N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
THE FAR FROM DEAD FAR NORTH OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
By Nigel Marsh
Rising up the wall I entered the shallows to find extensive and spectacular coral gardens. All around me, as far as the eye could see, were beautiful and healthy hard corals – staghorns, plates, brains and many other varieties. Adding to this underwater garden of paradise where countless reef fish, schools of fusiliers and a lingering whitetip reef shark. For the next half hour I explored this coral jungle, marvelling at the intricate and diverse coral structures. From this description you might think I was exploring a remote part of Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, but I was diving the Far North section of the Great Barrier Reef, an area that is reported to be dead from coral bleaching if you believe reports in the media.
I first visited the Great Barrier Reef in 1978 and have since dived this natural wonder of the world many times. Over that period of time the Great Barrier Reef has experienced five major coral bleaching events, the last two over the previous two southern hemisphere summers. While the great majority of the reef south of Cairns was largely unaffected by the coral bleaching, the Far North section was reported to be severely hit by both events. This area, also known as the Far Northern Reefs and north of the popular Ribbon Reefs, is remote and only visited by charter boats between October and December when the weather is calm.
After the first coral bleaching event in 2016 there were very mixed reports coming from this region, scientists were reporting that a quarter of the corals were dead, while the dive operators found little evidence of dead corals on the reefs they visited. With this area the richest part of the Great Barrier Reef, and also one of my favourites, I was keen to see the true extent of the coral bleaching for myself, especially after the second event hit the region, so joined Spirit of Freedom on a week-long expedition to the Far North in October 2017.
Arriving in Cairns, I first wanted to head out to the local reefs to see what state they were in. Joining up with an old mate and Cairns local, Stuart Ireland, we headed out for a day trip with Down Under Dive on their fabulous dive boat Evolution.
The diving off Cairns is belittled by many divers, most of who have never dived the area, as they think it is cattle truck diving and assume that too many divers have ruined the reefs. While the day boats are large, taking over one hundred people, the great majority are snorkelers or people doing an intro dive, and on average only a dozen qualified divers are generally in the water. In the past I have always found the reefs off Cairns to be quite healthy, showing little damage from visiting divers as the crew are very strict with their no touch policy.
For our day on Evolution we headed out to Saxon Reef and Hastings Reef, which are both on the outer reef. The weather wasn’t the best after several days of large seas and stormy conditions, but we still enjoyed 10 to 15m visibility. We did three dives at two sites and saw mainly healthy hard corals. There were a few dead corals, but no more than usual on a typical reef in this area. Later talking to Stuart, who is a marine biologist and dives the reefs off Cairns regularly, he informed me that the coral bleaching was worst on the inner reefs and most of the coral quickly recovered. He also added that new growth is evident on many of the worst affected reefs. Supporting his observations was a recent report from the Australian Institute of Marine Science that found reefs between Cairns and Townsville had recovered quicker than expected and were showing signs that they were going to reproduce, two to three years earlier than previous studies had shown after coral bleaching.
Repacking the dive gear, Stuart and I next headed to Cairns Airport for our Far North trip, as we were flying to Lockhart River to meet Spirit of Freedom. This special charter flight is part of the trip, flying 600km north of Cairns and into the heart of the Far North. Finally boarding the vessel after a bus and tender transfer, we settled into our comfortable ensuite cabin on this luxury 37m long liveaboard. Meeting our fellow passengers we found that most were from Australia, but there were also Americans, Canadians and a few expat Europeans. While a few had dived the Far North before, for most it was their first trip to this region, and for a few it was their first time on the Great Barrier Reef.
Overnight we headed north, arriving at Southern Small Detached Reef in the morning. This isolated reef rises up from deep water and we moored at a site I had dived before, Auriga Bay. I was eager to see the state of the hard corals, as this site use to have pretty coral gardens on a sloping reef. We first descend the wall, seeing lovely gorgonians, soft corals and pelagic fish. Once in the coral gardens I was happy to see that most of the hard coral looked healthy, but I was sad to see a wide patch that use to contain staghorn coral in ruins. The cause, not coral bleaching, but cyclone damage. Cyclones occur every year in this part of Australia and can wipe out the delicate hard corals.
Northern Small Detached Reef was our next port of call, and it was a brilliant dive. There was not a lot of hard coral to be seen as this reef plummets from the surface straight to deep water. We explored ledges and overhangs, and saw walls covered in gorgonians, soft corals and whip corals. We also had our first shark encounters, getting buzzed by a grey reef shark and a silvertip shark.
