The new Great Barrier Reef ambassadors

By Aaron Smith May 14, 2020
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An innovative training program for tourist operators on the Great Barrier Reef could be crucial to the survival of the World Heritage treasure.

DESCENDING 30m to the base of Steve’s Bommie, just as the morning sun breaks the horizon, I’m filled with trepidation about whether this undersea setting is still a splendid visual palette of colour and life.

It’s been two decades since I last visited this celebrated dive site on Ribbon No. 3 Reef, east of Cooktown, on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

During that time this World Heritage-listed natural wonder has suffered a series of environmental threats, ranging from over-fishing to agricultural run-off. Many of these are now better managed. But the reef continues to face its biggest threat by far – climate change.

Well beyond the realm of local management, this global phenomenon has caused four major coral bleaching episodes since 1988, killing huge swathes of coral and degrading the habitat associated with it. At the time of going to press another major bleaching was underway.

As shafts of sunlight reach down to the ocean floor, the night shift of large, pelagic fish retreats into shadowy deeper water. Dark blues and greens are illuminated, and the reef begins to come alive. I slowly rise with my dive buddy, spiralling up around Steve’s Bommie.

At 10m below the surface it’s teeming with tiny schooling fish and iridescent hard and soft corals. Lionfish in all their grandeur glide past. Near-invisible stonefish lurk in crevices, and dolphins frolic above. Just before surfacing, at my 5m safety stop, I see perched on a rock a truly exquisite nudibranch – a tiny, psychedelic, shell-less gastropod.

“The reef is dead” or “dying”, headlines, including some written by me, have screamed in recent years. But I’m elated to see that on Steve’s Bommie, at least, on this February morning, the reef looks as good as it did when I was working here as a guide two decades ago.

What I’m seeing at this site isn’t the only reason I’m optimistic about the reef’s future, despite the horror headlines. I’ve just spent four days at sea with the fourth cohort of Master Reef Guides, a new program developing industry best practice, and it’s shown me the reef and its future through eyes of a new generation.

Consultant John Courtenay (left, at left) and Fiona Merida from the GBRMPA brief Reef Guides at the start of the expedition. (Image credit: Aaron Smith)

Making reef ambassadors

Launched last year, Master Reef Guides is a partnership between the GBR Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Tourism and Events Queensland and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators.

Its purpose is to produce reef ambassadors – frontline advocates who can provide up-to-date information on the reef, share stories of its extraordinary habitats, and explain to residents and visitors alike what they can do to make a difference to its future.

Reef Guides has been modelled on the highly successful Savannah Guides program, a network of professional tour guides and operators working with researchers, national parks agencies and local communities to guide professional development in tropical savannah tourism across northern Australia.

During its first year, the GBR program produced three cohorts of Master Reef Guides who are already working along the length of the reef, from Torres Strait in the north to Lady Elliot Island, more than 2000km away near the reef’s southern end.

“[Reef Guides] is about finding the best of the best in the tourism industry,” says Fiona Merida, who manages the GBRMPA’s tourism stewardship and has been vital in establishing the program. “There is a really intensive selection process during which [candidates] have to be nominated, then shortlisted.”

Those selected must complete a three-month comprehensive online training program of 10 modules that cover the best available information on reef science, cultural heritage and responsible and sustainable tourism. Alumni are also expected to regularly update by attending refresher master classes twice a year after qualifying.

“The original motivation for starting the Master Reef Guides came from my own experience working in the tourism industry and guiding people out on the reef,” Fiona explains. “I realised you could touch people on a level you can’t do in any other way. Having places like the Great Barrier Reef makes planet Earth worth living on. That’s why people from all around the world work on the reef; they come and never leave.”

The 17 Master Reef Guides in this, the program’s fourth cohort, which I’ve joined to experience their field training, come from across Australia as well as Japan, Taiwan and the UK and have been carefully selected as industry-best reef tourism advocates. The field program, previously held on Lady Elliot and Fitzroy islands, is being held on a ship for the first time – from the fleet of Cairns-based expedition cruise company Coral Expeditions.

Between snorkelling and diving on Ribbon No. 3 and No. 9 reefs and hiking across Lizard Island, the cohort enjoys lectures from marine biologists, archaeologists, expedition leaders, experts in Native Title and Indigenous compliance, and speakers from the tourism industry.

At some places we visit, the reef seems pristine. At others it’s severely damaged with the latest bout of coral bleaching already starting to show its impact. In the shallow waters off Lizard Island, branch corals fluoresce brightly before they pass into pastel tones, a sign they are putting up a fight for survival before succumbing to bleaching.

