OMG!! we went to the GBR!

As Kaia mentioned in the previous entry, our main motivation for a 10-day stopover in Cairns, Australia, was to visit the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).  Having heard reports of its beauty and diversity, as well as its decline due to many factors, we wanted to see for ourselves how tourism and other economic activities are affecting it. 

A few stats about the GBR:

348 000 = the number of square kilometres it covers (making it the world’s largest coral reef system)
8000 = age in years of the coral systems we see today (they are growing on top of much older reef platforms)
1770 = the year Captain James Cook ran aground on a portion of the reef in his ship the Endeavour
1500 = number of fish species that live in the GBR
400 = number of coral species
4000 = number of mollusc species
240 = number of bird species (there are about 600 islands of various sizes within the GBR)
250 = how many km it extends off the coast of Queensland
1981 = the year it was named a UNESCO world heritage site for its outstanding universal value
2 000 000 = the number of tourists who visit annually
5 000 000 000 = dollars generated annually by tourism to the GBR

Not our photo, but it shows what we saw better than our own pictures.


The whole reef is divided into different zones.
Permitted activities depend on which zone you are in, and these maps and tables are widely displayed along the coast.

Getting out to the reef is an undertaking that requires at least a full day.  We were looking for something that would allow us to get to a section of the outer reef for a combination of snorkeling and SCUBA diving, and chose Reef Magic, a locally-owned company that uses catamarans to carry people out to a reef platform.  Sounds pretty high-impact, doesn’t it?  Actually, the platforms, or stationary pontoons, cause less damage due to dropping anchors on the coral since it is anchored once and permanently.  However, there is certainly a lot of localised human impact around the pontoon since about 150-190 people visit it each day.

The dock in Cairns was a busy place (and the check-in process was similar to that of an airport!)

The trip out took 1.5hrs and we were going to have 5hrs on the platform (including a buffet lunch).  Jake and I had decided to do 2 dives and Cam and Kaia were going to snorkel and perhaps take advantage of the semi-submersible or the glass-bottom boat.  During the trip out, we got a briefing about the dives from Josh, our divemaster.  There were also a series of short and very informative talks about snorkeling techniques, introductory diving opportunities, underwater photography, and aquatic animals.  By the time we got there, both Cam and Kaia had decided that they wanted to give SCUBA another shot by going for an introductory dive.  If you’re on the GBR, might as well make the most of it!

I was impressed with the young, energetic, and knowledgeable staff.
arriving at the platform
here's what it looked like inside (although we didn't spend much time there!)

The seas were a bit rough on the day we were out there, so the glass-bottom boat and semi-sub weren’t really working.  Luckily, we were planning on spending our time under water!

That's me waving at the camera. We had to wear full lycra suits because of the jellyfish risk. Also good for sun protection!
Jake is holding a sea cucumber.
Look closely and you can see Nemo. At a depth of 12m, the colours are somewhat muted, having lost the red and yellow end of the spectrum. It takes fancier camera equipment and high-powered lights to bring out the colours.

Even in our limited experience on the reef, we saw an amazing diversity of corals and fish.  We came face to face with clownfish and moorish idols, we saw sharks (small ones) and clams (big ones!) Cam and Kaia both had great experiences with the diving.

Here is Cam with the local celebrity, "Wally", a humphead Maori wrasse who patrols this part of the reef.
Jake and Wally, who obligingly poses for photos!

Unfortunately, the reality is that there are significant threats to Wally’s world.  Tourism can be seen as a plus and a minus:  money generated from daily park fees is mostly used to manage the marine park (monitoring the status of the reef and enforcing laws and zoning areas), and tourists leave with a better understanding of the reef.  But all these tourists need accommodation, food, water, and transportation, not to mention the social and cultural impacts for a region that receives 2 million visitors each year!

So, adding to those GBR stats, I guess I can list…

6:  major threats to the health of the GBR

— coastal development that often involves loss of wetlands,
— agricultural runoff that can add nutrients to the water (corals thrive in low-nutrient environments),
— rising sea surface temperature as well as acidification (more CO2 in the atmosphere means more dissolved CO2 in the ocean which means more carbonic acid H2CO3),
— more frequent extreme weather events (such as flooding and cyclones that cause sediment plumes to enter the ocean as well as increase the occurrence of dugong and turtle strandings)
— overfishing (or the residual effects of overfishing),
— dredging of the seabed to keep shipping channels open.  This is a biggie.  The cruise ship terminal in Cairns alone requires 9 million tonnes of dredging and dumping!  Kaia described the attractive and well-used Cairns waterfront.  Apparently the shoreline has undergone many changes over the years due to depositing sediment.  At low tide, it was better to have one’s back to the ocean (large tidal mudflat).

This type of container ship has to be able to navigate through the GBR to get in and out of Cairns. It's quite a bit bigger than Captain Cook's ship that struck reef 250 years ago.

On the suggestion of the marine biologist onboard our Reef Magic catamaran, Cam and the kids paid a visit to CAFNEC (Cairns and Far North Environment Centre: ).  They do a lot of monitoring and education about the reef and according to them, it is in trouble.

While we were in Australia, Queenslanders were in the final days of an election campaign (held on Jan. 31), and conservation of the reef was one of the key issues (alongside privatisation, mining, health, and, believe it or not, “bikie” gangs).  In fact, CAFNEC had organized an all-candidates meeting to specifically discuss the reef.  One of the main concerns is where to dump the dredge spoils — either into the ocean where it affects water quality and clogs organisms, changing the habitat significantly (very unpopular among voters) or dumping it into wetlands (where it has the same effect but on different organisms — more acceptable to voters).  A lot of reef protection has to do with concentrating the negative effects on a few areas.  The platform we visited would be one.  However, it is certainly in Reef Magic’s best interest to educate their clients on reef conservation (which they did) because their business depends on it!  If they allow their section of reef to get damaged, it’s unlikely that they could get access to another. 
A couple of things about the Queensland election surprised us.  First of all, we were shocked to see people campaigning right outside the polling stations on election day. 

Polling station in Kuranda (just outside Cairns). Voters had to run the gauntlet of campaigning volunteers.

And secondly, we couldn’t believe that the results were not available the next day.  The voting system used in Australia is quite complex and requires voters to number each candidate in order of preference.  The ballots are then counted, but if no candidate receives at least 50% of the vote, they drop off the candidate with the least votes and redistribute his or her ballots to the remaining candidates (based on whoever was marked as preference #2).  Sounds complicated and time consuming, but allows for more sophisticated voter input than our system.  Actually, it is now Feb 11 and it appears that the Labour Party won (taking over from the Liberals), but the final election results are still kind of up in the air!  I really hope that the new government makes the GBR a priority in their planning and legislation so that this awesome and ancient ecosystem can survive.  It truly is a wonder of the world.


p.s. One more stat to add to the list:
4:  very satisfied Canadian visitors who marvel at the complexity and beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and are concerned about its future.

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