We ended the day at another site I had dived before, Black Rock at Mantis Reef. Tony Hazell, the skipper informed me that they hadn’t visited this site in two years, as the last time they visited there wasn’t much happening. Well it was going off today with schools of barracuda, trevally, snappers and surgeonfish. There were also lots of sharks - grey reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks and a few silvertip sharks. Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t the best, so photography was limited. We explored the sloping wall, see lovely corals, Maori wrasse, coral trout and even a spawning granulated sea star.
The next day we dived a site that was new to me, a coral outcrop near the Stead Passage called Well Worth It. Washed by a strong current, which are typical in the area, we dropped in on this site and first explore a series of caves and ledges coloured by exquisite soft corals and gorgonians in deeper water. Here we were surrounded by schools of rainbow runners, barracuda, fusiliers, snappers, surgeonfish and trevally. We also saw grey reef sharks, mackerel, gropers and a huge dogtooth tuna. After exploring the deeper parts of the reef we headed into the shallows to find the wonderful hard corals mentioned in the introduction, acres of healthy corals. This dive was so good that we did it again and on the second dive one lucky group of dives had a close encounter with a small whale shark.
With much of the Far North unexplored we also did a few exploratory dives, the first was on a wall near the Five Reefs that we nicknamed Stella. Exploratory dives are always a risk, but in this area it is hard to find a dud. This site once again had lovely hard corals in the shallows and large gorgonians in deeper water. It also had many ledges and caves where I found the best collection of pink lace corals I have ever seen, plus a very large tawny nurse shark.
Over the next few days we explored Wood Reef, Great Detached Reef and Three Reefs, and all had healthy hard corals. A report from the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies that 26% of the corals in this area were dead was plainly not accurate on the sites we dived, as I was only seeing 5% dead coral at most. However, this report was based on an underwater survey of only 83 reefs.
A highlight of these dives was The Pinnacle and Deep Pinnacle at Great Detached Reef. Both these pinnacles rise from deep water and are coated with beautiful soft corals, whip corals, sponges and gorgonians. While populated with a good variety of fish and sharks, the macro life was the big attraction for me, with nudibranchs, flatworms, anemonefish, hawkfish, leaf scorpionfish and many other species. The Pinnacle was also a brilliant night dive, with octopus, lionfish, a hunting cone shell and numerous sea slugs to be seen. The richness of these pinnacles is more reminiscent of sites in Papua New Guinea than other parts of the reef.
After lunch on day five we headed to one of the main attractions in this area, the legendary Raine Island. This remote coral cay is the largest and most important green turtle nesting site on the planet, and not a bad place to dive. Since my last visit much of the adjacent reef had been rezoned and was off limits, so we could only dive the exposed eastern end of the reef. We did two amazing drift dives and saw dozens of turtles. Many of the turtles were very shy, as they rarely see a diver in this neck of the woods. We also encountered a mating pair which unfortunately uncoupled as soon as they saw a group of divers staring at them. The turtles were wonderful, but it was great to see the hard corals at Raine Island looking very healthy. Pounded by ocean swells, these hard coral were mostly short, squat and densely packed. We also found many caves and ledges to explore, encountering reef sharks, pelagic fish, an ornate wobbegong and several small epaulette sharks.
After exploring spectacular Raine Island it was time to head south, overnight we voyaged to the southern section of the Far North. Here we spent a day diving Creech Reef, Joan Reef and Wilson Reef, and once again we saw mainly healthy hard corals and only a limited number of dead corals. The exploratory dive at Joan Reef was eye popping, with the greatest collection of plate corals I have ever seen, some were over 3m wide. This site, now called Plates On Parade, was also home to vast schools of fish and will no doubt become a regular fixture on future trips to this area.
For our last day of diving we headed south overnight to dive the Ribbon Reefs. Parts of this popular liveaboard destination were hit by coral bleaching, especially around Lizard Island, but the corals in this area have seen more devastation from several cyclones that have hit the region over the last few years. As Tony explained, cyclones are a common fact of life in the area and if a dive site is damaged they leave it for a couple of years to give it time to regenerate. They also find new sites like Google Gardens.
Exploring the lovely hard corals gardens at this site makes you wonder how some sites are spared cyclone damage and others nearby are destroyed. We explored a network of canyons, marvelling at the delicate hard corals and admiring the numerous reef fish. Google Gardens is also a good spot to see broadclub cuttlefish, and everyone saw a few except for Stuart and I as we headed in the wrong direction.
