coral sits in tanks in the hope of finding solutions for coral rehabilitation, while the center aims to show how tourism can have a positive impact on the reef through education and providing more money for conservation. I get to see more of Queensland’s abundant coral the following day when I head to Lady Musgrave Island. The waters here are protected, with the lagoon and reef being home to turtles, manta rays and around 1,200 fish species. Underwater, I swerve by a “cleaning station,” where manta rays come to be cleaned off by smaller sea creatures that feed off the algae on their backs — just one of the many symbiotic relationships that exist on the reef. I see blue, branching coral with turquoise tips — a sign of fresh growth. To see reef conservation minus the crowds, opt for April or May when the water is warm for swimming and diving and underwater visibility is high.

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