Great Barrier Reef guides face a bleaching tragedy

<span>Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef experienced its fifth mass coral bleaching in eight years this summer.</span><span>Photo: Amy Lawson</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 6b483360385e75″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 3360385e75″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef experienced its fifth mass coral bleaching in eight years this summer.Photo: Amy Lawson

“You can see it in their faces,” says diving instructor Elliot Peters. “There is definitely some regret and sadness.”

Peters works at a resort on Heron Island in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef and in recent weeks he has had to explain to curious guests why so many corals around the island are turning stark white.

The reef is in the midst of its fifth mass bleaching event in just eight years – an alarming trend driven by global warming in a year when global ocean temperatures have reached record highs.

Peters has never seen a mass coral bleaching event up close before, but this summer he saw ancient rock corals that can bleach for hundreds of years and show signs of death.

Related: We can’t pretend we’re doing enough if we want to give the Great Barrier Reef a chance to survive | Adam Morton

“It certainly motivates me,” he says. “It opens the doors to getting people talking about climate change and reef health. People thank us for telling the truth about what is going on here.”

The Great Barrier Reef is an important export industry for Australia. According to a 2017 report, the reef supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion to the national economy.

But when the impact of global warming on the reef began to make global headlines in 2016 and 2017, tensions began to arise in the tourism industry. A tourism chief called stories of catastrophic bleaching a “big white lie”.

“The reef is the most important natural attraction this country has to offer,” says Daniel Gschwind, professor at Griffith University’s tourism institute and chairman of the committee representing reef tourism at the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

“It’s a challenge because it’s a phenomenon [global heating] affects what we ultimately sell.”

‘If the reef dies, we die’

Gschwind says that for years tour operators have been reluctant to talk to guests about the threat of climate change.

The reef has experienced mass bleaching in 2002, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2022 and now again in 2024. But for an ecosystem the size of Italy, the effects are not uniform.

Coral bleaching describes a process in which the coral animal expels the algae that live in their tissues, giving them their color and many of their nutrients.

Without their algae, a coral’s white skeleton can be seen through their translucent flesh, giving it a bleached appearance.

The mass coral bleaching over large areas, first noted in the 1980s around the Caribbean, is caused by rising ocean temperatures.

Some corals also exhibit fluorescent colors under stress when they release a pigment that filters light. Sunlight also plays a role in causing bleaching.

Corals can survive bleaching if temperatures are not too extreme or prolonged. But extreme heat waves at sea can kill corals outright.

Coral bleaching can also have sub-lethal consequences, including increased susceptibility to disease and reduced growth and reproduction rates.

Scientists say the gaps between bleaching events are becoming too short for reefs to recover.

Coral reefs are considered one of the Earth’s ecosystems most at risk from global warming. Reefs support the fisheries that feed hundreds of millions of people, and also support important tourism industries.

The world’s largest coral reef system – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – has suffered seven mass bleaching events since 1998, including five in the past decade.

In any given year, some reefs will escape heat stress, some will turn white but then regain their color, while some corals will die. Bleaching can make corals more susceptible to disease, slow their growth and hinder their reproduction.

Government scientists carried out aquatic and aerial surveys this week to assess bleaching across the entire reef, but it could be weeks or even months before there is a clear picture of how severe this year has been.

The long-term prognosis for the reef is not good. As global warming continues, the risk of increasingly intense heat stress increases.

“It’s difficult to accurately communicate a bleaching event,” says Gschwind. “With an event like this, by the time it is communicated to a consumer in London or Shanghai, the message received could be: ‘The reef is no longer worth visiting’. That is the challenge for the tourism sector and that is why many operators are struggling with this.”

Divers on tourist boats are often the first to raise the alarm, and this year operators have sent more than 5,000 observations to the marine park authority.

“That is where the industry and operators see their social role. They are the communicators of this story – operators are the watchmen,” says Gschwind.

“They see what global warming is doing to the natural environment on which we all depend. If the reef dies, we die. We are the early warning system for what is happening on the planet.”

The emotional toll of a bleached reef

Since back-to-back mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, the park authority has worked with the tourism industry to establish Master Reef Guides, a growing cohort of more than 120 diving professionals trained by scientists and Traditional Owners on how to communicate the health concerns of the reef and its threats.

Fiona Merida, a marine biologist and director of reef education and engagement at the park authority, says giving tourism operators detailed information about what happened at the sites they visited “takes the emotion out of it” and gives them the confidence to talk to visitors about bleaching.

But she says some reef guides themselves are suffering “ecological grief” this year as they see the places they love suffer. Reef guides have set up a “buddy check” system that allows guides to check on each other’s mental health.

Yolanda Waters is the founder of the interest group Divers for Climate and has been diving in the southern part of the reef in recent weeks.

There are climate skeptics in every group, but I notice that this is becoming less and less

Tahn Miller, diving instructor

“It was bleached coral as far as the eye could see,” she says. “I didn’t want to go into the water anymore. It is a restorative place for me and it is terrible not to want to go back.”

Waters is a former diving instructor and as part of research at the University of Queensland she has interviewed more than 650 reef visitors in recent years.

“I noticed how difficult these conversations were,” she says. “Tourists ask a lot of questions and it can be confrontational when people have paid $300 to go to the reef. A big question being asked of tourism is: ‘Is the reef dying? Say.’

“The reality is much more complicated, but they want to know from the people who see the reef every day.

“We found [tourists] are actually open to hearing about climate change. The majority were not only open to the information, but wanted more. And they wanted to know what they could do.”

“It is a difficult question: how do we do this in a way that encourages action and does not deter people. But you have to face the reality: there is still so much to save, and that is often ignored.”

‘Now is the time’

Tahn Miller has worked as a diving instructor and guide at Wavelength Reef Cruises in Port Douglas in far north Queensland for 15 years.

Miller recalls hearing stories a decade ago about how some dive guides in other parts of the reef were told not to mention climate change to their guests for fear of perpetuating the idea that the natural treasure was dying out or not. was worth visiting.

But he says there has been an evolution in the industry, and now many more divers feel able to talk to visitors about climate change – but only if the visitors want to hear it.

“There are climate skeptics in every group, but I notice that this is becoming less and less,” he says. “I tell them I’m not there to change anyone’s mind, but this is what I saw. I try to be honest with them.”

Related: On the Great Barrier Reef and in denial: some would rather get grumpy than face the facts | Fiona Katauskas

Miller says he saw reefs recovering after the 2016 bleaching event. But his optimism has eroded in recent years.

There are several tour operators who also carry out small reef restoration projects in the areas they visit, including replanting corals.

“Some of the corals I planted – hundreds of them – have already died [this summer],” he says.

“The time is now… we must make change because if we don’t, we will lose huge expanses of reefs.”

Back on Heron Island, Peters is stopped by tourists who ask him what they can do to help the reef.

“I start by getting them to recognize their appreciation for the reef and that we need to do more. I give them one or two tips,” he says.

“I tell them to ‘use their voice’ and learn about the policies of the people they might vote for. And I ask them to think about where their money is kept: is it in a bank that invests in fossil fuels?”

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