Australia's Great Barrier Reef On Watch

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Sitting at a restaurant famous for its views overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris, I was 200 meters (656 feet) above sea level talking with biologist David Wachenfeld through a headset in his full-face breathing mask while he scuba dove 4-meters (13-feet) deep around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Since my job gives me the opportunity to live anywhere, and I choose to live in France, this was one of those “God, I love my job” moments. Wachenfeld, who was born in Paris, made the case that for him it was as well.

Our conversation was streamed live on Youtube and on a Google+Hangout during part of Reef Live, a 12-hour interactive exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.

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Wachenfeld explained to me the importance of coral spawning events that happen a few days after the full moon in October, November and December. That’s when whale sharks, not quite as big as blue whales, but impressive in size and appearance none-the-less, cruise the surface waters of the Great Barrier Reef gorging on the floating, microscopic array of reproductive coral fury.

This year Frenchwoman Elisa Detrez, who today was announced Australia’s “Best Job in the World” winner for the highly sought-after Queensland Park Ranger position, will have the opportunity to witness these spawning events for herself.

But as Park Ranger, Detrez has a big job ahead of her when she starts on Aug. 1. Queensland’s biggest protected natural wonder is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. And this week UNESCO gave Australia a reprieve of one year to determine whether the country is taking enough protective measures to keep the World Heritage Site from being labeled as a site “in danger.”

The threats to the reef are coming from both land and sea. Global warming’s increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is having a significant impact on the ocean’s own pH levels, driving higher levels of acidification, which harms the shell- and skeleton-making capabilities of coral reef animals. The rise in temperatures can leave reefs bleached white as the soft-bodied tissues that give the corals their color die from heat stress. And with warming comes sea-level rise from both thermal expansion of the water itself as well as increase in volume from melting ice sheets and glaciers. This rise can lead to coastal erosion, which in turn can damage the reefs, especially during storms. Add in marine pollution, such as the plastic bag debris that sea turtles mistake for jellyfish, and the background level of stress on what is one of the most amazing reefs on this planet is understandably a global concern.

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Bring to the table then the port and coastal development issues that Australia has been battling, as well as pollution from river and land runoff, which includes fertilizers and other high nutrient loads, and the challenge to Australia to up its game on protection is not trivial.

Detrez has six months on the job. Hers will be as tourism champion. And I recommend she start by watching the Reef Live broadcast.

IMAGE: Clownfish protect their eggs hidden in a sea anemone on the Great Barrier Reef. (Gary Bell/Corbis)

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