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The Great Barrier Reef

Karen B.'s avatar

Animal Updates | Mammals | Education

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Karen

The Great Barrier Reef
View over the Great Barrier Reef from the dive platform of a live-aboard tourism catamaran.

“That is a lot of jellyfish,” I say nervously. I’m standing barefoot on the dive platform of a ship, a pair of long, blue flippers in my hand. The surface of the ocean before me appears full of purple jellyfish, each about the size of a tennis ball.

“Yup, and it’s not even stinger season yet,” replies the dive safety crewman, writing down my name on a clipboard. “OK, in you go,” he says.

I look around at the other people getting ready to dive or snorkel. Most of them are wearing wetsuits, and I briefly wonder if it’s too late to change my mind. Given the number of jellies here, my short-sleeved rash guard and board shorts seem like woefully inadequate protection. But a few intrepid souls are already in the water not screaming and floundering. This first open water session is only an hour long, it’s my first time to the Great Barrier Reef, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to miss a minute of it.

Splash!

Warm salt water closes over my head and I’m off like a shot, leaving the dive platform behind in a wake of bubbles. The underwater world before my mask is vibrant, full of motion and color. The ship is anchored on the sandy bottom, some thirty feet down. Just yards to the east, the ribbon of reef extends as far as the eye can see.

I look up toward the surface, and realize I’m surrounded by jellies. Running out of breath, I pick the least stinger-packed patch of surface and come up gasping for air. Several small ones bump off of my arms and I wait for the sting, which never comes. Relieved, feeling their jell-o like bodies bouncing off my bare skin, I swim over the reef wall. Life abounds. Huge schools of fish dart between coral formations. Big tabletop coral shelter tiny animals hiding in their nooks and crannies. Parrotfish noisily gnaw on branching hard corals, grinding up bits of reef skeleton (calcium carbonate) into sand. Long silver streaks flash by as a group of tubesnouts startle away. Staghorn and finger coral reach their points up toward the surface sunshine. Looking over my shoulder, I glimpse a barracuda darting away to hide in the shadow under the boat. Distracted by a tiny, bright red and blue blenny tucked into a hard coral, I hardly notice the huge blue sea star just inches away. Feeling the need for air, I rise to surface and - Holy Maori wrasse, Batman! That fish is half the size of me!

The whistle blows long before I’m ready to leave the water. At the next dive session, I’m waiting on the platform. The bloke with the clipboard grins at my impatience and checks me off the boat.

“Have a good swim,” he says.

I dive in, eyes open. There! Just south of the boat, a long gray and white shape swishes through the water. It’s a white-tipped reef shark, nearly as long as I am, and painfully shy. Feeling my approach, the shark cruises away. Thrilled to have seen my first wild reef shark, I explore slowly over the shallows. A patch of brown ahead turns out to be a green sea turtle. The turtle notices my presence, and I quickly look away, the underwater equivalent of sticking my hands in my pockets and whistling, pretending total disinterest in this incredible animal. The turtle decides I’m not a predator and returns to the important business of eating. I follow at a respectful distance as the turtle forages in the reef. I frown as we swim over a few swimming-pool sized areas of broken coral, starkly bleached white amid the color. It looks as though anchors were dropped here, but anchors aren’t this big. Distracted by the turtle, time slips by until at last a whistle calls me back to the boat.

As I stow my gear and towel off, the coral graveyard image lingers. Finding a dive master, I ask what happened here.

“Cyclone last year,” he answers. “It did a lot of damage on this part of the reef.”

Cyclones are a double whammy for the reef – the force of huge waves can crush fragile corals, and the freshwater dumped in by the rains bleaches out the small organisms that give coral their color and life.

“Tourism hurts it too,” he continues, with frank honesty. Even today, I’ve seen people absent mindedly treading water and kicking the top of the reef. The cyclone is evidence of the invisible human impact, as is the unseasonal jellyfish bloom. Global climate change causes unusual storms and changes to the temperature and composition of the sea, letting some populations, like the jellyfish, explode, and making life harder for others.

I have two salt-encrusted days here on the Great Barrier Reef before my flight back to California. I am filled with the beauty of this place and a powerful desire to help it thrive. Small actions – saving energy, recycling, saving water, picking up litter – accumulate to a big whole. Though we might not see the impact, like treading water over the reef, everything we do touches the ocean – our kelp forest in Southern California, tropical reef in Eastern Australia, and all the habitats in between. What we do touches the ocean, every day. You, and your choices, are a part of saving this beauty. Do what you can, share what you know, and never stop learning. Everywhere on this blue planet, we are surrounded by the wild ocean.

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