Category: environment

Calls to prosecute landowner for eagle killings

Conservation groups have called for a Victorian landowner to face charges under the Wildlife Act, after he admitted to his part in killing 420 Wedge-tailed Eagles over an 18-month period in the Bairnsdale magistrates court last week.

John Auer pleaded guilty to charges brought by the state Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions of misusing agricultural chemicals. He was fined $25,000 and received a 12-month good behaviour bond. He was also given a 12-month community corrections order.

Auer and former farmhand Murray Silvester, a New Zealand national, used the insecticide Lannate and other chemicals to poison the eagles at Tubbut in the Snowy Mountains between October 2016 and April 2018.

Silvester was sentenced to two weeks jail, fined $2,500 and deported last year. The penalty was criticised for its leniency at the time, despite the fact that it was the first custodial sentence ever handed down for destroying protected wildlife in Victoria.

Emails and text messages presented in evidence showed that Silvester was acting under the instruction of Auer. The Age reported that magistrate Simon Barnett described his offending as “calculated, unacceptable and disgraceful behaviour”.

Dr Jenny Lau, from Birdlife Australia’s preventing extinctions program, called for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning to charge Auer under the Wildlife Act before the statute of limitations came into effect.

“Birdlife Australia is concerned that one of the perpetrators of these deliberate, barbaric killings has only been prosecuted for the misuse of chemicals and no charges have yet been laid under Victorian Wildlife Act for the deaths of the eagles,” Lau said.

“The scale of the killings is so great, and the long-term impact on the population of wedge-tailed eagles across East Gippsland and beyond is unknown.

“With time running out before prosecutions can be made under the Victorian Wildlife Act, BirdLife Australia demands that further legal action be taken for these serious wildlife crimes.”

Wedge-tailed Eagle skulls recovered from the Snowy Mountains property. Photo: Department of Land, Environment, Water and Planning, Victoria

Tim Beshara, federal policy director of the Wilderness Society, said charging Auer for the misuse of agricultural chemicals for the purpose of killing wildlife was akin to “prosecuting a bank robber for failing to stop at a traffic light”.

“The Victorian government needs to explain why their environment department hasn’t brought charges under their wildlife laws. The credibility of Victoria’s wildlife-protection regime is at stake.”

“This is just another example of the state governments failing to protect our natural wonders and why we need the federal government to step in and do the job properly.”

Last month, the RSPCA called for national animal welfare laws after a spate of cruelty cases, including another poisoning incident near Violet Town, Victoria which led to the deaths of more than 200 birds, among them 25 more Wedge-tailed Eagles.

The largest bird of prey in Australia, Wedge-tailed Eagles have faced persecution in Australia since white colonisation for occasionally killing lambs, although rabbits and hares are principal prey items.

However, in arid Australia, groups of Wedge-tailed Eagles have been observed taking down prey as large as red kangaroos. Carrion, including livestock, is another major food source.

Until the 1970s, bounties were paid for the carcasses of hundreds of thousands of Wedge-tailed Eagles, before the species was officially protected in all states. It is listed as endangered in Tasmania.

A spokesperson from the DELWP said that it was “still investigating options in relation to future charges”.

It said Wedge-tailed Eagles were a protected species and “anyone found killing, harassing or disturbing them could be fined more than $8000 and an additional fee of more than $800 per head of wildlife”.

The maximum fine faced by Auer under the Wildlife Act if he was charged and convicted for killing 420 eagles would be $354,397, and/or six months jail.

First published in The Guardian, 22 November 2019

Vote 1: Regent Honeyeater

A few months ago, the bird-watching community in south-east Queensland went into a twitching frenzy. Two Regent Honeyeaters, a critically endangered species, had been discovered feeding on ironbark blossoms in the suburban heart of Springfield Lakes, on Brisbane’s south-western outskirts, near the satellite city of Ipswich.

Two Regent Honeyeaters at Springfield Lakes, Queensland, 1 July 2019. The female can be seen in the top right of the image.

The honeyeaters stayed for several weeks, spending the afternoons in a single, heavily flowering tree between a shopping village and childcare centre. When the blossom on that tree and the surrounding ironbarks began to dry up, they began feasting on lerps – tiny, sugary-tasting, sap-sucking insects which clung to the leaves of a small fig tree directly outside a coffee shop.

