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Scientists say the future of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) will depend on whether it can adapt to climate change, but admit their message can be misinterpreted as a death knell rather than an alarm bell. That’s where storytelling comes in.

“We’re scientists, not storytellers,” says Dr David Wachenfeld, Research Program Director of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and former Chief Scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) for more than 25 years. He says storytelling plays a pivotal role in reef protection.

“Learning is an important part of the visitor reef experience and when science is explained in a relatable, relevant and honest context by local guides trained to understand, manage and protect the reef, it can lead to a deeper connection that can inspire a commitment to do more to protect it,” David says.

Storytelling was the catalyst for science, tourism and government to partner in 2019, launching the first-of-its-kind Master Reef Guides Program, explains GBRMPA Director for Reef Education and Engagement, Fiona Merida.

Turtle nesting grounds have increased by as much as 125% since the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Reef Islands Initiative commenced on Lady Elliot Island.

Working in tourism as a marine biologist and guide before joining the GBRMPA in 2003, Fiona recognised local guides were the bellwethers of reef education, but found limited training and development opportunities were available to them to enable them to add to their credentials.

Initially taking reference from the highly successful Savannah Guides program – launched in Queensland in 1988 to inspire visitor interpretation of the natural and cultural histories of Gulf-Savannah Country – Fiona says the Master Reef Guides (MRG) program was adapted to suit the Great Barrier Reef’s unique environments and is evolving in readiness for what scientists say will be the biggest challenge facing the reef – climate change.

“Since inception, MRGs have become the gold standard in reef tourism, playing both a critical role in sharing the GBR’s myriad wonders, but also educating visitors about its threats, challenges and fragilities,” Fiona says.

Master Reef Guides take visitors on reef ecology walks at Lady Elliot Island and share facts about all species, including terrestrial strawberry hermit crabs (Coenobiita perlatus), left, and Giant clams (Tridacna gigas), right.

As the program enters its sixth year, hot on the heels of the planet recording its highest global temperature in 2023, Fiona says it’s more important than ever for MRGs to navigate climate change as part of the greater reef conversation.

To find out how storytelling is making a difference, I join Fiona, program mentors and 20 new recruits on Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island, 85km north-east of Bundaberg on the southern-most tip of the planet’s largest coral-reef ecosystem.

En route, I discover my pilot is Peter Gash, the current custodian of Lady Elliot Island, and an esteemed MRG alum and mentor. This isn’t the first time I’ve met Peter, visited Lady Elliot Island, or revelled in the depths of his knowledge as an MRG.

In the moments between pointing out dugongs grazing on lush sea-grass meadows in Moreton Bay and dolphins cavorting in the cerulean waters circling K’gari, Peter says: “MRGs are the most profound thing to happen to the Great Barrier Reef.

“Being part of the first cohort on Lady Elliot Island in 2019 was an exciting experiment at first, but the initiative served as a ‘supercharge’ for the greater reef community to collaborate our knowledge and forge ways to work better together across the entire reef.”

Custodian of Lady Elliot Island and pilot Peter Gash was selected as part of the first cohort of MRG’s with training taking place on the small coral cay that rises only two metres from the sea.

As a return holiday guest, I’ve snorkelled beside Peter previously on what I consider to be Queensland’s most abundant reefs, and have made the most of his intricate knowledge of the rich biodiversity they support. But I’ve been equally spellbound by his own story, resurrecting the once-barren 44ha, sphere-shaped coral cay of Lady Elliot Island – stripped bare by mining for its phosphate-rich guano – into one of Australia’s leading eco-resorts.

Fiona says passion is the essential hallmark of any MRG and places Peter at its pinnacle.

This visit he is mentoring recruits, demonstrating both his relatable storytelling and passion for sustainability while on a walking tour of the island. Peter shares how he’s replaced fossil fuels with renewable energies and runs the resort on solar power. He captivates MRGs by explaining his processes for desalinating seawater and converting island waste into useable resources. He shows them his plant nursery and shares his plans for re-vegetating the island.

“The future of how tourism operates is a vital part of the future management plan for the GBRMP,” Peter says.

The importance of plants on The Great Barrier Reef is highlighted by MRG Mentor Peter Gash when demonstrating his storytelling technique with recruits on Lady Elliot Island. Recruits also tour his plant nursery, and learn from a team of horticulturalists who are nurturing endemic plant species how the 110 acre island is being revegetated post phosphate mining that stripped it bare.