Our final dive was at one of my favourite Great Barrier Reef sites, Steve’s Bommie. It was six years since my last visit and Tony warned me it had changed, suffering a double blow, cyclone damage and coral bleaching. It was a sad sight to see, the lovely soft corals missing and much of the hard coral dead. But the bommie was still home to an impressive variety of fish and invertebrate species, including schools of trevally, snapper and goatfish. We also saw nudibranchs, leaf scorpionfish, pipefish, pufferfish, boxfish, mantis shrimps, nudibranchs and numerous stonefish. The other divers thought it was incredible, but it was only a shadow of its former self. However, the crew said it was already showing signs of recovery.
That night we enjoyed a great barbeque under stars (the food on Spirit of Freedom is always sensational) before heading back to Cairns. Talking to my fellow passengers, especially the ones from overseas, they couldn’t believe how healthy and lovely this section of the Great Barrier Reef was, and some added that they only came as they thought it was their last chance to see the reef before it died. Well the media might have already written the obituary for the Great Barrier Reef, but this natural wonder of the world is far from dead and the Far North is alive and well.
Coral bleaching occurs when the coral is stressed and loses the symbiotic dinoflagellates (a type of algae) that live within the tissue of the hard coral. This algae supplies the coral with energy and when lost it leaves the coral looking white or ‘bleached’. A number of factors can cause the loss of this algae, including an influx of freshwater, but a rise in water temperature is the most common factor that leads to coral bleaching. Fortunately the coral can recover if the water temperature doesn’t remain too high for too long. In the recent coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef coral mortality varied from 1% on the South section to 67% on the North section, according to the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies. The Great Barrier Reef is not the only coral reef to suffer from coral bleaching over the last few decades, as coral reefs around the world have been affected and many are in a much worst shape than the Great Barrier Reef.
A LOT OF MEDIA MISINFORMATION
If you believe the media reports on the state of the Great Barrier Reef you would think the entire reef is dead. The misinformation and poor reporting started in April 2016 after the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies (ARC-CRS) released a media statement saying 93% of reefs were affected by some form of bleaching based on aerial surveys (this could mean just one white spot on an otherwise healthy reef). This was then exaggerated and inaccurately reported in much of the media that 93% of the reef was bleached. And it didn’t get any better on follow up reports. When the ARC-CRS released its coral mortality figures in November 2016 showing that 67% of the North section and 26% of the Far North section had died, this was widely reported that all coral north of Port Douglas was dead. This sensational and inaccurate media reporting continued after the second coral bleaching event. This media misinformation has had an impact on tourism to the Great Barrier Reef, worth over six billion dollars to the Australian economy. While some dive and tour operators have reported little impact on the number of people they take to the reef (just a lot of questions at the time of booking such as ‘is it dead’ and ‘is it still worth seeing’) but others have had cancellations, and who knows how many divers have decided to go elsewhere. The Great Barrier Reef is still an amazing diving experience that varies greatly across its entire length, and avoiding it due to misleading reports in the media is hurting the dive industry in Australia and also depriving you of one of the best dive experiences in the world.
THE BIG PICTURE
The Great Barrier Reef is over 2300km long and comprises of over 3000 individual reefs, it is huge and water temperatures across the reef can vary up to 5°C. The recent coral bleaching events have mainly affected reefs in the north, with the southern half of the reef (south of Port Douglas and where the great majority of reef tourism is based) showing either little evidence or little effect from the bleaching. This was backed up by a report from the ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies which showed only 1% coral mortality in the South section and 6% in the Central section. In the north the situation was a lot worse, with 67% coral mortality in the North section and 26% in the Far North section. But in-water reports from dive operators indicates that the coral bleaching was mainly on inshore reefs, the same inshore reefs that have been affected by water quality issues for decades due to agricultural runoff.
Water quality has been a major issue affecting the health of the reef for a long time, as the coastline adjacent to the reef has been developed for agriculture, tourism, industry and residential housing. This has seen the destruction of forests and mangroves and an influx of soil and chemicals into rivers. The health of the reef has also been affected by outbreaks of crown-of-thorns and regular cyclone damage. And with climate change, things can only get worse. The Australia Government needs to do more to protect the future of the Great Barrier Reef; ensuring water quality is improved, no new coal mines are approved and more patrols to stop illegal fishing. At the moment the Great Barrier Reef is far from dead and is on the road to recovery from the recent coral bleaching events, but who can say what the future holds.
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