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Julia Whitty Takes Us on a Coral Reef Odyssey

Blue Voice is pleased to feature a series of reports from Julia Whitty as she explores the current health of coral reefs.

Julia is a writer and film producer who has specialized in ocean subjects. She is winner of the prestigious O'Henry award for short stories for "A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga".

Ms. Whitty is currently at work on a book on coral reefs as well as a novel, both to be published by Houghton Mifflin. Her films have included Shark Central: The Secrets of Rangiroa Atoll and Cathedrals in the Sea.

 

Introduction by Hardy Jones
Julia Whitty was less than a day from departing for Bali and Sulawesi when the terrorist bombs went off. The coral projects she was to chronicle for her forthcoming book were quickly abandonded and the project managers evacuated from Indonesia.

At the last moment Julia postponed her efforts to visit Sulawesi and Komodo but on November third returns to the Great Barrier reef of Australia to revisit one of the greatest events in the marine environment. What will she find after severe El Ninos have raised the water temperates to levels lethal to coral? Do we now face the terrifying prospect that global terror may compound the effects of environmental decline caused by human activity which are already in motion?

Coral Reef Odyssey Reports

Worst Year of Coral Bleaching Ever: El Niño

Year 2002 has seen the worst case of coral bleaching ever on the Great Barrier Reef, and El Niño is still building
The first trip for my book on coral reefs, The Fragile Edge: Travels Through the Coral World, begins Sunday, 3 November, when I fly to Australia -- although in fact I will only be picking up on a story begun more than twenty years ago when I first began diving in tropical seas.

The Australian trip is timed to coincide with the mass spawning of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef, which generally occurs two to four days after the November full moon—the apex of spring in the southern hemisphere. It's a phenomenal event, one of the most spectacular nature has to offer, with more than 250 species of corals, as well as many sponges and other invertebrates—which together inhabit 2,500 separate reefs stretching across 1,240 miles of ocean—release their spawn at exactly the same moment sometime after sunset. Nearly every other living thing in the nearby ocean times its own life history to this event. All the filter feeders—mantas, whale sharks—migrate in for the feast. Larger predators like tiger sharks and marine mammals gather as well.

Clown Fish feeding in the coral reefs

But this is an El Niño year. Already the Great Barrier Reef is showing the stress, with widespread coral bleaching, which occurs when sea temperatures rise above 30 degrees Centegrade, the critical threshold where the plant/animal marriage of coral and zooxanthellae (algae) dissolves. Under such stress, corals expel their zooxanthellae, rendering the reef a ghostly white. Although they may survive a few months like this, the divorce from their plant-partners eventually leads to necrosis of the coral tissues, and death.

n the last two decades, worldwide coral bleaching events have destroyed reefs across entire ocean basins. The 1991 bleaching event led to the death of 25% of all Acropora corals in French Polynesia—the second most common coral genus in these waters. The 1997-98 El Niño killed 70% of all corals in the Indian Ocean from Africa to India. The reefs of the Galapagos Islands have yet to show signs of recovery from the widespread coral bleaching event of 1982-83.

So there is no telling what will happen this year, two to four nights after the full moon on November 20th. Will the corals spawn at all? Will it be a feast or a famine? To find out, I will accompany some of the world's foremost marine biologists into the nighttime sea aboard Foundation One, the research vessel of the Great Barrier Reef Research Foundation.

You can follow this, as well as reports on my other coral reef travels in Australia and the Coral Sea, here on BlueVoice.org.

Exploring the Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea

Thanks to the help of the Great Barrier Reef Research Foundation and Quicksilver Dive Tours in Queensland, Australia, I was offered the opportunity to dive in the Coral Sea. On the 15th of November I headed out from Port Douglas with a group of eleven American, Canadian, and Japanese divers aboard M/V Diversity, a luxurious 20m (60ft) twin hull that made the 120-mile run to Osprey Reef in good time, despite 20-knot winds and rough seas.

The Coral Sea is renowned for its breathtakingly clear water and big-wall diving. The sheer drop-offs are all that remain of extinct volcanoes that have eroded and subsided back into the sea, and their jumbled topography of deep ravines, caves, grottos, passageways, and overhangs, begins at about 3m (10ft) under the surface and falls nearly vertically into the abyss.


Diving here is exhilaratingly flightlike, as you are lifted and carried by the strong currents that sweep the walls, nourishing a fantastic assortment of hard and soft corals, and fish so big and numerous that they resemble migratory herds.

Despite the presence of an El Nino in the waters of the Pacific, the reefs out here look healthy and robust, with no signs of coral bleaching or the encroachment of crown-of-thorns starfish. This is what coral reefs should look like, and coming here you can't help but wonder if these aren't the last of their kind.

