How climate change is affecting the Great Barrier Reef and what you can do to help
We take a look at the underwater reality of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef and what you can do to ensure the survival of our great national treasure.

Take a plunge into the ocean. The water is warm, the current steady and the waves gentle. On the inner edges of the Great Barrier Reef, it’s hard to dive or snorkel without being acutely aware of what you are immersing yourself in; the underwater reality of climate change and reef decay. You see it on the news, hear it in political debate and understand the worldwide crisis of “the reef is dying”. But what’s really happening?

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has been evolving for more than 20 million years and has been an intrinsic part of life and culture for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for an estimated 40,000 years [1]. It’s the largest living organism on the planet, spanning 344,400sq km of the ocean and over 2600km in length along the northeast coast [1]. Officially designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, the beautiful and awe-inspiring underwater wonderland is, sadly, in peril.

The current situation

A recent reef outlook report published by the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority finds the greatest threat to the reef is still climate change [3]. An initial report in 2012 revealed a loss of over 50 per cent of the coral cover since 1985 due to storm damage, crown-of-thorns starfish and coral bleaching [4]. With ocean temperature rises, a global problem triggered by climate change, coral bleaching occurs when unnaturally hot ocean water destroys a reef’s colourful algae, leaving the coral to starve [5].

Significant bleaching events occurred in 2016 and 2017, where it was predicted at the time that the reef may never recover [5]. As well as bleaching, there are other key threats associated with human use of the reef, such as illegal fishing, coastal development and land-based runoff [3]. For almost a decade, the world has been watching with bated breath to see if the reef can be saved, and awareness for reef health has become a household topic.

There is, however, some good news. Human use of the reef isn’t all bad. In fact, every person that visits the reef can help in its conservation. As soon as you book a registered tour or trip on the reef, you unknowingly pay to help conservation efforts through a “reef tax” which contributes to the day-to-day management of the marine park and improving its long-term resilience [4].

According to local divers in Cairns, the reef has been in noticeable decline over the past five to 10 years — coral deterioration, biodiversity loss and changes in seagrasses are the more noticeable aspects of the reef’s struggling health. Specific coral restoration projects such as underwater coral planting in seabeds and nurseries (divers attaching tiny coral segments to underwater frames) are showing promising results, particularly when reef fishes that protect and care for the coral are in proximity [7].

Divers and regular recreational users also comment on the changing behaviour of coral, such as spawning events. The Cairns dive community will be abuzz when a “good spawning season” is predicted to occur. Mass spawning is a fickle process for coral. It only happens once a year, after a full moon, and after rising water temperatures have prepared the adult coral for the process (approximately over 26 degrees for a whole month prior) [4]. The day length, tide height and salinity levels are also factors in deciding when the event will happen [4]. But when it does, the reef comes alive and a sense of hope for the future is reinvigorated.

Visiting the Reef

Tourism is a key activity that needs to be monitored through proper management, regulation and, most importantly, visitor education. Visitor education is of paramount importance to protecting the reef. By taking time to learn about the reef before visiting, you will not only learn about the ecosystem, but also the steps you can take to make your dive or snorkel as eco-friendly as possible.

Eco-friendly dive and snorkel tips

  • Book a registered “eco-tourism” or “earth-check certified” tour company [11], or book with a certified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tour company to participate in marine tourism that benefits both indigenous communities and the reef.
  • Take the right equipment. Ensure your equipment fits and that you abide by swimming zones. A misplaced kick of the fins or standing upon a reef flat can cause significant destruction.
  • Don’t touch the coral or feed the fish and keep your distance from larger species such as whales, sharks and turtles. Playing with Nemo and his pals may be a childhood temptation, but sudden noises, sudden movements and touching can cause huge stress for these animals [12]. It’s best to be calm and quiet and keep your hands to yourself!
  • Check your sunscreen. It’s estimated that approximately 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen ends up in coral reefs worldwide [13], and the ingredient oxybenzone is toxic to the reef. Check the label and save a fish.
  • Only take photos. It might seem obvious, but reef experts ask that you please don’t take the reef home with you. The delicate ecosystem needs every shell and piece of coral to help sustain it, so please take only pictures.
  • Join the revolution. Citizen science programs are not only a nerdy but fun way to spend a day on the reef, they’re also essential contributions to research and conversation monitoring. Download the “Eye on the Reef” app to do your bit [14].

Helping from home

Love the reef but can’t afford a career change to be a wealthy yacht owner who dives every day? Not many can, but you can still help the reef from afar by making small sustainable changes at home, such as reducing your carbon footprint, eliminating the use of single-use plastics and reducing your meat/seafood intake.

Out in your local community, participating in both sea and river-based water clean-ups are an immensely important activity for ocean health. Every piece of plastic (including the micro-plastics you can’t see) is doing harmful and sometimes irreversible damage to our marine ecosystems. Innovative programs like the STRAWklers in Sydney (run by Operation Straw) [15], Strain the Drain project across Melbourne (run by Tangaroa Blue) [16], and Marine Debris Campaign beach clean-ups (operated by Sea Shepherd Australia) [17] are some of the great many conservation activities across the country. Sign up at your local and do your bit to help our reef survive for future generations.

Do yourself a favour this year; have a bucket-list adventure and experience the wonder of the Great Barrier Reef and help protect it while you’re there. You won’t be disappointed.

Samantha Betts is an avid lover of marine life, and has spent years volunteering to defend marine life and educating others on marine protection. Samantha wishes to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional custodians of the reef marine environments.