Shirley LaPlanche

journalist / photographer / author


The healthiest coral reef system in the world extends like a vibrant living, breathing, sleeping giant along north-eastern coast of Australia. Considered young at 10,000 years this extraordinary labyrinth of mountains, valleys and plains is 2300 kilometres long (about London to Athens) and as colourful as splashed paint in a kindergarten. The Great Barrier Reef is not only the world’s largest structure made by living organisms it is also the only naturally-made structure visible by astronauts in outer space.

It was not until the middle of the 18th century that it was it realised that corals were animals, not plants, with special prey-catching cells and a simple body with one opening for material to move both in and out. Such an error is easily understood by all who have dived around a tropical reef and seen the likeness of coral to the trees, shrubs and flowers we know on land. Some corals look like daisies. Some have petal-like tentacles that open and close. There are fans of the finest filigree, branches stiff and bent like cacti, fronds that wave like palms in the wind and feathery pinnules for children to blow away. There are hard corals that spread out like coloured moss and two-metre wide brain corals that could be boulders from a river bed. Once a year, in a frenzy of activity, all these animals spawn and shoot millions of tiny reproductive cells into the sea.

But the Great Barrier Reef is more than a collection of corals, it’s a whole ecosystem of associated life forms. On this reef there are 300 species of coral, 1500 species of fish, 4,000 mollusc species, 400 species of sponge, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, echinoderms, 500 species of seaweed, sea snakes, six breeding species of turtle, thousands of birds and one of the largest populations of dugong left in the world. Although called a barrier reef, it is not so much a barrier as a broken maze of 2,900 individual reefs including 760 fringing reefs. As though the variety of plants and animals isn’t enough to astound us, individual reefs come in all shapes and sizes. They can be one hectare or more than 100 square kilometres in size. They can be flat like a platform or elongated like flowing ribbons of colour.

As well, there are all the islands. Six hundred continental islands and 300 cays or reef islands; jewels of emerald and amber fringed with golden sand displayed like a necklace on velvets of turquoise and royal blue. Less than 25 of these islands have resorts which is an indication of how seriously various authorities are working together to avoid over development. The resorts range from family and budget to exclusive like Bedarra Island with 15 rainforest villas, and world-class like Hayman Island a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Four islands – Heron, Lady Elliot, One Tree and Orpheus – have reef research centres open to visitors.

The surreal landscape of colour, pattern, form, function and interaction of the reef is actually an accumulation of skeletal remains of plants and animals. The beauty the diver sees is merely the veneer of living plants and animals growing on the skeletons of previous generations as the reef reaches upwards towards the light. A recent drilling project showed that buried beneath layers of sediment are at least three older reefs, one dating back 18 million years. Because coral cannot live out of water these reefs lived and died with the rise and fall of the sea. The present reef would have started its growth near the end of the last Ice Age when melting ice replenished the seas.

As well as adding to our knowledge of historic sea levels, coral reefs provide an excellent record of climatic changes in tropical regions. In the mid 1980s, Dr Peter Isdale of the Australian Institute of Marine Science placed a core sample of living coral under ultra-violet light and saw glowing, fluorescent bands. He realised these were organic matter from decaying plant tissue washed off the mainland during heavy rains, and an absence of bands meant dry periods. This gave him a record of climatic changes back 350 years, much longer than previously possible and his system is being used around the world.

Unfortunately coral reefs, like rich soils, have been exploited mercilessly by humans and many reefs around the world are now dead or dying. In poor countries coral is used as a building material. Over-fishing has depleted other reefs. Pollutants from fertilised soils, oil spills, pleasure craft and urban development have fouled many seas. Fortunately the Great Barrier reef was saved before too much damage had been inflicted. The first human contact was the Aboriginal people whose communities were quite small. They took only what they needed for food and ceremonies. The arrival of the European some 200 years ago was a different matter. As their numbers grew there was uncontrolled fishing, pearling, mining, boating, tourism, and water pollution from dredging and land developments. By the late 1960s early 1970s mining and oil drilling companies were showing great interest and the people of Australia became concerned. People who had never fought for anything before untied. Even those who knew the reef only through photos and documentaries felt its power and went to battle for its protection – and they were victorious.

In 1975 the Federal Government banned mining, passed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Six years later the reef became one of a handful of sites to be World Heritage listed for all four criteria of natural heritage.

GBRMPA’s role was to be a caring parent administering a balance of freedom and controls, but keeping the reef open for it was too valuable to lock away. In a single year the fishing industry earns A$400 million, tourism A$1 billion and the mainland ports handle goods worth almost A$8 billion.

