The Great Barrier reef is not dead – why the exaggerations?




One reason I really wanted to travel to Australia was to see the Great Barrier reef before it is completely gone. All coral, around the world, will suffer and die if waters get warmer and climate change continues. I wanted to see other things and visit my friends but I did really want to see the corals, after reading about them maybe being gone soon. It turned out that the news stories had been exaggerated, it is very threatened but not even nearly gone! The whole tourism of “seeing things before they disappear” is not great, because flying contributes and speeds up that exact disappearing. I know that it was quite selfish of me to fly out all the way but now that I have already been, there is no point regretting it.

I saw the Barrier Reef twice. We went to the outer barrier reef outside Port Douglas with a company called Wavelenght that was operated by marine biologists. They were really good about protecting the reef, did not put an anchor down, made sure no one walked on corals or touched fish. They also pointed out that tourism is really important for saving the barrier reef. The flying to Australia part is really bad, but the taking a boat out to the reef part is really not bad at all, especially if you go with a company that has an “Advanced Ecotourism” certificate.

I also went to a lecture about the coral reef at ReefTeach in Cairns. I learned so much! Apparently a few types of coral have already started adapting to climate change and morphed into “super coral”. It is more important than ever that we can protect this new super coral because it is still very rare and only exists in very few places! The coral in Australia also protects cities and agriculture on the coast in the case of storms. Coral is the birthplace of much of the worlds fish, so if you like seafood you better like protecting coral reefs.

Three common misunderstandings about the great barrier reef:

  1. Bleached coral is dead coral. This is false. Coral gets it colour from algae that lives on it. The algae is providing the coral with food and nutrition, but when the water gets too warm the algae starts producing toxins. That makes the coral get rid of the algae by expelling it from its surface. That means that suddenly the coral has no source of food anymore! Bleached coral is not dead, but it will starve to death within a few weeks or up to two months if the water does not get colder. If the water gets colder, it can take the algae back and get back to a healthy life.
  2. 90% of the Great Barrier reef is gone. Completely untrue. 90% of areas of the coral reef have been affected by coral bleaching because of warm water as a result of climate change. As point one states, bleaching does not mean dead. During the warm summer months many corals bleach, but as the waters get colder again a month later or so, they get their colour and their nutrition back. The barrier reef is very threatened. About 30% of corals in the area where the mentioned company operate have died in the past two years. 30% is a lot. But it’s not 90%. The entire Barrier reef is the largest coral reef in the world. It is 348,700 km² big! That means that there is still a lot to save!
  3. Tourism destroys the reef. This is partly true, partly untrue. “Tourists want to see a beautiful barrier reef, and the fact that tourists bring in so much money makes politicians more likely to support efforts of protecting the barrier reef”, says one of the marine biologists on the boat. Then it is another issue that some companies are irresponsible and do not interfere enough when stupid people for example walk on the coral. The coral burns like jellyfish, so the joke is on the people walking on it. Other things tourists do to destroy the reef is by using sunscreen containing Oxybenzone, which unfortunately is most normal sunscreen but there are many reef-friendly alternatives. I bought mine from Feel Good Inc.

It’s not only the Great Barrier reef that is threatened and similar coral bleaching have become more common all over the world. Coral reefs are really important for marine life globally. So the joke is really on me, who flew to the reef furthest away from where I live. Oh well, now I have seen it and it was beautiful. I am more motivated than ever to donate to organisations trying to protect the reef.

So why the exaggerations? As I said it is threatened, and some scientists think that an alarmist message will wake up people to try to protect it. They also think they will get more funding if they point out how bad things are. I think that they need to change the message into something more positive and make people realise that we can and should save the reef. Saying it’s dead will make people give up hope. It’s not dead and it needs your help to protect it! Try to minimise your carbon footprint, support the most sustainable tourism companies, donate money to marine conservation efforts and vote for the politicians who appreciate the enormous positive effects that the coral reef has.

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