“I’d rather go through childbirth.” Marine biologist turned cinematographer Richard Fitzpatrick is recounting his latest war wound; one he can add to his extensive history of shark tail slaps, sea snake bites and involuntary intakes of stonefish venom.
“I got a crown-of-thorns spike the other day. I passed out trying to pull it out of my finger. But, hey, I try to make it to the ER at least once a year.”
The crown-of-thorns – or more specifically, the burgeoning numbers of them – is one of the problems facing the Great Barrier Reef. The spiky, venomous starfish are eating coral faster than it can be replaced. Their numbers are thought to be boosted by sediment washed off the mainland, which increases the amount of plankton the crown-of-thorns feed off. Culling programmes are in place, boosted by divers from tourism operators, but these predators are by no means the only issue the Great Barrier Reef has to deal with.
Fitzpatrick is in a better position than most to judge what sort of state the reef system is in. He has been filming there since completing his degree in 1992, and has provided substantial chunks of footage for nature documentaries including David Attenborough’s recent Great Barrier Reef series.
He’s recently back from Lizard Island, where CEOs from the 20 biggest Australian companies were hosted in a not entirely subtle attempt to get funding for attempts to preserve the reef. Fitzpatrick says they were first taken to a badly affected patch to show the worst of the havoc being wrought, but then to a thriving section. “There’s got to be hope,” he says. “Without hope, nothing will be done.”
Fitzpatrick believes that, while climate change in particular poses a serious threat to the reef, scaremongering reports about its future have been grossly over-exaggerated.
“Last year, the media was reporting that 90 per cent of the reef was bleached,” he says. “But that just means that 90 per cent of the nearly 3,000 individual reefs which make up the system showed some sign of bleaching on one section. The data should have been presented better.”
Also, he’s keen to point out, bleaching is a natural process that doesn’t necessarily lead to death.
“Coral is an animal – like an upturned jellyfish – and it has an incredible symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, algae that it invites to live within its skin. It’s the algae that provide the colour,” he explains.
“But during a stress event – such as unusually warm water temperatures – they expel the zooxanthellae into the water. They can get the zooxanthellae back, but if conditions don’t change, they don’t get it back, and the coral dies.”
Coral bleaching events have happened in the past, but 2016 and 2017 have been the first time they’ve happened back to back. Different sections of the reef were hit each time – in 2016 it was from around Port Douglas in the north, while in 2017 it was further south, from around Port Douglas to the Whitsunday Islands.
“We’re expecting the frequency of bleaching events to increase,” says Fitzpatrick. “But it will be species-specific. More heat-tolerant ones will survive. We’ve had 50 years of increasing temperatures. The next couple of generations will be weathering the storm.
“The Barrier Reef will always be there. But its level of biodiversity will depend on what is done now, and there may have to be some hard decisions on which reefs to save. We have the skills. We have the technology. All that’s lacking is the political will.”
Will its fate kill tourism? Not according to Fitzpatrick. “I don’t believe there’s a difference between having 450 species and 300 species of hard coral, tourism-wise,” he says. “What we need is a functioning reef. The Caribbean, for example, has only around 50 species of hard coral.”
Part of the problem is expectation. There will always be dead coral, as dead coral is the prime real estate for newly-spawned coral to settle on, thus expanding the reefs. “Destruction is part of construction,” says Richard.
And while tourism operators usually take snorkellers out to the more spectacular reef edges, Richard says: “The media has skewed the idea of what a healthy reef looks like. Super-colourful corals are a small percentage. Around 80 per cent of corals are brown-coloured.
“There’s also ebb and flow. Last year, for example, the southern Barrier Reef had exceptional coral growth.”
And for visitors, getting the best out of the reef may well be a case of selecting wisely. “It depends on what they want to experience,” says Fitzpatrick. “The southern reef has not been as badly affected, so go stay at Lady Elliot or Heron Island resorts where kids can watch turtle hatchlings run down the beach.
“Further north, the inner reefs are undoubtedly more affected than the outer reefs, so the big boats can punch out to where the reef is best. But you can also swim with minke whales in winter, go diving with live-aboard trips. And from a helicopter, the aerial perspective is just incredible.”
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