Why the Great Barrier Reef can be a model for destinations threatened by climate change

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“It’s like another world. I have never seen colours like that!” My 14-year-old nephew, Lachie, has just surfaced in Queensland’s Coral Sea, snorkelling mask suctioned like a starfish to his grinning face. We are at our third diving spot of the day, and it is by far the most dazzling. Beneath the calm navy water is an excess of movement and colour so spectacular, you could swear you’re hallucinating; it’s like an underwater Times Square after midnight. This is the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural world’s greatest wonders. But for years coral bleaching, caused by rising ocean temperatures, has been draining the life from parts of the reef, turning the symphony of colour grey and white. We had set sail on a tour boat from Lizard, one of the reef’s continental islands, and earlier in the day surveyed clown fish swimming through a sickly stretch of coral, then scavengers picking at a dead shelf. So this astounding location is a jolt of joy and hope.

The Pacific crashes on the Whitsundays, an archipelago in the Great Barrier Reef

Tom Hegen

Hope that this natural wonder can be saved is growing. Over the past few years, a new wave of conservationists, government agencies, NGOs and tourism operators has focused on the reef’s sustained health. It includes environmentalist Andy Ridley, the founder and CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, which coordinates conservation efforts among various stakeholders; he is our guide today. “We are moving from an age of talking to an age of doing,” he says. “Sideline commentary on what needs to happen is no longer valuable.” He believes, deeply, that everyone wants to help fix these issues and that so-called experts aren’t the only ones able do the work. So in late 2020, he assembled what he calls a “motley flotilla” of pretty much any vessel he could find here – including tour and dive boats, yachts, and tugboats – to form the Great Reef Census. Using underwater cameras, participants on board these boats, from fishermen to tourists, started documenting the four corners of each lesser reef they sailed to, taking images of the coral and marine life. Afterward, they uploaded their images so that scientists could study them to make informed decisions about the health and future care of various pockets of the larger reef.

The images are analysed by citizen scientists anywhere in the world, from Brooklyn to Bangladesh, as well as by experts and artificial intelligence, to gain a viable understanding of the coral cover. The census is now an annual affair, with the third set to take place this October. More and more vessels of all kinds have been volunteering their services and crews; Ridley estimates that roughly 70 percent of the participants are tour boats. So far, more than 55,000 official images have documented nearly 900 areas of the reef.

For me, watching Lachie presented its own type of hope. While climate change has been a growing threat throughout my life, it has been a matter of urgent concern since he was born. He and his friends see the damage every day. But projects like Andy’s show them that they have the ability to take action to prevent further harm and even reverse the damage that has already been done. Imagine the good you can do when you learn so early in life that you hold the power to make the planet a better place.

How to travel better in the Great Barrier Reef

If you’re looking to participate in voluntourism in the region, consider the luxury lodge Lizard Island, a private retreat and national park that works closely with local scientists to combat threats to coral life; guests can tour its robust research centre. In recent months, the Great Barrier Reef’s Marine Park Rangers, government employees responsible for the day-to-day management of marine parks, have also been trained as guides who can educate curious travellers on the wildlife and ecosystems. They include Indigenous rangers. In June, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef Program launched The Reef Cooperative, which will allow travellers, beginning in 2023, to go to vulnerable areas to see the conservation work and efforts taking place.

This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveller, and was originally published on Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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