OUTER GREAT BARRIER REEF, Australia ― “It’s not supposed to look like that,” John Rumney mutters as he pulls himself out of the ocean.
We’ve just had our first sighting of the Great Barrier Reef, a 1,400-mile-long behemoth of coral off the coast of Queensland, northeastern Australia, that covers a region roughly the size of Japan. It’s home to a wealth of animals, including more than 1,500 species of fish, six of the world’s seven species of threatened sea turtles and at least 30 species of mammals.
Rumney, a tour operator and fisherman who’s worked in the area since the 1970s, has seen the Great Barrier countless times, so many that he calls himself more a resident of the reef than a resident of Australia. Dip your face beneath the water and you’re confronted by majesty: turquoise parrotfish pecking away, yellow boulders of coral, iridescent giant clams pulsing with life.
But, with every flick of your diving fins, unnatural flashes of white appear, signs of a reef in distress, physical manifestations of climate change run amok. And visitors have noticed, sparking a burgeoning trend of “last-chance tourism” ― people coming to catch a glimpse of the reef in case it’s their final opportunity.
The Great Barrier has been altered beyond recognition in recent years. In 2016 and again in 2017, the structure was hit by successive mass bleaching events that left large swaths of the once-colorful corals dying or dead. Nearly one-third of the reef was killed as a result of the first bleaching, and the following year served as a gut punch that further crippled one of the world’s largest living organisms.
Bleaching happens when coral is effectively cooked in water much warmer than usual. Oceans around the world are warming, primarily thanks to heat-trapping greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by human activity. Coral that’s bleached ― named so because polyps, the tiny animals that make up larger coral colonies, lose their colorful algae and turn ghostly white ― isn’t dead yet and can recover if given time to recuperate. But cook it for too long and the centuries-old structures are done for.
Some tour operators say many of their clientele now come with bleaching on their minds.
“I was there when it went from people saying: ‘Oh, don’t mention bleaching, you don’t want to talk about it because it’ll stop tourism’ to it then being this thing where people were coming and saying: ‘Oh we’re here to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies,’” said Lorna Howlett, a guide with Wavelength, a local tour operator running snorkeling trips out of Port Douglas. When the last bleaching happened, the ocean got so warm “you were practically sweating in the water,” she said.
On a recent daytrip to the outer reef, about an hour-and-a-half boat ride out from the coast, visitors routinely asked Howlett and other marine biologists on board about the bleaching and expressed surprise that the reef didn’t look as good as they expected.
“It’s really changed in terms of the corals and the fish,” Audrea Keinath, a tourist from the German city of Munich who first visited the Great Barrier in 1987, told HuffPost. Back then, she said, “it really was like the books showed, all blue and yellow and the bright colors you’ve seen.”
More than 30 years later, she had returned to the reef with her daughter. “We were kind of disappointed because we had a better memory of it,” she said.
Signs of bleaching are all over even the most pristine sections of the reef, and scientists have been bleak in their assessments, saying that by the 2030s the Great Barrier could be subject to a mass bleaching every two years if the planet keeps emitting greenhouse gases at the same rate.
In the face of such dire predictions, hordes still flock to the region, bringing in nearly $5 billion a year in revenue and supporting some 64,000 jobs. Tourist numbers to the marine park that encompasses the Great Barrier have held steady over the past two years ― in fact, both 2016 and 2017 saw record levels of visitors, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, although data for 2018 has not yet been released. Despite concerns about the reef’s longevity, much of the Great Barrier is still jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
And that’s the message tour operators have been trying to share over the past few years, worried that scientists, ringing alarm bells as loudly as they could, would drive away visitors who assumed the Great Barrier was too far gone. Col McKenzie, the chief executive of one of the Great Barrier’s leading tourism groups, even called a pre-eminent reef scientist “a dick” in January for his warnings of damage to the reef.
Imogen Zethoven, reef campaign director for the Australian Marine Conservation Society, a co-signatory to the declaration, said tour operators tried to dodge reality after the 2016 bleaching. “They were angry that the reef was being used as a poster child for the need for action on climate change,” she said. “They felt it would affect their bookings for the following year.”
When the 2017 event came mere months later, this time hitting hundreds of miles of reefs just offshore of the city of Cairns, they sobered up fast, Zethoven said.
“No one is saying there’s no problem now,” Rumney said. “No one.”
In July 2018, a coalition of the Great Barrier’s largest tour operators, McKenzie included, released an unprecedented declaration calling on the Australian government to protect the reef on behalf of “all humanity and future generations.” The open letter, dubbed the Reef Climate Declaration, pointed a finger directly at man-made climate change, calling it the “single biggest threat” to the Great Barrier.
“It’s not too late to save our reef but time is critical,” the declaration reads. “The federal government has a responsibility to honor the Paris Agreement and to protect the reef.”
Australia has made efforts to tackle the growing threat to the Great Barrier. In July, it updated its Reef 2050 conservation plan, which sets out the overarching framework for protecting and managing the reef. While the plan recognizes climate change as the most serious and increasing threat to the reef, critics say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
“We are deeply concerned that the plan still fails to acknowledge the obvious truth that Australia must do much more to cut our own emissions if we are to give the reef a fighting chance,” said Richard Leck, WWF-Australia Head of Oceans.
There are other clear signs that the country’s politicians are not taking climate change seriously. Both the federal and state governments have roundly supported a massive new coal mine in Queensland that, if completed, could be one of the largest in the world. Burning coal releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, a key driver of climate change.
The government also announced in April that it would spend about $365 million on reef conservation efforts, but the grant largely ignored climate change, instead focusing on water quality and predatory starfish (both threats to coral, but smaller ones). Conservationists were unimpressed.
“It’s like saying you have a broken arm that we’re going to treat, but we’re going to keep giving you the poison that’s causing your cancer,” Rumney said.
Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said reef advocates are trying to counter a growing sense of “last-chance tourism,” instead encouraging visitors to travel to the region and leave as advocates for its protection, rather than voyeurs of its demise. Writing off the reef now, she said, will only seal the Great Barrier’s fate as doomed.
“We don’t want that [last-chance mentality] to build to be a general expectation, because we don’t want to lose this Wonder of the World,” she said. “We don’t want a sense of fatalism.”
Rumney, for his part, believes in the power of tourism, saying the huge amount of money behind the industry should be able to compete with that from the coal and mining industries. While he’s convinced the structure he first saw in the ’70s is not the Great Barrier anyone will ever get to witness again, his optimism remains.
“Nature always finds a way,” he said at the end of our tour earlier this month, expressing hope for the Great Barrier even after humanity has done its worst. “But it may just not be the same as it was.”
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