Considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is our planet’s largest and most vital reef system. It’s comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and 1,050 islands, which stretch out over 1,400 miles long. Encompassing an expansive 133,000-square mile area, the reef is larger than the United Kingdom. It’s even visible from outer space!
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s great bastions of marine biodiversity. It’s home to 30 different species of cetaceans, over 1,600 species of fish, 3,000 species of mollusk, around 125 species of sharks and stingrays, and 220 species of birds. It also harbors the world’s largest dugong population and major breeding grounds for six species of sea turtles.
So it’s no surprise the Great Barrier Reef was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, praising it as “the most impressive marine area in the world.”
Is The Great Barrier Reef Dead?
In October of 2016, Outside magazine published a cheeky, hyperbolic piece in which it declared the Great Barrier Reef dead. The cause of death was listed as coral bleaching, which happens when warming oceans cause corals to expel their algae, preventing them from getting the nutrients necessary to survive.
Outlets all around the world picked up the story as undisputed fact, running sensationalistic clickbait headlines such as “Great Barrier Reef Dead at 25 Million” and “Great Barrier Reef Can No Longer Be Saved.” They referenced environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen’s excellent Outside piece, which quoted Charles Vernon, chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. He described the northernmost section of the GBR as “trashed,” saying “it looks like a war zone.”
There’s no doubt the reef is in serious trouble due to warming caused by climate change. During the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s survey to assess the impact, they found that 22% of the coral had died in what they called “the worst mass bleaching event on record.” But 85% of that damage happened on a single 370-mile section. While the news is bad, rumors of the reef’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
The Importance of Awareness
Jacobsen’s point in declaring the Great Barrier Reef dead was really more of a wake-up call raising awareness of a phenomenon that has been troubling scientists for decades. The reef has experienced coral bleaching events before, starting back in 1998 (the Outside piece wrongly cited 1981 as the first such event).
The environmental alarm is being raised louder than ever before now because of the severity of the 2016 bleaching, and the frequency with which such traumatic events are expected to occur in the future. A report by Climate Council, an Australian NGO, suggests that these sorts of extreme ocean temperatures could happen every two years by 2034 unless we find a way to severely limit our greenhouse gas emissions.
But some scientists were frustrated by the fact that Jacobsen proclaimed the Great Barrier Reef dead, even if the piece was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Russell Brainard, chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the article. In his Facebook response to Outside’s post, he said that “this sort of over-the-top story makes the situation much worse by conveying loss of hope rather than a need for global society to take actions to reverse these discouraging downward trends.”
In short, raising awareness of the need for immediate action to help slow the climate change process is good. But making people feel like efforts to save this world-renowned natural wonder are hopeless is bad. UNESCO apparently agreed, recently choosing (in a controversial decision) not to add the Great Barrier Reef to its list of endangered sites despite expressing “serious concern” about it.
Why Now is the Best Time to Visit the Great Barrier Reef
For nature-loving travelers who have dreamed of visiting Australia their entire lives, the stories proclaiming the Great Barrier Reef dead were devastating. Scientists have since made it clear that those heartbreaking headlines were mostly clickbait. But it’s also apparent that they’re concerned about how climate change will impact the reef system in the very near future.
The sad reality is that this priceless natural treasure is unlikely to become more pristine as time goes on. As an avid scuba diver and lifelong lover of the marine ecosystem, this realization has me more determined than ever to visit Australia soon, before climate change has a chance to wreak any more destruction on the Great Barrier Reef.
Zegrahm’s new Best of the Great Barrier Reef tour offers adventurers an unparalleled opportunity to explore the region’s underwater life. Led by marine biologist and expedition leader Brad Climpson, the trip features lectures by The Nature Conservancy’s Australian Division Director, Richard Gilmore. Daily snorkeling and diving excursions take guests far off the mass tourism track to see the GBR’s most pristine reefs. For land-lovers, there’s exceptional birdwatching on Lizard Island and incredible Aboriginal art on remote Stanley Island.
The 15-day expedition is the perfect way to see for yourself that the stories proclaiming the Great Barrier Reef dead were basically fake news. But perhaps more importantly, it will show you why this massive marine sanctuary is so vital to preserve for future generations of travelers.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.