During that time, dozens of local birders, myself included, watched and photographed the two birds at close quarters. The honeyeaters seemed unperturbed, even as camera drives whirred from a few metres away. They slurped at the blossoms ravenously, and were observed preening each other while resting, indicating they were a closely bonded pair.

For many of the birders, it was the first time they had ever seen the species, and they happily shared their joy with curious passersby. But the joy was tinged with a quiet, collective sadness, too: the knowledge that for many of us, it could also be the last time we ever saw a Regent Honeyeater.

I’ve been watching birds for 40 years, and the first Australian bird book I ever owned described the species as “fairly common”. That was in 1980, and the book was already out of date, but it’s true that the birds were once abundant, swarming the box-ironbark forests and woodlands on either side of the Great Dividing Range in their thousands.

The title of the book was Every Australian Bird Illustrated. But instead of a photo, there was an ancient painting by John Gould (or quite possibly his wife Elizabeth). Most of the other birds in the book featured photographs. The paintings seemed to be of the rarer species. Maybe the honeyeater wasn’t so common any more, I wondered? I certainly couldn’t find any. But then, I was only eight years old.

By the early 1990s, alarm bells were being rung. “Regent Honeyeater: on the brink?” read a headline in the quarterly magazine of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (now Birdlife Australia). The bird’s population had crashed, and they were getting harder and harder to find even in old haunts like the Capertee Valley, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

I’d been birding for over 10 years by then and still hadn’t seen a single one. I’ve since encountered them on a handful of occasions. They are an eye-popping treat, with their chainmail breastplate and wings intricately embroidered in black and sulphur-yellow. (Thankfully, the unkind alternative name “Warty-faced Honeyeater” fell from favour. It really is Regent.)

The reason for the honeyeater’s decline is at once simple and also more complicated than it appears. Once widespread in the most densely populated part of the continent, from around Adelaide in South Australia to well north of Brisbane in Queensland, it is primarily a victim of land clearance and fragmentation.

As the box-ironbark woodlands on which it depended were felled for agriculture, livestock and urban development, the birds declined. Yet other larger honeyeaters, such as miners and friarbirds, seemed to be more resilient, and so did many smaller ones. So why has the Regent Honeyeater fared so poorly?

Research from the Australian National University in Canberra has suggested that a kind of death spiral took hold: the bird had relied on safety in numbers to defend territories and nests from other, more aggressive birds. As their homes fell to the axe and bulldozer and the Regent Honeyeater’s numbers thinned, the less they were able to breed.

Thankfully, the species breeds well in captivity. But how many wild Regent Honeyeaters are left? Estimates seem to depend on who you talk to. The official number is around 400. I’ve heard experienced observers with close knowledge of the species quietly suggest it could be a quarter of that, and more optimistic forecasts that there might be twice as many.

But even 1,000 Regent Honeyeaters thinly scattered in their fragments of remaining habitat between north-east Victoria, the Hunter Valley and western slopes of NSW and south-east Queensland would be a perilous few. The drought gripping NSW makes the remaining birds even more vulnerable: no rain means no blossom.

For a species struggling to catch a break, we’re not helping. The last birds found breeding in NSW were smack bang in the Hunter Economic Zone, a site flagged for the development of a new coal-fired power station. And the state government has passed legislation to raise the Warragamba Dam wall, which will drown another important parcel of habitat.

You might say that the Regent Honeyeater, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a damn unlucky bird: unlucky, mainly, to have lived so closely among and alongside us. And that’s why I’m voting for it in the Guardian/Birdlife Australia’s bird of the year 2019 poll. It’s a symbol of what we can watch disappear from under our noses, no matter how regent it is.

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2019

David Pocock leads sporting charge on emissions

Wallabies flanker David Pocock, along with teammates Bernard Foley and Dane Haylett-Perry, have announced their partnership with a scheme that aims to compensate for the carbon emissions associated with travel.

Earlier this year, musician Heidi Lenffer, from Australian band Cloud Control, launched FEAT. (Future Energy Artists), an initiative that would allow musicians to invest in a solar farm on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Lenffer was concerned about the carbon emissions generated by her group’s touring schedule and what she saw as her own contribution to the climate emergency. Now, FEAT. is opening up to other sectors and individuals.

When FEAT. was announced, Pocock responded via Instagram – “he was putting enthusiastic emoji responses on a lot of our posts,” Lenffer said – and contacted another songwriter, Jack River, who put the two of them in touch.