With so many livelihoods dependent on the reef (2.5 million visitors in 1998 and 40,000 boat licenses), and the fact that it does not have control over anything above low water mark, GBRMPA’s role has not been easy. However, although unable to stop land-based developments, it has undertaken many research programs to identify areas of greatest risk and generally receives co-operation from on-shore authorities. Its success in protecting the reef along with all the commercial activities, is recognised around the world and it has assisted governments in many countries including Ecuador with the Galapagos Islands, India, Fiji, Vietnam, Indonesia, Solomon Islands and Egypt with the Red Sea.

The public also continues to fight against excessive tourism developments near the reef but with tourism such a money spinner, its voice is often a cry in the wilderness. A recent campaign to stop a large hotel/marina complex near Hinchinbrook Island has failed and protesters fear the dredging of mangroves and seagrass meadows has destroyed fish nurseries and dugong feeding grounds forever. Critics also fear that when the resort opens the increase in boat traffic will pollute the waters and boat propellers will injure marine wildlife, especially dugongs.

GBRMPA spokesman, Mr Craig Sambell, said most people harm the reef unwittingly. Once they know more about the life of the reef and how it can be protected they become enthusiastic about its welfare – they don’t chip off a bit of coral for a souvenir and they are careful not to stand on living coral. The Authority runs public education programs through all forms of media, workshops and the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium in Townsville. With visitors, to whom the trip is usually a once in a lifetime event, it encourages the divemasters and cruise operators to be the educators.

Critics accuse large boat operators of providing mass tourism, but Sambell says they are often the most ardent protectors of the reef. They use the same pontoon or mooring every day and their future business is dependent on having a beautiful, undamaged reef to show their visitors. They are also popular because they offer a range of experiences that include lessons in snorkelling and scuba diving, guided dives for certified divers and glass bottom boats for those who don’t like getting their feet wet. Some operators also offer helicopter rides which show that even from the air the reef is a palette of colours. The sea becomes turquoise, jade and royal blue. Snorkellers float spreadeagled like starfish with big feet. Boats bob like pretty toys and the dark shapes of turtles, whales and sharks thrill the senses.

Whether snorkelling along the surface or diving deeper through valleys and secret hollows, there is nothing on land as hypnotic as a coral reef. The kaleidoscope of colours, the textures, the clarity of the water, the fish: thousands of them. Schools of Lilliputian electric blue fish which wash over with green when alarmed, clouds of pink, purple, flashes of silver, brilliant clown fish that live among the stinging cells of the anemone’s tentacles, angelfish in striped pyjamas, fish that peer at you through your goggles until you wonder who is the tourist. Coral encrusted walls drop steeply to the sandy seabed where rays glide like spaceships and huge clams open their velvety insides to capture the light. You are told not to fear sharks but the knowledge they may be near is unsettling. A dark head looks at you from a crevice but it is more curious than threatening. They say if you are quiet you will hear parrot fish munching away at the coral.

Certified divers usually go out with one of the smaller dive charters which stay out one or more nights on the reef. They know where the shipwrecks are and often give lessons in night diving and underwater photography. They may also go to Cod Hole, one of the highest rated dive sites in the world, where huge moray eels and Maori wrasse watch while giant potato cod take food from your hand.

Many endangered species depend on the reef but the three most people want to see are turtles, whales and dugong. The shy and gentle dugong, the only herbivorous marine mammal, is often seen near the coast and may be mistaken for a whale or a large dolphin because of its size and the way it moves through the water. Once abundant in the Indian and west Pacific oceans, it’s believed large herds are now only found around northern Australia where they are protected, except for traditional hunting by the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

The best time to see turtles is during the bitter-sweet process of breeding (October to February and less frequently to April). After mating in the water the females lumber up onto the sand where they laboriously dig a hollow with their flippers and lay 50-150 soft, white eggs the size of ping-pong balls. They then leave and six to seven weeks later the hatchlings dig their way out of the sand and make a kamikaze scramble past hungry crabs and birds for the sea.

The mighty humpback whale feeds during summer in the Antarctic and migrates north about June to give birth in the warm waters around the Great Barrier Reef. After giving birth they make a leisurely return back down the coast to the Antarctic and this is the best time to see them. Mothers rest with their calves in sheltered waters. Adults make underwater rolls and leaps which end in an amazing backward somersault, or hang like washing with only the huge triangle of their tail-fin exposed above the water. They seem relaxed and playful, maybe celebrating that they too are protected and their numbers have increased tenfold over the past 18 years (albeit from a low base).

As we start the new millennium and the probing tentacles of human interest and occupation intrude upon every last frontier around the world, it is comforting to know that the Great Barrier Reef has its protectors. That tourism and commercial interests are being monitored. That whales and turtles can come here every year to give birth. That after a full moon in November the corals can spawn and send millions upon millions of new life cells into a clear and unpolluted sea.