Cohort member Taylor Chin-Siang Chen, a young man originally from Taiwan, is now based in the Whitsundays and has been working on the GBR for different companies for the past four years. Growing up on an island, Taylor has always loved the ocean.

“The Great Barrier Reef is unique in the world, one of the seven natural wonders. Everyone wants to see it, not just in books or magazines, or on the screen, but see it themselves in three dimensions – to smell it, to feel the breeze and the temperature,” he says.

“So people all around the world, if they can, should come and see it. It’s very important, [because] if we don’t protect it now, soon it will be gone. As human beings we have a responsibility to all of nature…not just to the world [now] but to future generations.” Taylor believes the reef’s survival is a battle to be won against climate change, “a long-term combat we have to fight”.

Fellow cohort member Bruce Victor is a reef pilot in his 50s who guides large ships, including cruise liners, through Torres Strait.

“There are two important things I have really gained from the course,” Bruce says. “First, I’ve enjoyed the amazing passion. These people are so privileged to spend their lives working on the reef; this is their office. The second thing is that I can take the knowledge and inspiration of those people and impart that to the thousands of visitors we have that come to the reef on cruise ships each season.”

Bruce is my dive buddy on Steve’s Bommie and his eyes genuinely sparkle when he talks about the reef: “The key message I’m trying to promote to guests is that climate change is the major issue, and everybody has the potential to contribute to solving that problem. When I ask individuals what they are going to take away from this, I ask them what they are going to do from here on, in terms of doing their part.”

Master Reef Guides Kirsty Whitman and Sam Appleton return from a snorkel off Lizard Island, where the Australian Museum runs one of the world’s leading coral reef research stations. (Image credit: Pablo Cogollos)

Does the GBR have a chance against climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report last year that warns 70–90 per cent of the world’s reefs will be dead if climate change causes an increase to global mean temperatures of 1.5oC. It says that 99 per cent will be gone if the increase is 2oC.

“We are currently a little over 1oC warmer than at pre-industrial times,” warns GBRMPA chief scientist Dr David Wachenfeld. “There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who depend on coral reefs for their food and income and for coastal protection, so these are serious stakes we are talking about. If you look at the commitments being currently made by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, we are heading towards being 3oC or warmer by the end of the century.”

Every five years, the GBRMPA publishes an Outlook Report that explores the reef’s health, pressures and future. Last year’s edition downgraded the reef’s health from “poor” to “very poor” and rated climate change as its single biggest threat. David, however, still has hope.

“I know a 70–90 per cent loss sounds terrible, but if we can stabilise the temperature [rise] of the Earth at 1.5oC, that still means we have 10–30 per cent coral left, which will breed if the temperature is stabilised. Things could recover from that,” he says. “Our marine park is world-leading…of all the coral reef places in the world, we’ve probably got more effort and investment in protecting our reef from local pressures than anywhere else.”

Related: Tourism vs. Great Barrier Reef: John Rumney

That’s something David believes will give the GBR a fighting chance against climate change. “I think there is reason to be hopeful because humanity has an amazing array of technology at its disposal to help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “This is the time to accelerate their deployment. This is the time to do everything we can. This is a call for action for people to lift their game.”

David agrees that reports of reef bleaching make dramatic headlines. “[But] given that the [GBR] marine park is nearly 350, bigger than two-thirds of countries on the planet, it’s difficult to know what’s happening on every part of the park at every moment,” he says, explaining there is always the opportunity for pockets to be healthy at any one time.

That’s exactly why Fiona believes the Master Reef Guides are so important. “The GBR is one of the most diverse and special ecosystems on the planet: there are so many minute incremental changes that occur,” she says. “The only way they can be picked up is if you are out there every day. For the Master Reef Guides this is their backyard.”

As well as playing an important role as citizen scientists making regular observations on the state of the reef, Fiona believes a key role of the Guides is to inspire visitors. “If you give someone a whole lot of facts and information they switch off. But tell them a story they can relate to, you can connect, and that’s when the real magic happens,” she says. “Master Reef Guides create a network of ambassadors for the reef.”

Storytelling is an important component of the course, helping the Master Reef Guides to not only have access to the most up-to-date science but to develop their own account of the reef.”