Pocock, currently with the Wallabies in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, told the Guardian that “as an athlete, you’re in a somewhat similar position to artists in that there’s no escaping what you do requires travel, and I’m very conscious of my personal contribution.

“To see what FEAT. was doing, and to see people like Heidi getting on with it and trying to harness that energy into actually building the future we know is coming and we all want to see, but need to speed up, that was really exciting.”

Lenffer said that while FEAT. started and would always be identified with the musical community, she was keen for the scheme to expand and be inclusive. “We see allies in other industries as being critical to the success of what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Money invested in FEAT. is being used to buy ownership stakes in a solar farm called Brigalow, near the town of Pittsworth in south-east Queensland. The floor price for investment is low, just $5. The farm will power the equivalent of over 11,000 homes for 30 years.

The former Wallabies captain presented the scheme to his teammates, trying to impress upon them the carbon footprint of a rugby tour. “It’s like any slice of the population. There’s some guys who were interested in it, others didn’t really see it as an issue,” he said.

“I just presented the guys with what FEAT. was doing, giving them an idea of the Wallabies’ emissions this year and suggesting we team with them as a way of investing an equivalent amount into renewable energy.”

He convinced Foley and Haylett-Perry to come on board. “They’re excited about seeing solutions to these problems that we’re facing … It’s ridiculous to think that changing lightbulbs and that sort of things is enough. Those days are over. We need a big system change.”

Pocock has been a vocal campaigner about the climate emergency, and has extended that to direct action: in 2014, he was arrested in a protest against Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in northern New South Wales.

He extended his support to the wave of school strikes started by Greta Thunberg. “If you look at social change, it very seldom just happens. It ends up taking a percentage of the population actually willing to give up their freedoms and engage in civil disobedience,” he said.

He also highlighted how global heating was already impacting on world sport, with a sharp message for rugby’s governing bodies. “I’m not playing rugby in Australia next year, but round one of Super Rugby is in January next year,” he said.

“Can you imagine, in the last weekend of January, playing 80 minutes of rugby? That’s the way that change is going to happen in sport, when a few players get together – and our player’s unions – and say, hang on, this is an issue that’s going to affect our sport.”

Asked what he would say to those who tell him to “stick to sport” – and many have – Pocock said “first and foremost, we’re all humans, and this is a much bigger issue than sport … It’s an existential threat.”

“Rugby’s a big part of my life and I’m doing absolutely everything I can to be playing at my best to be contributing to the Wallabies working towards us winning the World Cup and taking it back to Australia, that’s what we’re all working for.

“But I really believe that sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive, to be more forward thinking, and hopefully this is an area where sport can play more of a role, because we certainly aren’t getting the leadership from our politicians.

“When young people who are too young to vote tell us their futures are on the line, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not making it up, they’re listening to the best of the available scientific projections. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away, unfortunately.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 October 2019

Australian musicians band together to invest in solar

In the spring of 2017, immediately after the release of the Australian band Cloud Control’s third album, Zone, the band’s keyboard player, Heidi Lenffer, was contemplating what the their upcoming tour would cost. But this time she wasn’t just thinking about the money; she was thinking about emissions. Independent bands are used to running on a shoestring budget – a carbon-conscious Lenffer wanted Cloud Control to run a more environmentally efficient operation, too.

She began asking climate scientists in the field, and connected with Dr Chris Dey from Areté Sustainability. Dey crunched the numbers for Cloud Control’s two-week tour, playing 15 clubs and theatres from Byron Bay to Perth.

He found that it would produce about 28 tonnes of emissions – roughly equivalent to what an average household produces in a year. And that was just the national leg of an album tour that would take the band to the US three times.

“I had suspected that all of this flying, and all of the energy that goes into tours, can’t be very good for the environment – but there was no solution that existed beyond carbon offsetting,” Lenffer says.

Offsetting is essentially an attempt at equalisation: when you offset your flights, you try to compensate for your carbon footprint by donating to a program to suck it out of the atmosphere, via tree planting or sequestration somewhere else. Lenffer wanted to aim higher.

Partnering with the superannuation fund Future Super, and the developer Impact Investment Group, Lenffer has established FEAT. (Future Energy Artists): a platform that officially launches on Wednesday and will allow musicians to build and invest in their own solar farms.

