A trip to the Great Barrier Reef reveals troubles in the eco-system,solutions offered.
Earth Day Fiction Contest A Thorny Problem
A Thorny Problem
There is movement at the pier. It is a cool September dawn in Far North Queensland. The Calypso Cruise is already loaded with provisions for the day on the ocean. Wet-suits are hanging off racks. The decks have been hosed, goggles swing in the early morning breeze and the first customers are rolling in.
Nico and Bridget started their day at four am. They are finishing a quick breakfast before welcoming the first of 28 passengers on board their dive boat. The tourists are young and excited, come in all colours, shapes and sizes and get fitted out with diving gear straight away.
Once everyone is on board they leave the port and after an initial welcome drink served in the hull of the ship the mandatory introduction video is shown. Nico then adds his spiel: 'Morning folks! Thanks for joining us on a journey of discovery to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. You will see coral, fish, turtles, ship wrecks. Please, also keep an eye on each other and your guide. The sea will carry you, but coral can hurt you badly! Do not touch anything, it is likely to sting!'
'Do you have any questions?'
Paul, a tall Briton asks about the state of the reef. 'Is it true that the coral is being eaten by star fish? How much damage can star fish do? Such pretty creatures!'
'The crown of thorns star fish is not a pretty creature, at all.' Nico holds up a laminated photograph of one. It shows grey prickles on grey prickles like pine needles growing out from a mouth. 'These things live to eat. They wrap themselves over the corals and suck the polyps out leaving the structure to die and look like a skeleton.' A murmur goes through the group. 'Yuk, that is really ugly!' Brenda says about the C.O.T.S. She finds it ominous that C.O.T. is used to abbreviate the name of the monster, because over recent years many babies have been reported to have died of something unexplained named: 'Cot Death'.
Cot death was later identified as suffocating a baby with a pillow, which is not a disease but a (in)-human action.
Aaron, a learned middle-aged tourist from Israel, explains: 'It appears that C.O.T.S. outbreaks are also man-made phenomena. The Crown- of- Thorns Star fish has evolved naturally and serves to keep coral growth in check. Crown of Thorn outbreaks have become a problem on many reefs since the 1950's.' 'Yes, and they are linked to run-off from agricultural land. It is not a coincidence that these outbreaks coincide with large scale use of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture.' 'True, I think these products were developed to combat the drought during the depression in the 1930's and 40ies. A link between modern agricultural practices and Crown-of-Thorn-
Star fish outbreaks is undeniable.
'Cotswallop! How can they say that if most of the reefs have been unexplored and certainly un-documented until the 1960's.' 'Hear, hear!' It gets noisy. Everyone has an opinion.
The captain calls over the speaker system that they have arrived at the first dive spot. 'Time to go and see for ourselves!' The mood is lifting.
There is a pushing and pulling, a squeaking and flapping as people put their wet suits and flippers on and find their guide. It is difficult to recognize a person in their under-water outfits.
They split into 3 groups according to their ability, snorklers, beginners and advanced and gather around their guides for last instructions and adjustments of the dive gear.
At the back of the boat is a platform from which the ocean explorers launch themselves into the waves. They form three circles of bopping heads near the boat and then disperse. Only the snorkelers remain visible as they swim towards a reef that is close to the surface of the sea.
'Wow, how amazing!' Round humps of coral form a rugged landscape under water. Everything looks green. The water is salty and seemingly full of sediment or are the goggles scratched? There are impressive fan corals and swarms of silvery fish. Even a large grouper reveals itself when it moves away from the coral niche it was hiding in.
The divers go deeper and swim under water to a reef with fluorescent corals where swarms of little brightly coloured fish encircle them. Bubbles burst from their oxygen bottles and rise to the surface.
The advanced diver group is exploring tunnels and caves of corals. In the water distances are hard to judge and one man gets stuck with his tank while trying to move through two close coral banks. The one behind him does not know what is happening, but cannot turn back. Panic is making them both breathe faster and the bad visibility is made worse by lots of oxygen bubbles. At last the diver who got stuck can free himself; some of the coral breaks.
Exhausted but exhilarated the human water creatures return to the boat where a hearty lunch awaits them. Some had taken underwater photographs and are sharing them between bites. The captain is directing the boat towards another reef and wind blows salty hair while drying the wet suits.
'You, know, Taku here, nearly did not make it through a coral column and I was stuck behind him! That was scary!' 'Always leave space between you and the other divers, but not too much so as not to lose them.' 'The visibility was not great.' 'That's why we wear fluorescent goggles, they make us easier to see.' 'There were a lot of white corals amongst the green.' 'Some corals are bleached, they have lost their polyps and without them they die. Corals rely on polyps to feed them and polyps rely on corals for support.' 'Everything there in the water interacts.' 'The whole reef is like one super-organism that is alive and has been for as long as the ocean exists.' 'I think I saw Crown-of-Thorn Star fish in one area!' 'Did it look as out of place as the divers in their blue suits and bubble blowing oxygen tanks?' 'No, not really, it was the same slimy green colour as the coral.' 'I always thought coral was colourful, like an underwater flower garden!' 'It does not look like that now, there are some colour patches, but not many near the surface!'
