On 20 March, 2016, having gone to Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef expecting to study reef ecology and other projects, I was aghast to see an almost 100 percent bleached reef system from Lizard Island out to the outer Barrier Reef. We sent back photos of bleached coral and bleached anemones with poor little "Nemo' looking worried from a snow-white home.
Nemo's home after coral bleaching. Pic: coralwatch.org
Three weeks later, Australia is about to enjoy Sir David Attenborough's Great Barrier Reef documentary series on ABC. Having helped Atlantic Productions make the series, sat with Sir David in the submersible and guided him and his crew around Lizard Island, I know what is about to unfold.
I also know that what Australia is about to see on TV is at least in part a history lesson and not a biology documentary. The peril the GBR is in is evident from Part One of the series and is underlined particularly in the third episode. Without giving anything away, it is a fact that many of the corals and wonderful areas of reef seen in that documentary are now partly dead or dying.
It is also a fact that the GBR is still a wonderful place to visit and tourists should not be put off going to the reef platforms and islands offering trips and reef experiences. Indeed, some enterprising operators are even advertising -- 'come see the bleaching reef!' It is a beautiful spectacle but, unfortunately, coral is at its most beautiful before it dies, or -- more hopefully -- starts the long road to recovery.
Despite what we read in the papers, as was clearly determined by 190 countries at the Paris COP21 Climate summit in 2015, the cause of many of the environmental problems globally, including mass coral bleaching, is unnatural, man-induced climate change. It is not caused by El Niño weather fluctuations. El Niño has been happening for thousands of years. Large-scale reef bleaching started 20 years ago. Sometimes they coincide.
Nemo's home before coral bleaching. Pic: Steve Parish
A look into Australian and international news over the past few days and an innocent bystander might be rightly confused. On one hand it is reported, quite correctly, that the top third of the GBR has bleached heavily, possibly 50 percent or less will not recover. Whichever way you look at it, 800 km of deeply distressed and dying reef is an environmental disaster -- although our federal government has yet to admit this. It is an election year!
On the other hand, quite rightly, worried tour operators and government at all levels are at pains to point out the remaining wonder of the GBR. The bottom two thirds is still okay. It is not all dead or dying, is it? In fact the bottom two thirds of reef is still great and well worth visiting, but in the past 30 years or so it has lost half its corals. This year, most reefs in this bottom two thirds also show some bleaching and it will be the work of many months before we get a well-measured estimate of the full destructive force of this event over the whole reef.
Let's try harder before these numbers come through.
Where are the leaders willing to tackle the difficult problem of climate change and not simply deal with the relatively easy to fix local reef stressors? What happened in Paris? Why did Australia come back and within weeks sign off on the Galilee Basin mining project? The carbon emissions from this mine alone will push the GBR and other reefs around the world closer to the edge. Don't forget, Australia, our coal will kill other reefs in other countries too! Surely we should all be running at sustainable energy solutions and divesting ourselves of carbon-based energy faster than we are?
Yes, wonder at the reef now -- but also go to the northern GBR and cry as I did into your mask as you see great chunks of it dying before your eyes. I challenge any Australian, including Minister Hunt or Prime Minister Turnbull, not to come back from such a trip deeply moved and wondering what we are handing on to our children. You need to put your faces underwater, guys.
In my opinion, the 'balance' of what is unfolding on our Great Barrier Reef, as portrayed by many of the mainstream media outlets in Australia, is currently misleading and -- at base level -- incorrect. Sir David's Great Barrier Reef gets this balance just right. He is, after all, the world's best nature communicator.
So sit back over the next three weeks and enjoy, and let's make sure as a community that this does not become a 'last chance to see' show.