The Great Barrier Reef, a collection of nearly 3,000 reefs that stretches along the northeastern coast of Australia and covers an area that is the size of Italy – the largest living structure on Earth – is in dire straits. In recent years, much of it has been destroyed by an ecological phenomenon known as coral bleaching, a kind of underwater fire caused by a sudden rise of unusually hot water.
Since 2016, half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached, which can lead to permanent death. That will probably continue. In addition to bleaching, local problems such as wastewater, overfishing and coral damage from clumsy divers have also taken their toll at the World Heritage site. With such an attack of man-made stressors, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, should just be alone?
"In my opinion, tourism is overwhelmingly positive to the reef," said James Kerry, a researcher at James Cook University in Queensland and coordinator of the Australian National Coral Bleaching Task Force. "Nearly none" of the Great Barrier Reef's environmental misery, says Kerry, can be attributed to tourism. The real threats, he says, are coral bleaching, cyclones, and a coral-consuming starfish called the Crown of Thorns. In recent years, however, bleaching has been the biggest aggressor and most in the northern part of the reef. Climate change, which causes an increase in sea temperatures across the globe, is the main reason behind it.
Experiencing the reef in person is a great way to learn about this amazing natural wonder.
For all the pressure on the reef, Kerry still encourages people to see it – and people do it. Over two million visit the reef every year," says Mark Read, acting chief researcher at the Great Barrier Reef. Marine Park Authority. "Visitors to the reef are likely to be amazed by the underwater ecosystem, and with a good tour guide they will also learn about how and why the reef is fighting," Kerry says. "Seeing this first hand can have a profound impact on visitors and hopefully help them think about how to combat climate change from where they come from. "
Stuart Sandin, a reef ecologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, agrees that environmentally conscious tourism to the Great Barrier Reef is a positive "I would say indescribably that if you love something, you should visit it – just be thoughtful about how to visit," he says.
But how to be thoughtful? knew tour operators abound over the Great Barrier Reef, but some are better than others. Sandin invites visitors to be upfront with tour operators and ask questions such as, "What steps are you taking to ensure that the reefs I should see will be good or better tomorrow?" Look for operators who employ marine biologists like those who have endorsements from environmentally friendly certification agencies, he says.
For example, Reef Magic Cruises has an advanced environmental accreditation from Eco Tourism Australia, an independent nonprofit. From Cairns, visitors will explore healthy sections of the reef through snorkeling, scuba diving, glass-bundle boat trips and even helicopter flights. Adrenaline Snorkel & Dive, an outfit out of Townsville with more than three decades of experience, works with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to ensure their excursions do not cause damage to the reef. It is also Eco-Tourism Australia certified. It offers day trips and live-on-board experiences as well as professional association for diving instructor courses.
For a more low and private experience, there are several environmentally friendly island retreats that are only accessible by boat. Pumpkin Island, located in the southern part of the reef and totally carbon positive, boasts five beach cabins and two bungalows. The luxurious resort uses wind and solar energy and filters rainwater for drinking water. Get fully off the grid at Heron Island Resort, a non-TV, no cell phone reception operation. Twenty-two world-class dive sites surround the island, which is also a protected sea turtle cave (further enhancing its eco-cred, it shares the island with the southern hemisphere's largest island-based marine research station). Direct beach access to the reef is also available at the eco-environmentally conscious Green Island Resort, which is 45 minutes by boat from Cairns. The plant has its own desalination plant, solar power plant and advanced tertiary wastewater treatment plant, and it boasts all its waste to the mainland.
Read the Marine Park Authority, invite visitors to look up the Responsible Reef Practices page (gbrmpa.gov.au) to follow the guidelines on the reef. Tips range from collecting dead shells to avoid feeding. "And when [visitors] returns from their trip, they can make sustainable environmental choices in the home, work and school that also benefit the reef," he adds. "Experiencing the reef in person is a great way to learn about this amazing natural wonder, and many visitors who come to the reef go home with a renewed understanding of this special place."