Related: “An underwater bushfire”: third mass bleaching event in five years on the Great Barrier Reef confirmed

The importance of storytelling

Jacinta Shackleton, another of the current cohort of trainee Master Reef Guides, is from Adelaide, grew up next to the ocean playing in rock pools and has worked on Lady Elliot Island for the past two years. “Storytelling is probably one of the most important tools with guiding because that’s how we engage with our customers,” Jacinta agrees. “Ultimately, that’s what they will remember – how we made them feel about the reef.”

A sixth-generation descendant of famed Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, Jacinta shares his famed spirit of adventure and certainly considers herself an advocate for the reef. “I think it is incredibly important to give people hope about the reef because essentially no-one wants to protect something they think is dead,” she says. “We have to tell people it’s still alive… that it’s still absolutely amazing.”

Jacinta says that during her Reef Guide training she benefited particularly from learning about the reef’s First Nation Custodians, who inhabited the region as far back as the last glacial period, when the sea level was 130m lower than today.

What is the GBR today was then the outer edge of the continent’s coastline. Guest speaker Professor Sean Ulm, an archaeologist who has collaborated extensively with Aboriginal communities, presented his latest research to Jacinta and her fellow cohorts. He says the reef was abutted by about 2 million square kilometres of swamps, lakes, rivers and mountains until it was inundated by rising sea levels as the globe warmed naturally 20,000–8000 years ago.

“We know Aboriginal and Melanesian [Torres Strait Islander] people were living in Australia more than 65,000 years ago, so there’s no doubt people were living on those now-submerged coastal landscapes,” Sean says. “For decades it has been postulated that people were living on this land, but it is only in the past three years that systematic research has been undertaken and begun to reveal evidence for archaeological sites on the sea floor. This is really cutting-edge stuff.”

That sort of information changed Jacinta’s view of the reef. “It’s been fantastic to learn of [Indigenous] cultures, traditions, and the fact that we need their practices to continue and for their culture to stay alive,” she says. “Ultimately, they are the best caretakers of the reef. This is their country.”

“Learning traditional knowledge directly from First Nations people is privileged information,” Fiona says. “You can’t get that from Google or a book. You can only get it from an exchange with people prepared to share something special with you.”

She says the long-standing and deep cultural connection to the environment that Aboriginal people have is valuable to the modern survival of the reef. “They have a deeper understanding on a spiritual and emotional level,” she explains. “If we can connect people to that in any shape or form, they are going to be further enriched.”

Current Reef Guide cohort member Dustin Maloney, from Cairns, understands this better than most. He is a snorkelling guide on the reef and the first Traditional Owner to come through the program.

“Once it really sunk in that I was accepted into this course, I realised it was not only a good opportunity for me, but for also the rest of the First Nations people,” Dustin says. “What I’ve learnt here is that the Reef Guides are given cultural content that gives a better understanding for the tourism industry, which helps us be more connected to the reef and to protect it even more for future generations to come.”

Dustin’s family ties stretch from Cairns all the way to Wujul Wujul, north of Cape Tribulation, and include the Kuku Yalanji, Mandingalbay Yidinji and Yirrganydji peoples.

“For Indigenous people in general, story and connection are very important, so this course is very special for me because I will take all this information and pass it on to the next generation coming through,” Dustin says. “Not only is it a big step forward for us to share our stories and connection with Australians but with the rest of the world as well. The Master Reef Guides I’ve met are the top of their game. The main aim is to take a big step forward to protect the reef, not only for Australians, but everyone else.”

Master Reef Guides (top) snorkel off Lizard Island, assessing reef habitats that suffered during the bleaching episodes of 2016 and 2017. (Image credit: Philip Warrin)

Translating passion

There’s no doubt that all the Master Reef Guides share a great passion for the reef and want to share its wonders with the rest of the world. This training gives them the chance to translate and pass on that passion in the hope it inspires those people they take to the reef to help protect it once they leave.

I ask many of the participants in this cohort to describe the program for me in just three words. “Passion, inspire, protect” are featured time and time with each response. And this, Fiona believes, is why the story of the reef – in all its beauty, complexity, enormity and struggles to survive – is so important.

“Storytelling is the one thing that connects us all, no matter where you come from. It connects to the heart and soul,” she says, reinforcing what is clearly one of the program’s strongest themes. “Stories are beyond the facts and figures; stories are personal…it’s the one thing that connects us as a people across the world. If everybody knew what I know, they would love what I love.”

When I ask Fiona for her three words to describe the program, she takes a long pause and tears well in her eyes. “I can’t do it in three words; I need four,” she says. Then she wipes her eyes and says simply and determinedly: “The time is now.”