Human interactions with nature have never been more fickle; we’re on the brink of something, potentially catastrophic, borderline inevitable. Yet we can’t seem to quite pull ourselves together and actually do something about it. Climate Change has, more or less, been proven to now be well and truly underway… Nevertheless the environmental costs and consequences are still being dispelled and any signs of decisive action keep retreating further and further away in to the distance. Enter the great ‘evil’ that has plagued our species for definitely all of its recent, if not most of its entire, existence: greed. We’ve given rise to what is perhaps the greatest uncomfortable truth of our era; try as we may we can’t quite seem to step off the consumerist bandwagon, propelled at ever increasing paces by the whirlwind of capitalism. You may try and sugarcoat it as the great conundrum of our era- how do we balance economics with the environment- but is it so much of a dilemma or more an issue of sacrificing comfort. Do we want to give up our good lives? I’m as guilty as the next person. Taking an uber because at that point in my life, a 20 minute walk was simply an unthinkable struggle. Jumping on international flights frequently, because after all, isn’t the world my oyster? It is likely that everyone who will read this will be doing so from their smartphone or computer; whichever the case, generally speaking we are fortunate enough to be able to afford and moreover have access to such luxuries that settle us in for a comfortable life.
A few weeks ago, as my four month study abroad experience in Sydney, Australia drew to an end, I checked one last item off my list. My destination? None other than the famed Great Barrier Reef. I’d saved the best until last. My relationship with the ocean is no more spectacular than average; I appreciate a good white sandy beach and love nothing more than a dip in the slightly chilled waters on a hot summer’s day. But the one thing I have always marveled at is the sheer scale of the ocean and all that is held within this vast expanse. As cliché as it may seem, just below the surface lies an entirely different, almost mystical, world. Nothing quite eclipses the sensation of just floating engulfed by the weight of the crystalline liquid, overcome by a sense of peace, serenely at the mercy of the power of the water around you.
Friends joked, “better go now before it’s completely destroyed” whilst lines like “Great Barrier Reef Bleaching ‘Worst in Its History’” and “Warming Threatens the Great Barrier Reef Even More Than We Thought” were plastered across headlines worldwide. Pretty soon social media was frenetic with everything from petitions calling for action to save the reef, to worst case scenario projections circulating the web. I expected to see destruction; but still, rooted somewhere deep in my mind was the -in hindsight rather naïve- belief that all the doom and gloom that had recently come to light couldn’t possibly be entirely true. How bad could it really be?
Now, I don’t profess to be a qualified marine biologist, or to possess much more than slightly above ordinary knowledge on the topic… But even I know the signs of a dying reef when I see one. Coral bleaching, the epidemic currently wreaking havoc across the reef with already one third having fallen victim to its destructive wrath, is caused by changing ocean conditions. Found mostly in tropical waters- the area spanning from +/- 23 degrees North to +/-23 degrees South of the Equator- at generally shallow depths, the organisms begin calcifying when changes occur. The three factors behind bleaching are rising sea levels, increases in ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification. And what, you may ask, causes these fluctuations to reach extreme proportions? None other than Climate Change, the harbinger of global catastrophe in response to which no progressive, and more importantly binding, agenda has been established. Quite frankly, it’s a sight that really should be the cause for significantly more concern. As leaders continue to swindle their way out of accountability and the majority stands by idly, shrugging our shoulders occasionally, we face losing diverse swathes of the environment, bringing to the forefront questions on how to feasibly sustain future life on this very planet we affectionately call home.
Most tragic of all, however, is that it was not the signs of the destroyed coral that upset me most. I still hold a genuine faith in the determination of humanity, and however optimistic, I truly believe that there are people out there- maybe you, maybe me- great enough to herald positive changes. What upset me most was watching as hoards of tourists- so ignorant that it pains me to refer to them as blissfully unaware because the only word that really seems to fit true is selfish- adding to the damage already caused. Standing on the reef in their fins to take a break from swimming to picking up starfish, struggling to detach them from the coral to which the animals clung but tugging until they succeeded, not to be stopped from taking the ‘perfect’ selfie, having to watch was blood curdling.
Nevertheless, despite destruction and the savage behavior of some, witnessing the Great Barrier Reef- even if not in all its former glory- is an experience that deserves mention. From a sea turtle emerging from an unassuming patch of green sea grass, to the neon rainbow display put on by the abundance of fish, it is a magical place. And so, the truth of the matter is that the Great Barrier Reef will always be there, in some shape and form. The question that really looms large is whether it will be there, basking in all its glory, alive because we realized it is worth conserving or as a slowly crumbling ruin, a grave reminder of all that was.
Travel Notes: if you plan on visiting the reef, Cairns is your best option as a base for maximizing tour options and access, whilst still offering a vibrant night life and other activities (including skydiving). Just don’t expect white sand beaches, you’ll have to head to nearby Green Island or Fitzroy Island (both day tours from Cairns) or the famed Whitsundays. Cairns itself is rather compact, so almost all accommodations tend to be within walking distance of the central area; Gilligan’s is a backpacker favorite, however more hotel like options at a low price are plenty (as are other hostels). The Promenade provides a host of restaurant and bar options, fit to cater to every appetite and budget. Options to see the reef vary in price and how touristy they are (whilst a company like Great Adventures provides a wider range of services, a smaller family run option like those run by Compass Cruises provide a significantly less mainstream experience). Note that the Great Barrier Reef is a jelly fish hotspot, with ‘Stinger Season’ running from November through to early May… So if you have the option, try and visit outside this period, allowing you to experience the reef without the additional worry of incurring stings.