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Best Expedition in the World: the final days

Ben Southall

16th September, 2011

In the last installment of his ‘Best Expedition in the World’ diary, Ben Southall looks back at his encounters with the eco-heroes working hard to conserve the magnificent Great Barrier Reef

After four wonderful months at sea, it’s hard to believe I’ve almost completed the Best Expedition in the World. As I paddle, peddle and sail my way towards Cooktown, the soon-to-be host of my grand finale, I find myself reminiscing about the incredible things I’ve experienced. My 1600km voyage of discovery has taken me beyond the familiar to parts of Queensland I never knew existed – many of them below the surface. Having enjoyed 35 dives and navigated my way through some of the Great Barrier Reef’s most spectacular underwater ‘cities’, I now understand just how vast, complex, and precious it is. Home to a melting pot of technicolour corals, fluorescent flora and curious creatures; the Great Barrier Reef has well and truly earned its place as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

With island hoping and coastal stop-offs an important part of my Queensland adventure, I was able to meet many of the reef’s guardians – heroes, more like! They are the key reason why the Great Barrier Reef is regarded internationally as one of the best-managed coral reef system on the planet. From the ‘big boys’ in government to eco-conscious kids, I discovered there’s a huge network of people involved in protecting the Great Barrier Reef and keeping it healthy for many generations to come. Not only were these guardians united in their mission, they were also committed to a similar response plan, involving a combination of education and eco-action. This was most obvious inside Queensland’s classrooms.
 
Towards the end of my stint in Cairns, I was fortunate enough to spend a day at Gordonvale State School, a participant in the Reef Guardian School programme. While the teachers were busy integrating environmental sustainability into their curriculum (science, art, social studies, maths – you name it), the kids were rolling out eco-projects like pros. From convincing their local corner storeowner to get rid of plastic bags, to adopting a nearby beach and keeping it litter free – the kids were onto it! The Reef Guardian School programme is a great example of how learning about nature can lead to a new generation of people who actively care for it.

Throughout my journey, I found a number of businesses had the same big idea. Daydream Island Resort and Spa, one of the Whitsunday’s most playful holiday destinations, seemed particularly active in its efforts to get visitors interacting with and learning about the marine environment. Their Living Reef, a man-made lagoon, enables people to get up close and personal with sea creatures without having to get wet (the sting ray feeding was my favourite). Daydream Island Resort and Spa also runs a number of entertaining ‘eco-conferences for kids’, which teaches them about everything from marine debris and its impact on animals to sustainability and renewable energies.

Another business, which is particularly passionate about the issue of marine debris, is Eco Barge Services. Founded by mother of two, Libby Edge, it has successfully removed nearly 60,000kg of litter from beaches in the Whitsundays over the past two years. After each collection run, Libby and her volunteers count every single item of rubbish they’ve picked up and send their findings off to organisations, which then use the data to educate the community and key government decision makers. Reef Check is another NGO that emphasises the value of data collection and, as with Eco Barge Services, it relies on the efforts of individual volunteers. Reef Check’s philosophy is that anyone can help monitor the health of the reef, they simply need to pop on a snorkel, grab a ReefSearch slate, jump in the water, and write down what they see. Once again, these observations are sent away to support reef education and promote sustainable management.

A number of scientists and students from all corners of the earth are also involved in marine monitoring and data collection on the Great Barrier Reef. Many of them have found their way into one of the research stations, which are located on the some of Queensland’s tropical islands. Having come across these intellectual hubs of activity on Heron, Orpheus, and Low Island, I’ve been able to get a glimpse of the kind of things they’re working on. From keeping an eye on water acidity, to monitoring the migration of reef-loving creatures, to testing whether or not the marine environment can adapt to climate change, everything they’re doing comes back to ensuring a healthy reef in the future. With around two million people visiting the Great Barrier Reef each year, it’s no wonder the government sector puts a lot towards the supporting Reef Guardian initiatives and the sustainable management of the reef. Tourism plays a fundamental role in Queensland’s economy; the industry is the second greatest source of jobs in the Sunshine State. With so many people interacting with and relying on the reef, the longevity of this World Heritage Site is of great importance. 

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the main government guardian of the reef. Its efforts are supported by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services (QPWS), and together, these guys take care of everything above and below the water along and off the Queensland coast. Perhaps my most eye-opening experience with the government sector occurred in Townsville at Reef HQ. Not only is it the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, it’s also a state-of-the-art education centre for GBRMPA. The mission of Reef HQ is ‘to inspire all to care for the future of the Great Barrier Reef.’ Between their turtle hospital, underwater classrooms, and international video conferencing technology, they certainly do just that.

With so many guardians dedicated to taking people’s eyes below the water and into the Great Barrier Reef, it’s no wonder many are changing the way they live in order to ensure they don’t have a negative impact on this precious natural asset. It’s uplifting to see so many businesses, tourism operators especially, transforming their facilities and becoming more eco-friendly. I believe my first island stop off, Lady Elliot, is the best example of how this is being done. Having installed a non-invasive solar power plant, over 80 per cent of the island’s power now comes from renewable energy. The resort has also reduced its diesel consumption from 800L to 100L per day, and the owners are currently investigating wind power technology in the future…eco-fabulous!

I only hope my actions throughout the Best Expedition in the World have also inspired businesses, individuals, tourists, and community groups to take better care of the Great Barrier Reef. Like many others, my goal has been to take people’s eyes into the underwater world, albeit via film and photography, to show them how much it gives us (beauty, life, and the ultimate adventure playground), inspire them to care about its future and, therefore, encourage them to minimise their footprint on the Great Barrier Reef and, ultimately Planet Earth.

Follow Ben during his epic 1600km trip at www.islandreefjob.com. To find out more about the Great Barrier Reef, go to www.visit-queensland.com

 

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