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Vale the reef

reefI grew up in Western Australia, the dry flatlands, with the Indian Ocean lapping green at its edge. I was an adult before I visited the far-off east coast. Australia is big in a way that is hard to explain. Even so, the reef was always a part of my vocabulary of Australian-ness. It’s always just ‘the reef’; ‘The Great Barrier Reef’ is a name for travel brochures and school projects. Its coral universe and flickering rainbow of fish have always been in my mind’s eye. Funny how the myths of your culture are embedded into you.

I moved east and north as I grew up. Still, it was only last year that I first went to the reef, and then just as an add-on at the end of another trip. By the time I got there, out on an inflatable from the flat tropical sands of Cape Tribulation, I hadn’t thought much about what it would be. I’ve travelled so far and so wide, and worn off some expectation along the way. And its been a while since I put my head down into the underwater.

I had my six year old daughter with me. Her first time snorkelling.

The boat takes about half an hour to reach the edge of the reef; or one of its limbs. It’s a sprawling empire of a thing, 344,400 square kilometres of coral, shell and island, jellyfish, dolphin and ray. Alive in myriad ways and forms. WWF explains it in numbers:

‘The reef is immensely diverse. It is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, 411 types of hard coral, one-third of the world’s soft corals, 134 species of sharks and rays, six of the world’s seven species of threatened marine turtles, and more than 30 species of marine mammals, including the vulnerable dugong…as many as 3,000 molluscs and thousands of different sponges, worms and crustaceans, 630 species of echinoderms (starfish and sea urchins) and 215 bird species, of which 22 are seabirds.’

Looking back toward the shore from the boat, the steep jungled mountains of the Cape are visible. Wildlands. Land of the kuku yulanji people.

The names we use to speak of this country amuse and sadden me together. Everything is a symbol of the fear and difficulty the clumsy brave white settlers brought with them. I don’t know what the Kuku yulanji called this area but I’m pretty sure they didn’t see the cape as a tribulation, nor a mount of sorrow nor a weary bay. Tangled, dense, hot, difficult, storied incredible country. You need deep and old knowing to make this your camping ground.

Where the sea meets the sand it is warm and still, but out on the reef it is clearer and colder. The boat stops near a tiny sand island where scattered seabirds eye us suspiciously. I jump in awkwardly off the boat in flippers and coax my daughter in behind me, my partner behind her. Once we get her to breathe through the snorkel and make sure she is happy on her flotation noodle, we put our masks on and heads down, and flipper out of the deeper water to the coral bank.

It is a wordless world in there. It is a hearing world; the noise of my daughter’s excited squeals through her snorkel, the clicks and cracks of coral language and the chomping of the fish at the coral. It is a seeing world. An eye-widening otherworld. An infinity of forms and colours. Trees and platforms and mushrooms and forests and clouds of rainbow coral. Century-old giant clams with fleshy neon blue lips. Big fish little fish plain fish glow fish shy fish fast fish stripe fish sparkle fish all fish. A miracle of fish and coral. A quiet reef shark. A fairyland sponge garden. A humanless universe of such varied wonder it is hard to take in.

I hope you get to see it. To float and marvel and want to sing and cry. To smile with your snorkel in and watch your daughter’s lovely amazement. To watch for a passing turtle. To see a whale as it gracefully swims south, regent.

You might not, though. Like so many wonders, it is dying. That’s why I wanted to tell you this story.

Like all complex ecosystems the many interrelated parts of the reef rely on each other. The coral is host to tiny marine algae (zooxanthallae) that live inside corals’ tissue and produce food for the coral. They are in trouble. The government explains:

‘Coral bleaching occurs when the relationship between the coral host and zooxanthallae, which give coral much of their colour, breaks down. Without the zooxanthallae, the tissue of the coral animal appears transparent and the coral’s bright white skeleton is revealed.

Corals begin to starve once they bleach. While some corals are able to feed themselves, most corals struggle to survive without their zooxanthallae.’

You should go and read about coral. A whole chapter of intricacy. Science as poetry.

The threats from our humanness are many. Between global warming causing devastating tropical cyclones and increasing water temperatures (which upset the relationship between the coral and zooxanthallae), between agricultural run-off and industrialisation, between all the havocs we can wreak ( you know them, all too well…) the future of the reef looks grim.

I read this the other night, and that is why I am telling you this story:

‘Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has disappeared in the past 27 years and less than a quarter could be left within a decade unless action is taken, a landmark study has found.’

And this:

‘On the eve of the World Heritage Committee meeting in Cambodia, the report shows there has been no improvement in managing the impacts of ports and port development along the Great Barrier Reef coast.

The World Heritage Committee has expressed ‘extreme concern’ about the impacts of rapid industrialisation on the world’s largest coral reef. It has given the Australian and Queensland governments until 2014 to implement key recommendations or face having the reef placed on the ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list.’

And then: what, I wonder? How many almost-gone splendours already make up that list?

My daughter has seen the reef but her daughter may not. You may not. And so I wanted to tell you the story of its wonder. It’s vast unknowable sea dreaming. Is many-faceted symbiotic song. I wanted to take a long breath and smile to think of it there, its reefness. To honour it.

Vale the reef.

Editorial Notes: Dark Mountain Book 4 is now out, and you can find out more about it here.

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