A young Japanese woman aboard Diversity, Keiko Shirako, shows me photographs of the reefs around Okinawa in Japan. During her dives in the 1990's, the reefs were vibrant and filled with life. But when she returned this summer of 2002, she found a "sango hakaba" a coral graveyard that looked, she said, as if a wildfire had passed through, razing the reefs to rubble, and she cried inside her facemask as she searched in vain for beloved landmarks from the past.

I know from the work of a young American scientist from UC Berkeley, Helen Fox, that corals destroyed in environments with strong currents may never recover because the larvae cannot get a foothold in the swift-running waters. Okinawa, which suffered 90% bleaching in the 1997-98 El Nino, may lie beyond even the phenomenal recuperative powers of the tropical sea.

But, thankfully, Osprey Reef does not appear to be suffering from either the El Nino or the effects of land-borne pollutants and nutrients that wreak such havoc on fringing reefs inshore.

Bathed by the deep, swift waters of the Coral Sea, Opsrey's reefs pulse with life: clouds of blue and orange chromis fish that sparkle like rainbows; anemones the size of bathtubs filled with anemone fish and clownfish; nudibranchs and ribbon worms as delicate as floating silk scarves; buck-toothed parrotfish nibbling on coral and voiding white sand; sea turtles grazing on algae; and plenty of reef sharks, whitetips sleeping in caves, blacktips cruising the walls, and gray reefs, which the Aussies call grey whalers, hovering out in the void.

It is a world so overwhelmingly dense with life that you feel as if you could spend the entire dive floating above a patch of reef the size of a beach towel and not see all that lies within it. But the Coral Sea is reluctant to allow such leisurely travel, and it sweeps you past the walls at a speed designed to impress with the sheer size and scope and exuberance of its wild, undersea imagination.

DROUGHT ON THE REEF

The news throughout Australia is drought. The island-continent is facing the driest conditions in recorded history. Some places have seen no rainfall in a decade. The urban air of Sydney is pungent with the smell of forests blazing in every one of its surrounding suburbs.

When I travel north to the state of Queensland, everyone I meet apologizes to me about the look of their weary, sun-baked landscape. As a Californian, the scene looks familiar; but I've been here before in a better year and know that what I see now is not what it should be. The tropical forests of this region, normally verdant, are gray and brittle and geriatric looking.

Flying into Cairns, the jumping off point for most diving on the Great Barrier Reef, I see the rainforests on the mountains of the Great Dividing Range puffing billows of white smoke and red flame. It's alarming to see so many bushfires burning all at once, with no sign of anyone battling them. But Australia's firefighting forces are deployed far to the south in New South Wales, where the landscape is dryer still and where the fires behave more like they do in the western United States -- racing through the crowns of the trees at the speed of the wind and destroying entire subdivisions in minutes.

Although I am destined to leave this land behind and spend much of my time at sea, I am learning that drought too has an effect on coral reefs, albeit a delayed one. The rainy season never materialized here last summer, and the presence of an El Niño pretty much assures the same for this year. When the rains do come -- either the seasonal monsoon or a tropical cyclone -- the denuded landscape will pour off the mountains and into the sea, carrying with it all the "bycatch" of our terrestrial labors: pesticides, fertilizers, oil, paint, and just plain toxic garbage. Several people I meet predict that this when this epic flushing occurs it will be the worst catastrophe ever witnessed on the Great Barrier Reef.

And so as I enter the water at Agincourt Reef #4, due east of Cape Tribulation, I feel as if I am exploring an ethereal wonderland, as fleeting as cherry blossoms in spring. How long will these spectacular blue staghorn and lavender brain corals and their delicate flowers of fish, nudibranchs, ribbon worms, and sponges survive? Twenty miles away, the heavy back of the Australian continent weighs upon the waters, ready to slough its skin and renew itself with rain while the reef smothers. Ironically, Australia and the United States are the two industrial nations that have refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol that would limit the greenhouse gases that are changing the climate of the globe and most likely fueling this nation's drought. Even worse, Australia is the highest per capita greenhouse emitter in the world -- 35% higher than the world's largest overall polluter, the U.S.

The people here are rightly proud of the presence of The Great Barrier Reef in their backyard, the largest structure built by any living organism on the planet, including humans. And from what I have seen, the Aussies undertake the day to day stewardship of their natural wonder with the gravity and intelligence and creativity the task deserves. Maybe it is a measure of our shared youth as societies, but in terms of taking the innovative leap into a future of clean fuels, we Australians and Americans are simply standing still as the fires around us burn.

Photos Courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Research Foundation

 

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