7 mins

Before it's too late: Saving the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble, but travellers can play their part in offering a lifeline to Queensland's coral kingdom. Find out the ongoing conservation efforts to save this underwater world...

View of the reefs between Cairns and Lizard Island (William Gray)

The manta rays were heading straight towards us: two giant black diamonds rippling beneath the surface of Australia's Coral Sea. As we drifted towards them in our double kayak, I could see that each one must have measured at least three metres across. A wing tip fluttered briefly above the azure water - almost close enough to touch - then they turned and vanished, like smoke shredded against a summer sky.

Behind me, kayaking guide Dom Drotini let out a long, soft whistle from beneath his tattered straw hat: "Incredible! I've only seen them here before a couple of times."

Dom was a man of the sea. At the age of 14, he gave up school and went to work on a trawler. By the time he was 21, he had his own boat, pearl-diving and fishing off Queensland's Cape York Peninsula. During our gentle paddle along the sheltered north shore of Fitzroy Island, near Cairns, he told me about the uncharted caves and pristine reefs he had dived and how, once, he had been surrounded by a 'super-pod' of 5,000 false killer whales chasing tuna through the Torres Straits.

We beached the kayak on Little Fitzroy (there are over 900 islands in the Great Barrier Reef) and began climbing over jumbled boulders ensnared by the aerial roots of strangler fig trees. Below us, an osprey took flight from its nest while two bronze whaler sharks squirmed through the turquoise shallows, scattering fish like silver sparks.

Sea kayaking among the islands of Fitzroy (William Gray)

Sea kayaking among the islands of Fitzroy (William Gray)

"This is one of my favourite spots in the whole world," said Dom. "I've sat here and watched humpback whales with their calves resting just off those rocks down there."

I couldn't bring myself to ask him about coral bleaching. I couldn't bear to wipe the smile off his face with talk of ocean acidification or how cyclones were becoming more frequent and virulent. An hour later, however, Dom wasn't smiling. Paddling back to the resort on Fitzroy Island, we'd stopped for a snorkel on its fringing reef.

"You can really see what's happening here," he said. He swam back to shore after just a few minutes, but I lingered, morbidly captivated by swathes of bleached coral smothered in a brown turf of algae.

I had travelled to the tropical north of Queensland fearing it would all be like that. Following 2016's severe bleaching event, when rising sea temperatures caused corals to become stressed and expel their life-giving symbiotic algae, the UK press latched on and virtually pronounced the entire 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef dead. News travels fast - especially bad news. When I arrived at Cairns airport at the start of my trip, a taxi driver told me he had been picking up an increasing numbers of visitors on a "last chance to see'". They wanted to dive the reef "before it was too late".

Having written my first book on coral reefs 25 years ago, I was eager to see first hand what was happening now. But far from going to read the reef its last rites, I was interested to see how responsible tourism was helping to throw a lifeline to this threatened natural wonder.

Fish explore the coral of Agincourt Reef (William Gray)

Fish explore the coral of Agincourt Reef (William Gray)

Slow & steady

"I'm not a doom and gloom guy," protested Gareth Phillips, a South African marine biologist who runs a visitor education project in Cairns called Reef Teach. This was during one of his evening talks, where he regales audiences with everything from fish ID to the sex lives of corals, yet his underlying message was serious. "The Great Barrier Reef is on a cliff edge," he told me. "It's still considered healthy - fit enough to respond to bleaching - but if we don't act now, it will fall."

Gareth's tips were the perfect primer for my next trip. "The reef is the size of around 70 million football fields," he told me.

"People jump in and start swimming around at 100mph. But my golden rule is: the slower you go, the more you will see."

The following day, on a dive trip to the so-called Ribbon Reefs on the outer edge of the Great Barrier, I tried to heed Gareth's advice. It was rush hour at Agincourt Reef and vast shoals of surgeonfish, parrotfish and damselfish pulsed through the coral citadel. Twisting onto my back, I gazed up at the silver belly of waves 20m overhead, then spun round to focus on a single coral head lying directly in front of me.

Gareth was right: the longer you looked, the more secrets the reef revealed. I watched, transfixed, as a jewel-like goby ventured from its burrow into a psychedelic 'garden' of blue and yellow Christmas tree worms, their feathery feeding frills unfurling from trapdoors on the coral's surface. Tucked into a sheltered overhang, clownfish squirmed in their anemone, while a cleaner wrasse was busy nearby, attending to the dental hygiene of a blue-spotted coral trout.