'The reef and its creatures have evolved in a fine balance over the millennia. The 20th century with its incredible technological advances and use of petrochemicals may have upset that balance. Coral is very sensitive to ocean acidification.' 'Humans are like the Crown-of-Thorn Starfish, we proliferate and wherever we go we cause destruction.' 'Not true, we also enhance nature; just think of all the fabulous flowers that have been created through selective breeding!' 'And the fruit, which is now big, sweet and juicy as opposed to wild small and often bitter fruit growing purely naturally.' 'Nature is all about eating and being eaten, I've watched a lot of animal documentaries.'
Aaron offers: 'We humans experiment and when we realize that something is not going well, we try to remedy our ways.'
'How could we help the reef?' Marion asked. 'Yes, is there something we could do?' 'The reef is already a World Heritage listed site.' 'Yes, and David Attenbrorough has filmed a new documentary about it last year. That should help promote sustainability.' 'But is there something we can do?' 'Yes, stay away from it altogether!' 'Stop effluent and agricultural runoff into the ocean. Re-establish mangroves, they stop silting and are veritable nurseries for reef fish.'
Nico had come down to join the discussion. 'The only effective way to combat the Crown of Thorns Star fish invasion is to inject each and every single one of them with ammonia or copper sulphate. It is also possible to collect them in nets and spread them out on land to bake them in the sun.' 'Injecting them would be more discreet. Would they sink to the ocean floor or would you collect the dead ones and dispose of them on land?' 'Either or.' 'How large is the reef, how many star fish are there already? You would need an army of divers!'
Brigit began to connect the threads: 'Do you know about Woofing? That is short for Willing Workers On Organic Farms. Young people can volunteer to work on organic farms to help with animals, planting, weed control or harvesting against the experience and food and accommodation. We could start something like that for people to have the experience of diving on the reef while doing something useful like killing C.O.T.S.!' 'Why only young people?' 'Older people could, too, but usually they do not have the time or energy to give for free!'
Nico was beaming a bright smile at the group! 'Isn't that a fantastic idea? Who here would like to learn how to hunt for C.O.T.S.?
Out of a group of 28 people a third said they would, if they had the time and money ........and the opportunity. Nico thought that was a great show of hands and Bridget found a piece of paper to pass around for volunteers to put their names and email addresses down.
'What a pity that we do not have any copper sulphate or syringes on board. We could have demonstrated how it works on the next dive!' she said. 'Actually even vinegar injections kill starfish, but rush into new adventures too quickly, Bridget.' Nico warned. 'We have to consider this carefully, before engaging tourists in reef rescue.' 'Reef Rescue' that is a great term; we could use that on the website and facebook page!' 'Are we online with this already?' 'Well, why not? Publicise and gather friends!' 'Don't you think it might turn tourists away, to be made aware of the destruction that is happening?' 'If the destruction is visible it will be made public, what with everyone being connected via the World Wide Web and photo and video uploads by the thousands per minute!' 'Yes, so it is probably better to show that we are doing something to remedy the problem.' 'And give people the opportunity to do their bit for the environment as well!'
Everybody had something to say on the subject. It felt good to have a plan.
'We could have trophy shots with slain Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish on a harpoon.' 'Now we're talking!' 'I am sure we would get a lot of young blokes lining up to do this if we put such pictures up in the hostels here. Wanted: slayers of dragons and thorny sea creatures!'
Nico, always the responsible adult, said again: 'Wait, not so fast. We have to check with our lawyer if this is at all possible! What if there are accidents with the needles or harpoons. What if divers get lost and run out of oxygen?' Aaron said that they would still have to cater for paying tourists so as not to run at a loss. 'Of course, maybe we could take small groups of Reef Rescuers on every trip and run the shows parallel like we do now with the three dive groups.' Bridget threw in. 'On the other hand, aren't the sea creatures and the coral more active and beautiful at night time?' Nico said: 'Yes, of course!' Aaron asked: 'Could you run trips both at day and at night?' 'With the same boat going 20 hours per day? Yes, why not?' 'We would need to hire a team, but I believe the night dives would pay for themselves because, as you say, the reef is even more stunning at night time with lights that would attract fish and so on!'
They were all bubbling and excited but also keen to get back into the water. On this second dive everyone was trying to spot the Crown-of- Thorn Starfish and, strangely, by looking for a specific animal the whole of the reef with all its creatures came into greater focus and was more impressive and intricate.
Marion was not terribly confident in the water and was therefore snorkelling. They were further out on the reef than before and it was stunning what she saw. In her wet suit top and with flippers she really enjoyed the spectacle beneath her until she thought, that maybe it was time to go back. She lifted her head and, oops, could make out the boat a long way off. There did not seem to be anyone else near. She started to swim in the direction of the boat. The waves were medium tall and blocked the view half the time. She paddled and swam and with the head in the water, every now and then lifting it to look for the boat, which did not seem to come any closer! 'There must be a current against me, how am I going to get back there?' Eventually she could make out people sitting at the back of the boat and she waved to get help. They waved to her, but did not move. Marion nearly despaired, her arms were tired, her eyes, ears and mouth full of salt water. With the snorkel in her mouth she could not call for help. She did not dare take it out.
Another straggler came up behind her. He had seen her attempt at getting attention and by the speed with which he caught up to her realised that she needed help. He grabbed her in the rescue grip and together they made it back to the Calypso Cruise where the other divers took hardly any notice.
Once Marion had pulled herself back together her rescuer had disappeared and she joined the group that was sitting at the back of the boat. She says to her husband, who is also sitting there, that it is all well and good to want to look after the reef, but they should also look out for one another!