Early signs are promising. As well as Cloud Control, other Australian bands already signed up include Midnight Oil, Vance Joy, Regurgitator, Big Scary, Peking Duk and Jack River. The first solar farm being built with their help is Brigalow: an 80-hectare project near Pittsworth on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

“At last, a project that takes the great passion many artists have for a healthy world powered by renewable energy, and makes it doable,” says Midnight Oil’s frontman, Peter Garrett. Paul Curtis, Regurgitator’s manager, talks about an “actively engaged citizenry embracing a more optimistic and progressive approach to the future”.

Lenffer wanted to tap into the creative drive of her industry to find a solution to a complex problem. “The environmental movement often lacks a positive premise for action,” she says. “It is exciting to own a piece of a solar farm. To do that collectively, we can leave a lasting, tangible infrastructure legacy and say, ‘We built that together.’”

Here’s how it works: money that artists invest in FEAT. is put into a portfolio which is managed by Future Super, and can be used to buy ownership stakes in solar farms or loaned to build their infrastructure. The land that Brigalow solar farm is being built on was previously used as a sorghum grain farm. It is now being leased from the land’s owner to build the solar project, whose progress is closely monitored by Impact Investment Group, which manages the underlying fund investing in Brigalow.

And artists can put forward as much as they can afford. Perhaps they want to throw in a one-off lump sum, or offer a percentage of their touring income; the idea is that everyone should be able to invest in their financial and environmental future – which is why FEAT. set a floor price of just $5 to set up an account.

FEAT. says the 34.55-megawatt Brigalow solar farm could power the equivalent of 11,300 homes for 30 years. (Looked at another way, it could generate more than 2,000 Cloud Control tours in renewable energy.) That energy is then sold into the energy market, with a target return on investment for artists of 5 percent a year.

The total emissions output of the global music sector is not well studied. A 2010 investigation into the UK industry found it was responsible for more than 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, much of it from live music. Most of that was transport, not just of band members and equipment, but fans: audience travel alone accounted for 43 percent of emissions.

A further 26 percent came from the lifecycle of CDs, which speaks to the age of the study. But, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow, the streaming age hasn’t made for a cleaner product: the energy required to store and process music in the cloud makes for an even worse carbon footprint than manufacturing and distributing CDs and records.

For artists, the pitiful royalty rates generated from streaming, and the crash in sales of physical product, means that live music makes up the bulk of revenue. For Lenffer, going on tour meant contributing to the global climate emergency – but she was willing to gamble that “a progressive community like the music industry would have the guts and imagination to embrace change”.

Lenffer says she was inspired by community movements overseas, particularly in Europe, where groups were banding together to buy investments in renewables. “Sporting clubhouses would install solar panels on their rooftops purchased by the residents in the area, [who] would then be paid back through the energy generated over a period of time,” she explains. “I found about 70 groups in Australia doing it, as opposed to around 500 in Scotland and 1000 in Germany.”

But as well as being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters per capita, Australians also have the highest take-up of rooftop solar. Lenffer says this statistic “shows that people are driving the change where our government is not”. And, compared with Europe, there are far more abundant solar resources available in our sunburnt country.

Lenffer sees the potential for her idea to catch on. “There’s no reason why this couldn’t go global,” she says. “If we can demonstrate it works here – which I feel like we can, because we’ve already got a number of big-name and emerging artists signed up – if we can take ownership over building the solar assets that are going to power our future, which we need to do as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be rolled out for every artist touring the world.”

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2019

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

The great broken promise of the Great Barrier Reef

Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.

They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.

But what if the promise was broken?

In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.

Around 75 percent of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $444 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.

“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.

The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.

Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.

Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.

Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.

We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.

Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.

The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.

But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.

Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.

As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”

He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”

Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”

Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.

“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.

“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”

“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.

For them, the promise has been kept.

John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”

Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.

Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48 percent of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42 percent to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10 percent to bleaching.

That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.

It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.

“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”

Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5 percent.

“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.

“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … Basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.

“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”

The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.

With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.

Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”

Hughes (no relation to the James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.

“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.

The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40 percent decline in juveniles.

She speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity.

We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.

I ask Miller how there can be such a dramatic difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.

“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”

John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … Further around the corner it’s just fine.”

He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.

But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.

“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”

The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”

The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The grim and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.

“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”

John Rumney puts it in starker terms.

“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50 percent dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50 percent of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.

“We’re on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.

“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.

“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”

First published in BuzzFeed, 9 July 2018. The Climate Council paid for flights and some costs.