Jumping in feet first (William Gray)

Jumping in feet first (William Gray)

Forty minutes later, I clambered back on board the Poseidon, low on air but high on adrenaline. Taking just an hour to reach the Outer Reefs, the high-speed catamaran is one of several vessels that now carry eco-certification in recognition of their environmental action plans and efforts to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. Its crew not only briefed us on how to explore safely - whether snorkelling or diving - but highlighted our role in reducing impact on this threatened ecosystem. With over two million people visiting the reef each year, a message as simple as 'Look, don't touch' can save a lot of coral.

Visitors pay an Environmental Management Fee of $6.50 (£4) per day to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), the organisation that manages this World Heritage Site. It ensures that reef-related tourism - worth $5.2 billion (£3.2bn) a year and employing 64,000 people full-time - is as sustainable as possible. But the biggest challenge the GBRMPA faces is building 'reef resilience'.

Coral reefs are not fragile. If healthy, they can recover from cyclones (each fragment from a shattered branching coral can 'seed' the reef with potential new coral colonies) and low sea levels. Even coral bleaching is not a death sentence. If, within a few months of the event, seawater temperatures return to levels at which each coral can reabsorb its algae, then they can be taken back and their healthy relationship restored. Coral reefs have evolved to endure a lot.

Diving in Agincourt Reef (William Gray)

Diving in Agincourt Reef (William Gray)

Bouncing back

"This is not the first Great Barrier Reef," Chris Mower later told me. "It has died and regrown more than once as sea levels rose and fell." Chris is the resident naturalist at Lizard Island, 240km north of Cairns, where I'd flown by light aircraft to spend time in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef, an area hit hard by the 2016 bleaching.

"Last year, sea temperatures reached 34ºC," said Chris as he showed me around the Lizard Island Research Station. "Around 90% of the Great Barrier Reef suffered bleaching, but it was very patchy."

As well as the research station, operated by the Australian Museum, Lizard Island is home to a luxurious eco-lodge, spilling out onto tropical gardens and a coral sand beach. From here, I waded into the shallows of Anchor Bay and swam out to the Clam Gardens, one of the most popular snorkelling spots around the 10 sq km island.

Everywhere I looked, clams smiled back. Frilly mantels of turquoise, orange or blue gaped from giant clams lying on the seabed and the smaller boring clams embedded in huge, centuries-old coral boulders. The reef was festooned in leathery 'elephant's ear' and 'spaghetti' soft corals. But there was evidence of bleaching here, too. Clusters of acropora coral studded the reef like discarded white crowns.

Chris told me earlier that soft corals were often the first to recolonise a reef that had succumbed to bleaching. It took longer for the slower-growing reef-building hard corals to re-establish themselves - their free-floating larvae carried by ocean currents from unaffected reefs. Alarmingly, however, a second bleaching event struck the Great Barrier Reef in early 2017 - the first time the phenomenon had occurred in successive years. Throw in a cyclone or two, a crown-of-thorn starfish outbreak (they prey on certain coral polyps), plus the insidious impacts of ocean acidification and chemical-laden run-off from agriculture, and you have the perfect storm. The reefs have no respite. But there is still plenty of hope.

Jungle bungalow at Thala Beach Nature Reserve (William Gray)

Jungle bungalow at Thala Beach Nature Reserve (William Gray)

Tidal change

Hiking up Cook's Look, Lizard Island's highest peak (359m),I couldn't help but reflect how the tide had turned since Lieutenant James Cook was here in 1770. When Cook climbed to the summit of this high island (which he named after the many yellow-spotted monitor lizards that are still seen scuttling through the undergrowth or basking on granite outcrops), he was searching for a clear passage north through a deadly labyrinth of coral upon which 'the sea broke against in a dreadful surf'. He and the rest of the crew of his ship, The Endeavour, were at the mercy of the reef. Today, that reef is at the mercy of humans, but it's slowly fighting back.

For a start, the coral is alive and it's also still incredibly beautiful and diverse. The last thing the Great Barrier Reef needs is a suffocating shroud of pessimism thrown over it. Of course, there are global issues, such as climate change, that need urgent action to ensure the future of coral reefs throughout the world's tropics. But every tourist that visits the Great Barrier Reef can also play a crucial role by supporting eco-tourism. Not only do visitors act as ambassadors for the reef, spreading the word that it is not a lost cause, but by opting for an eco-certified operator, they help serve as an extra set of eyes for the marine park, helping to identify areas under threat.

With this these newfound optimism in mind, I joined a small group of divers bound for the Cod Hole, one of the Great Barrier Reef's most famous dive sites. Striding off the duckboard of our dive boat, we descended slowly into the blue. A large white-tipped reef shark made a brief appearance, but we had bigger fish in our sights.

