Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef is pretty much a bucket-list item for every traveller and unfortunately one of the most unsustainable areas of tourism on the planet. Experts believe that the Great Barrier Reef will be dead and gone within 50 years.
I didn’t mean to put a dampener on your day but it’s the sad truth. And you know what’s even sadder? Me and you are responsible for it.
I read this famous obituary just before we were due to visit and it left an impression on me.
I’ve attempted to sit down and write this post so many times since we snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef, but I’ve never been able to decide which approach I should take in describing it. Should I focus on the amazing sea life and unbelievable pictures we managed to take with our underwater camera? Or the fact that overshadowing everything on that magical rip was a black cloud of doom, the certain knowledge that within my lifespan the world’s biggest coral reef and one of the natural wonders of the world will be dead and gone? This cute little blue starfish consigned to crawl across the bleached and broken bones of what used to be its home? Snorkelling the great barrier reef is fraught with challenges and how to write about it is just one of them.
As a tourist and a traveller (two things that are identical yet at the same time completely different) I was torn between enjoying and loathing my experience of snorkelling the great barrier reef.
You see, the Great Barrier Reef is being murdered (to my mind anyway) by two villains. Tourists, and human beings in general.
The murdering done by tourists I can certainly testify to, you see there are approximately 2 million visitors to the Great Barrier Reef every year. Thousands of boats passing overhead and so many clumsy destructive bodies in the water.
A large proportion of these tourists are fantastic, respectful people. The kind of tourist who appreciates what they see and are humbled by it. The type of people who hold the door open for strangers or walk in single file down a busy street.
However there are some that are the opposite and treat snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef only as a crazy photo opportunity or a unique place to have fun and mess around with their friends. These are the types of people who let heavy doors slam into the faces of pensioners and walk 3 or 4 abreast through a busy marketplace.
It doesn’t take a lot to harm the coral reef, a simple misplaced kick with a fin will pretty much kill anything it comes into contact with. If you stand on a beautiful patch of irredescent purple and green coral today, even by accident, that same patch next week will probably be brown, ugly and dying.
While floating about in the middle of the ocean and snorkelling the great barrier reef you get to see all types of coral, sea life and tourist alike. I must admit that most of my guilt came after I had left the ocean and arrived back in Cairns, in the water the beauty is all too powerful and even though I am an exceptionally bad swimmer and snorkelling was never one of my favourite activities – since being a traveller for the last 6 months and especially after visiting the reefs in the Galapagos, Fiji and Australia I have grown more confident and dare I say it, a better snorkeler for it (usually because I am so entranced that I spend so long in the water and get so much practice in).
Nothing can take away that sinking feeling you get (pun intended) when you brush against something completely by accident. That small smudge you’ve left on the side of a coral with the very tip of your fin. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid – unless you stay a long way out into the deepest parts of the reef. And I class myself as one of those polite tourists.
Perhaps it’s because it’s underwater and we can’t really see or imagine the damage done to it because everything under the surface is so aliens to us? Well then, if you want another example of what the effect of tourism has on the Great Barrier Reef then imagine a similar impact on the Great Wall of China.
Imagine that every day and hundred helicopters hover 10 feet above the wall, blowing chunks of mortar and stone from the ramparts. Tens of thousands of tourists, fitted with razor sharp crampons then absail down and land with a crunch on the wall itself, blissfully unaware of the scrapes and gouges they make in the 1500 year old masterpiece.
After a few years of this you can guess what the touristy sections of the wall would look like? A mess surely.
The second villain as I mentioned earlier is human kind itself. Human beings have contributed massively to climate change – and it’s the warming of the ocean that has had a massive effect on over 35% of the coral reef.
When the ocean warms up, the coral becomes bleached – in effect it is dead. Other marine life doesn’t want to live and support bleached coral. It’s like a house in the middle of a street where the owners have died with the heating turned on. The stench is overpowering and all the neighbours move out.
If you think about the Great Wall again, it would be like the whole thing being made of ice. Or if not ice then sandstone and the whole human race just sweating over it and wearing it down inch by inch, year by year.
By now you would have seen that I’ve been throwing in some random pictures here and there of just how serene and beautiful this place is. I don’t mean to twist the knife and do that in order to say “I’ve been and seen this wonderful stuff but you can’t – you’ll kill it!” Nor do I mean to say “quick go and see it now before it’s all too late!”. The sad truth is there’s really nothing I can say that will make it any better than it currently is.
All I can say is just to be aware of what’s happening and be as careful and responsible as you can be when snorkelling the great barrier reef. Don’t be that tourist that breaks noses on doors, pushes locals into gutters and takes coral and sand from these unique locations. Don’t ride a turtle, petrify Nemo or pose for a picture while standing on a coral shelf.
Just enjoy the once in a lifetime, top of every bucket list, experience of snorkelling the great barrier reef and choose your tour company carefully, ideally one that places conservation at the top of its brand image. All the guides we talked to were sad about the reef and held no illusions about the sorry state of affairs. But they do tours Day in Day out and preach and beg tourists not to touch or disturb the coral in any way. But they know as well as anyone that it’s impossible. It’s a losing battle and one that will be lost completely within 50 years unless something truly magical happens to save it.
If you like this post, check out some of our other posts on our time in Australia like our one month in Australia itinerary or our epic list of free and cheap things to do in Sydney – they’re less depressing and morally questionable than this one I promise.