In 2018, Lady Elliot Island was selected as the first ‘climate change ark’ via the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Reef Islands Initiative. A large-scale, seven-year regenerative program shared between the resort, Traditional Owners, local businesses, community and government followed. Invasive plants are removed and endemic species are returned, with the aim of restoring the natural coral-cay ecosystem.

Peter leads us into an avenue of re-vegetated pisonia trees to demonstrate the positive changes already occurring. A cacophony erupts from a colony of migratory nesting seabirds as we approach. “We’ve seen bird species return to the island in their thousands already,” he shouts above the ruckus, “and our turtle habitat has increased by as much as 125 per cent.”

Field training forms a valuable touchpoint for recruits who’ve already completed three months of online learning, sharing up-to-date information on reef science, cultural heritage, and responsible and sustainable tourism practices.

“To see it up close like this leaves me in awe of the nature that lives here, but also knowing it wasn’t always like this gives me hope for the future too,” says youngest MRG recruit Heath Robinson.

“Regeneration, like everything else on the reef, is optimised when the natural cycle finds balance. But we need to work hard to leave places better than we found them if we are to realise that potential,” Peter says.

A small population of Noddy terns (Anous minutus) call Lady Eliot Island home, but come summer during breeding season, thousands visit the island to nest, contributing to the symbiotic life cycle of the Great Barrier Reef.

But Peter is also learning a thing or two about storytelling from recruits. Alumni like Lady Elliot’s Jacinta Shackleton, a marine biologist BSc (Hons) and dually talented photographer and videographer who spotlights the reef’s myriad curious inhabitants and discusses the challenges they face in real time via Instagram (@jacintashackleton).

Jacinta credits Peter and the MRGs for empowering her to step outside a more traditional marine biology role – and in doing so, use her voice and vision to promote reef advocacy. “Introducing people to the reef and watching them take home a greater respect and appreciation for it has always been my primary mission. But sharing reef love with people who may not have the opportunity to visit personally is a valuable bonus when they can learn to love and protect it from afar,” she says.

In stepping into the future of guiding, Sean Ulm – MRG mentor, Distinguished Professor at James Cook University (Cairns) and Director of ARC Centre of Excellence for Indigenous and Environmental Histories and Futures (Cairns) – reminds recruits how important it is to also examine the past.

Taking us on a metaphorical deep dive into the reef’s geological creation story, he says First Nations and Torres Strait Island peoples hold an estimated 9000 year–plus history with the most modern version of the GBR. Via this custodianship, they are acknowledged as the reef’s first storytellers, but also its first scientists and innovators…essentially the first MRGs.

“We should be collaborating with Traditional Owners when on Country – land or sea – and if you don’t know who they are, ask, find out and seek collaboration,” Sean encourages recruits.

Lady Elliot Island was selected in 2018 as the first ‘climate change ark’ via the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Reef Islands Initiative. The lighthouse is not just a beacon but is the first lighthouse built in Australia using a timber frame and cast iron external cladding. Accommodation on the island is in synergy with nature.

Fiona says Traditional Owners co-managing the reef has been a long-held goal of the GBRMPA, and through the MRG program, this pathway is being fostered.

Five Traditional Owners are part of the 123 specialist MRGs operating across a network of High Standard Tourism Operators spanning 348, of the GBRMP.

Joining the latest cohort are Blake Angus-Cedar, representing Wunyami Cultural Tours and Great Adventures, and Brian Connolly from Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel in Cairns.

For both men, storytelling is deeply rooted in their spiritual and cultural connection to the reef as passed down by their Elders, from whom they respectfully seek permission before sharing cultural stories.

Related: New Great Barrier Reef fish species discovered living ‘in plain sight’

When recruits give a final presentation to demonstrate their story-telling prowess, Blake simply asks us to close our eyes and quietly draws our attention to the sounds of our surroundings.

Like a guided meditation, he says the melody of waves gently washing over coral-encrusted shores tells us where it’s safe to shelter, while the waves crashing further out on the reef warn of ever-present dangers. He describes the sound of the wind moving through the trees, carrying with them the murmur of thousands of noddy terns nurturing and guiding their chicks, as learning language. And he asks us to consider every one of the sounds we hear as being connected and contributing in some way to the health and balance of this ecosystem.

He reminds us that these songs of Country are always here, playing on repeat every moment we live. He poses a simple question: Could it be that we are simply forgetting how to listen to this story?