Diving alongside a huge potato cod at Cod Hole (William Gray)

Diving alongside a huge potato cod at Cod Hole (William Gray)

Kneeling in a semi-circle on the sandy seabed next to the towering ramparts of the reef, we watched half-a-dozen sofa-sized groupers converge on us. One 100kg potato cod sidled up tome, brushing my face with its pectoral fin and eyeballing me with unblinking curiosity.

After a few minutes getting used to our surroundings, we began to explore the reef. The groupers followed us around like obedient fat Labradors. It was almost as if they wanted to remind us that, despite the hawksbill turtles, moray eels, cuttlefish and clouds of reef fish that constantly vied for our attention, they were still the stars.

The next day, I returned to Cairns, as the twin propellor aircraft I flew on provided a very different perspective of the Great Barrier. Below, the sea was daubed with turquoise and flecked with filigrees of waves breaking on the reefs below us. It's only from the air - or space - that you begin to appreciate its scale and comprehend how something so vast - 2,900 reefs spread over 344,000 sq km - could ever be threatened.

But while climate change feels like a runaway juggernaut, it's too easy to forget the resilience of the reef and the tenacity of the corals. I was also reminded of the growing tide of eco-tourism projects being undertaken here and all the people I met in Queensland who are determined not to give up on this natural wonder. The reef is not dead, but its future is in our hands.

"I just want to be able to take my grandchildren to the coral reefs I dived when I was a kid," Dom Drotini told me after we'd seen the manta rays during our kayaking trip at Fitzroy Island. "I want to say to them 'take a look down there' and for them to be blown away by what they see." With effort from us all, he may just get his wish.

A smaller isle of the Lizard Island group (William Gray)

A smaller isle of the Lizard Island group (William Gray)

The Trip

The author travelled independently, with arrangements by Tourism and Events Queensland (queensland.com). Austravel (austravel.com, 0800 988 4834) offer a ten-day luxury package exploring Tropical North Queensland, including return flights from London Heathrow to Cairns with Qantas, two nights' stay at the four-star Pullman Cairns, two nights at the five-star Lizard Island Resort, three nights at the five-star Thala Beach Nature Reserve in Port Douglas, a Great Barrier Reef cruise and two nights at Fitzroy Island Resort (transfers included).


Pullman Cairns International (pullmancairnsinternational.com.au) is at the top end of city stays, but there's plenty of fine budget options, too, such as hostel Tropic Days (tropicdays.com) and the art deco guesthouse Floriana (florianaguesthouse.com).

Close to Port Douglas, Thala Beach Nature Reserve (thalabeach.com.au) has 83 rustic eco-cabins tucked into rainforest on private headland fringed with beaches. You can book ranger-led nature walks, stargazing and talks with the Kuku Yalanji community, too.

With 24 private beaches, Lizard Island Resort (lizardisland.com.au) offers all-inclusive stays with gourmet dining, a spa and watersports.

Bush camping is also available at Watsons Bay (npsr.qld.gov.au). Elsewhere, Fitzroy Island Resort (fitzroyisland.com) has stays ranging from a campsite to ocean-view suites and beach cabins.

Oak Beach from above (William Gray)

Oak Beach from above (William Gray)

Great Barrier Reef highlights

1: Lizard Island

Lying 33km off the coast (100km north of Cooktown), this continental island has a mountainous interior, coral sand beaches and fringing reefs. Home to an exclusive resort, bush campsite and research station, it can be reached by charter flight.

2: Ribbon Reefs

Long, thin coral reefs form the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, (50–100km off the coast); these can be reached via day cruises and live aboard trips, and promise superb diving at famous sites like the Cod Hole, Steve's Bommie and Challenger Bay.

3: Port Douglas

A more relaxed alternative to Cairns (an hour's drive south) is Port Douglas, which has a good range of stays and boat trips to outer reefs such as Agincourt, as well as access to mainland highlights like the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation.

4: Michaelmas Cay

A tiny coral cay around 40km from Cairns, this slither of sand is a protected sanctuary for up to 20,000 pairs of nesting seabirds, particularly sooty terns, while its surrounding reef supports green turtles, giant clams and Maori wrasse.

5: Whitsunday Islands

A popular sailing destination, these 74 islands are easily reached from Airlie Beach, and form an idyllic archipelago that is mostly uninhabited. Expect dense rainforest, powder-sand beaches and fringing reefs. Accommodation ranges from campsites to exclusive resorts.

6: Heron Island

A forested coral cay in the south of the Reef, Heron Island has a small resort and research station. Over 100,000 birds breed on the island, sea turtles nest on its beaches, and snorkellers here often encounter rays, sharks and dolphins.

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