Could your presence on our reef hold the key to preserving it for future generations? It sounds like science fiction, but you can actually help save The Great Barrier Reef.
Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is home to 215 species of birds, 30 species of dolphins and whales and 133 types of sharks and rays and every last one of them appears to have turned up at Lady Musgrave Island, the coral cay that could well set the scene for what they hope will be the buffet of the century.
Don’t just admire the reef; while you’re floating over its colourful denizens, like at Upulo Cay off Cairns, you could be doing something to ensure its survival too. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
A light rain begins to fall and suddenly, a sea of tiny green turtle hatchlings – mistakenly believing night has fallen since the sand has cooled – emerge from their nests in their hundreds and scramble down the beach towards the water (and waiting mouths) to begin their 30-year journey around the globe.
“No!” screams my nine-year-old daughter, still salty and brown from two days of snorkelling around the island’s vibrant coral gardens. “You have to wait until night fall; it isn’t safe!” she shouts as we chase after the predators together – many of which already sadly have tiny turtles, legs flailing in their mouths.
Dive over colourful Agincourt Reef. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
That’s it, I think, she’s going to be in therapy for life, but when I look at my daughter, I see that she is jubilant as she takes in the still-safe tiny turtles climbing over her bare, sandy feet. “We’ve helped save so many, mum,” she says, before adding. “Do you think they’ll remember me when they come back to nest one day and see me here with my own daughter?” It takes all of my resolve not to break down and cry.
Our not-so-humble backyard
Mention the Great Barrier Reef to most Australians and they’ll more than likely tell you that it’s been on their bucket list for as long as they can remember. Spanning 2300 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline, it’s home to some 2900 individual reefs, 300 coral cays, 600 continental islands, 1625 species of fish and over 600 types of coral, there’s a lot to love and a lot to lose. The thought of future generations not being able to appreciate the many wonders of the world’s largest coral reef (AKA our backyard) is real, but this is exactly why you should be visiting: your presence now can make a difference in the future.
Snorkel at Lady Musgrave Island. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Enjoying a cheese platter later from atop a luxury catamaran with Brett Lakey, owner and operator of Lady Musgrave Experience, we are discussing some of the reef’s biggest threats – climate change, coastal development, coral-destroying pests and more – leading Lakey to insist the reef needs tourism now more than ever. “The only way to truly understand why the reef needs protecting is by experiencing it yourself,” he says of his “office” of 22 years. “And as long as you experience it with an eco-friendly operator who can guide and educate you, you can visit without impacting the reef.” And who knows, you just might be able to help by engaging in some quality citizen science.
What is citizen science?
On the Lady Musgrave Experience, divers and snorkellers have the opportunity to save coral from crown-of-thorns starfish by injecting them with vinegar, or by helping crew survey designated areas and report back to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; just one way everyday travellers can become scientists under the guidance of trained reef staff. “Whether you’re interested in tagging turtles or photographing coral, there’s a project out there for everyone – you only need to put your hand up,” says Lakey.
Need help deciding? Here are five ways you can volunteer on the Great Barrier Reef to get you started:
With over 600 species of hard and soft corals the Great Barrier Reef is a sight to behold. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
1. Monitor the reef
Snorkellers, divers and yep, even walkers, can help researchers collect valuable information about reef health, marine animals and incidents by taking part in a reef monitoring and assessment programs such as Eye on the Reef or Reef Check Australia. Volunteering options vary, but a great way to get involved is to download the Eye on the Reef app, for instance, which allows you to submit GPS-tagged photos of wildlife, pests, marine pollution and coral bleaching to the aforementioned authority.
2. Clean our waterways
Clean up the seas with Eco Barge Clean Seas. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Okay, no one dreams of heading to the Great Barrier Reef to clean up rubbish… until you consider the following facts: coming into contact with plastic makes corals more than 20 times more susceptible to disease, and it’s estimated there are now more than 11 billion pieces of plastic debris on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region. To help clean up those waters, you can sign up as an eco warrior with Eco Barge Clean Seas, a service that requires volunteers for everything from marine debris removal trips to land-based litter clean-ups. You can also participate in a beach clean-up through Tangaroa Blue.
3. Document marine life
For everyone who’s ever wanted to name their own manta comes Project Manta, a multidisciplinary study of the ecology and biology of these majestic creatures. Researchers require plenty of photographs and videos in order to identify these creatures and to add to their understanding of the animals’ movements, distribution, sex ratio and growth rates. You can share photos with Project Manta through their Facebook page and if a new manta is identified from your shots, you even score naming rights.
Swim with dwarf minke whales at Ribbon Reefs. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Prefer to study dwarf minke whales, sharks and/or green turtles? Eye to Eye Marine Encounters offers several expeditions where profound wildlife encounters go hand-in-hand with participation in research alongside marine scientists.
4. Get turtle-y awesome
Encounter green turtles at Lady Elliot Island. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
Home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtle, there’s no better place to get involved with the research and monitoring of these gorgeous creatures than by putting your hand up to become a volunteer at Bundaberg’s Mon Repos Turtle Centre.
Other options include joining the TurtleCare Volunteer Program where summers will be spent protecting marine turtles nesting from Caloundra to Point Cartwright, or by helping look after injured and unwell marine turtles at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island.
5. Man a research station
The majestic manta rays frequent Lady Elliot Island. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is home to a network of internationally acclaimed research stations, from that found at Lizard Island (which features in Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough), heron island (pictured), to Orpheus Island Research Station – many of which require volunteers to assist with station duties and general maintenance. Highly qualified divers can also register at Lizard Island Research Station as a research volunteer.
Volunteer at Heron Island Research Station. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland