My Visit to the Flourishing, Dying Reef

Following the conclusion of my Summer term Aboriginal Sydney class, my dad flew out to visit and we fulfilled our lifelong dream of visiting the Great Barrier Reef. As lifelong fishermen in Connecticut, we have always dreamed of the sea diversity that can be found at the Great Barrier Reef. 

My dad and I took a flight to Cairns, the touristy town by which many visitors embark on journeys to the reef. Fearful of eating at overpriced tourist traps, I relied on Yelp to find some inexpensive and tasty Thai restaurants. I highly recommend Imm Thai Cafe in Cairns, where I ate a salad which was simultaneously one of the most spicy and delicious dishes I have ever eaten. 

I tried to do some reading and watch some documentaries before heading out to the reef, and a lot of the material I found emphasized how the reef is dying. Through a process called coral bleaching, coral expels the algae which gives coral its color. Coral bleaching occurs when water temperature is unusually high. Coral bleaching does not kill a reef if it only occurs once, but multiple years of unusually high temperatures will result in bleaching which destroys reefs that take millions of years to develop.

In contrast to my reading on coral bleaching, the guides on my snorkeling trip all repeatedly emphasized the beauty and life occurring at the reef. After a ninety minute boat ride out to the reef, my dad and I finally jumped in the water to snorkel. No matter how many pictures or videos you have seen before visiting the reef, the moment you see it with your own eyes is spellbinding. I struggle to come up with words to describe the feeling of seeing the vast underwater coral jungle for the first time. I felt like I was exploring a new planet with different colors and life forms than I had ever seen before. As fish swirled around large coral structures, I followed a guide in hopes of seeing some of the more unusual fish on the reef.

There are way too many fish species to keep track of for someone first seeing the reef, but I remember seeing vibrant colors, shapes, and sizes of fish that far surpassed any aquarium I have visited. My guide pointed out a white tipped reef shark, which she assured me was relatively harmless. Never before have I seen someone point out a shark only for the group of tourists to swim toward it. Australians tend to be less fearful of nature than Americans. Other large creatures I encountered were a giant clam and a 150 pound Giant Trevally, a close relative of the tuna. My dad said that he thought he saw G-d when he was looking around the reef. I am not sure if this description does the reef justice, but I promise that seeing the reef with your own eyes is worth the price if you can afford it. 

Though my eye is relatively untrained, I believe that I saw many areas of bleached coral. None of the guides mentioned anything about the dying reef or coral bleaching. I suppose it is not in the interest of a business that relies on reef tourism to point out how the reef is dying. Coral bleaching could have catastrophic effects for the incredibly lucrative reef tourism industry, which is vital to the Australian economy. Many Australians I met criticized the government for supporting the coal mining industry while global warming threatens to wipe out reef tourism. 

After snorkeling the reef, my dad and I took a fishing boat out to the reef. My dad caught more fish than I did, which was incredibly frustrating. I did not have trouble hooking fish, but as soon as my fish were hooked sharks would steal my catch. I have found that fishing trips can be a superior way to experience nature than nature watching tours. We saw a pod of twenty dolphins a short way from the boat, and experienced sharks first hand. Many fishermen hooked 30 pound fish, only to have the fish ripped in half by a shark. I saw a five foot shark jump clear out of the water, which was both majestic and terrifying.

My dad with a snapper
One of the many fish stolen by reef sharks

Readers may question why I went fishing given my concern for the reef environment. Fishing is highly regulated and we had to throw back numerous fish that did not meet certain regulations. My growing concern for the environment has made my lifelong relationship with fishing more complicated, but I decided to take this fishing trip given my dad and I’s lifelong love of fishing. I encourage anyone interested in the relationship between fishermen and the environment to read John Hersey’s Blues, where the issue is discussed extensively. Hersey emphasizes that fishing is complicated, as fishermen gain a unique respect for preserving the environment while simultaneously killing fish.  

I am grateful to have made a once in a lifetime trip to the reef, which was probably the most incredible place I have ever visited. As someone anticipating a career in economics, I have begun thinking about the economic issues relating to reef preservation and environmental economics. I am contemplating writing a senior thesis connecting economics and the Great Barrier Reef, such as one forecasting the potential economic effects to reef tourism from climate change. I would love to discuss anything related to environmental economics, the Great Barrier Reef, or fishing, so please write a comment or email with any thoughts.

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  • Dear Zev!
    What a grand adventure you’re having. The Reef is amazing — your know it’s one of the very few earth “structures” that can be seen from space? When we were there in June 2004 (early winter there), the Reef was mostly dark “bomas” with rather sparse fish. Your descriptions were so much richer.
    I’ve sent your blog post to your Uncle Barry who will surely appreciate an “environmental economist” in the making.
    PS Thanks for your Birthday greeting! 🌹🌺👍

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