June 8th is World Oceans Day, and we reckon the timing couldn’t be better. Because, like getting a random birthday present from an uber rich yet slightly weird uncle, the federal government announced just last month it’s coughing up more than $500 million in funding for the Great Barrier Reef.
It’s no secret: reef conservation efforts could use the stimulus package. The effects of climate change, coastal development and unsustainable fishing, illustrated by ever-growing reports on coral bleaching, a seemingly uncontainable crown-of-thorns starfish outbreak and the increasing acidification of the ocean paint a picture so grim it’s hard to broach the subject of the GBR without hitting a sombre note – even (or perhaps especially) on a day that is meant to be cause for celebration.
We can count our grievances, but we can also count our blessings – one being that we still have the world’s most incredible coral reef right here on our doorstep. And getting out there and enjoying the ocean – whether it’s with a snorkel, SUP, kayak, fins or one of those strange underwater space suits – is one of the most powerful ways to reconnect with the environment, start a conversation, and fan that fire within that pushes you to keep chipping away at your own sustainability goals.
Here’s just a handful of things we can all start (or keep) doing to help protect and preserve our coral kingdoms.
For years, research has pointed to chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate as contributors to the coral bleaching crisis. Hawaii has just this month become the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing these two hormone-altering chemicals. Thankfully there’s quite a few brands out there now offering reef-safe sunscreen formulations. But if you ask us, there’s nothing better than a full-length rashie or wetsuit to help limit the amount of sunscreen you need to use in the first place.
Know your limits
Ever heard the phrase ‘like a bull in a china shop’? Spacial awareness is super important when you’re exploring fragile reef environments, as is taking it slowly. All it takes is a bump from a flailing fin to send a thousand-year-old plate coral tumbling to the seabed. Even the most experienced divers typically aim to keep a distance of at least one metre from coral structures. If you’re a novice diver and still mastering the art of neutral buoyancy, be especially mindful of the space you need to manoeuvre, and don’t venture into tight passages if you’re still a bit wavy. If you’re not a confident snorkeller, use a floaty like a pool noodle for support and don't try to tread water over shallow reef – swim to a deeper site with plenty of leg room so your fins don't clip the coral. It should go without saying but standing on the coral to have a rest is a huge no-no!
Choosing a company to guide your trip in tourism-heavy regions can be overwhelming to say the least. The Great Barrier Reef for example has over 700 tourism operators alone and around 1500 vessels and aircrafts frequent its waters, around 85% of which operate out of Cairns and the Whitsundays. Narrow down the search and know your tour guides operate in an environmentally and culturally responsible way by opting for a company which displays the Advanced Ecotourism certification logo from Eco Tourism Australia.
Along with low-impact practices, careful resource management and contributing to research and conservation, advanced eco-certified businesses are committed to providing learning opportunities for customers (a marine biologist on board, for example, isn’t uncommon). So listen up, ask questions and you’ll go home with newfound wisdom about the environment you’re visiting, too.
Tether your equipment
We’ll take a punt and say you don’t want to see your HERO6 disappearing to the bottom of an ocean trench. And while photography equipment isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind when you think of ocean pollution, no-one – not you nor the fishes (and especially not your insurance provider) – wants to see your epic underwater footage lost at sea. A retractable cable is great as it keeps your camera close, reduces the chance of the cord snagging or tangling, and prevents your gear from drifting and colliding with fragile pieces of coral.
Think you need a PHD to contribute to science? There are loads of research initiatives out there that invite participation from volunteers, visitors and members of the local community to assist with data collection and monitoring efforts – often all you need to do is keep your eyes peeled and snap some photos while you swim around. Eye on the Reef is just one example of a program which uses a purpose-built app to collect and record GPS tagged observations from visitors, such as photographs of wildlife, pollution, coral bleaching, pests etc. Hit up the Reef Citizen Science Alliance to see what other projects you can contribute to.
Take only memories, leave only bubbles
Exploring underwater environments requires practicing a similar set of Leave No Trace principles that you are no doubt familiar with on land. In protected marine reserves (such as the entire 350,000km2 of the GBR) it’s forbidden to take things like shells and coral branches as souvenirs, and as with anywhere – never litter. While it may seem harmless, it’s also important not to interfere with wildlife. Touching corals can disturb the transparent film that protects the polyps, and feeding marine life human food can impact their health and natural feeding behaviours.
Take three for the sea
Join a coastal clean up or just go for it on your own. You’ll feel awesome knowing you’ve scored some karmic points from mother nature. But why stop there? If you’re going for a dive or a snorkel, take a mesh drawstring bag so you can collect litter as you see it. There are a couple of rules however.
Novice divers should be mindful of staying with their group and not put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to chase a plastic bag – leave that runaway to the pros. It’s also important to check if a piece of litter has already become part of the habitat before taking it – you don’t want to disturb a can or bottle that has found a second life as a marine animal’s home.
It’s estimated around 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year – an unfathomable quantity. Around half of all plastic produced only gets used once (the average lifespan of a plastic bag is around 15 minutes, for example). It might sound alarming at first, but we choose to take this as an encouraging thought – a wake up call – because single use plastics are one of the easiest offenders to wean yourself off.
Now imagine if everyone committed to gradually giving up straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, take away coffee cups, disposable cutlery… that’s a pretty huge dent in the ocean’s plastic intake right there! Cloth shopping bags and mesh produce bags, a reusable coffee cup, stainless steel straw, a set of travel cutlery (including chopsticks) and an awesome water bottle are all you need to make those first steps towards plastic-free ocean-friendly habits.
If researching sustainable seafood sounds daunting, that’s because it is. Australian fisheries and the bodies that govern them are notoriously complex, and once you start looking beyond stock levels to factors such as collection methods, species affected by bycatch (turtles, for example), international waters, and the relevance of a species’ position in the food chain, it’s easy to Google yourself into a bit of a frazzle. Which is why we’re pretty big fans of the Australian Sustainable Seafood Guide to unpack the problem areas for us. It even comes with handy (and free!) app.
As we delve deeper into this big, unknown climate experiment we’re all part of, it’s hard not to see coral as the canary in the coal mine. Which is why things like our energy consumption are so relevant to the recovery of these extraordinary albeit fragile ecosystems . So we’ll wrap it up by mentioning the big, twisty rabbit hole that is our carbon footprint.
Whether it’s switching to energy efficient light bulbs, eating locally sourced produce (or better still growing your own), trialling meat-free Mondays, driving less and cycling more, or going the whole nine yards and building a poo-powered Earthship in a paddock and changing your name to Strawberry, this is one of those doozies where it’s okay to choose the size of your battles… because every little bit helps.
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