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Best Expedition in the World: meeting the ‘marine guardians’

Ben Southall

21st July, 2011

In the second installment of his ‘Best Expedition in the World’ diary, Ben Southall meets some of the marine guardians working to protect the Great Barrier Reef

It's been an epic voyage of discovery. I’ve peddled, paddled and sailed my way up the Great Barrier Reef and am past the half way point of the Best Expedition in the World. The first 800km of my journey have seen me laugh out loud, cry in a corner, sweat and bleed. My eyes have stayed wide open as I’ve continued to discover the most breath-taking sights and insights imaginable. What a brilliant ride it’s been so far.

My initial crossing over to Lady Elliot Island dealt up the greatest body and brain strain. Due to unfavourable winds, it morphed into a 90km, 14 hour haul. The light at the end of the tunnel? I was headed towards my favourite destination on the reef. Lady Elliot Island is internationally known as one of the planet’s top dive sites. But, more than that, I believe it’s the most inspiring example of eco-tourism in Queensland. Owner Peter Gash has installed numerous environmentally-friendly initiatives over the years. The most impressive and recent addition is a state-of-the art solar plant, which provides up to 80 per cent of the island’s power and has reduced its use of diesel fuel from 800 to 100 litres per day. It’s no wonder Lady Elliot is a popular holiday haven for those who want to support and learn from a successful eco-tourism business. 

Funnily enough, I ran into the Reef Check team during my stay on the island. These go-getters are all about empowering individuals to help monitor and maintain the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Throughout Best Expedition, I’m taking part in their Reef Search Program. Anytime I go for a snorkel, I take a special slate with me and document my interesting encounters. Reef Check will use this data to identify and respond to changes in the marine environment. Love the concept – happy to help!

My next visit to Heron Island was equally as inspiring. This place is jaw-droppingly beautiful and another hot spot for diving enthusiasts. But, there are two sides to this island and two time zones to prove it. Away from all of the tourists and action, there’s a research station quietly simmering with scientists and students. I was eager to venture over to the smart side of the island and snoop on all of the research projects taking place. Tim, manager of the Sea Turtle Foundation’s research centre, took me on a backstage tour, which included a look at the ‘time machine’. As soon as I met it, I was like a little schoolboy in the playground. The ‘time machine’ was a number of mini-marine ecosystems, which were set up to mirror the ocean at different points in time, including the 1950s, today and 2050. In the last tank, the water was warmer and more acidic. Corals and creatures have been put into this tank to see how they will react to climate change – with varied results. Amazing.

Before long, my old stomping ground – the Whitsunday’s – was calling. I kayaked my way up to Daydream Island, a place eternally bursting with optimism, ideas, and fun. Perhaps the most popular draw for children is the island’s Living Reef, an impressive man-made lagoon that enables visitors to interact with sea creatures without getting underwater. Having a stingray feast on food from your hand is a seriously cool experience. Daydream Island also runs a number of ‘eco-conferences for kids’. I had the opportunity to co-present at one, which focused on the issue of marine debris. Fascination fired up, crowd of kids were eager to take what’d they’d learnt, put it to good use, and make sure their parents did the same. Our oceans are in good hands.

A visit to Airlie Beach gave my positive outlook a pat on the back. Here, I enjoyed chat with the incredible founder of Eco Barge Services, Libby Edge. Along with a team of dedicated volunteers and sponsors, Libby cleans the 30 plus islands in the Whitsunday’s, getting rid of marine debris in the process. Since mid 2009, they have gathered almost 60,000kg of rubbish. The team continues to database every item they collect. Their findings are shared with numerous organisations, that help educate the public about marine debris and, therefore, minimise its presence in the ocean. When I met Libby, I discovered that over 60 per cent of marine debris comes from storm water drains – we really need to get on those things. I also found out plastics don’t break down in the ocean – ever – and cause the death of over one million seabirds each year.

Moved by the people I’d met, things I’d seen, and stories I’d heard so far, I couldn’t wait to dig into the next stage of the Best Expedition in the World. The Underwater Earth team joined me in the Whitsunday’s, eager to help me visually document the natural world’s finest playground. Relatively few people spend time underwater. So, my goal is to drag their eyes under the sea surface, inspire them to learn more, and hopefully compel them to take care of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it should be enjoyed for many generations to come. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been awestruck by how many individuals, businesses, community groups and government bodies are working hard to protect the reef. As I kayak my way up towards Cooktown, I’m looking forward to meeting many more marine guardians and sharing their insights with the world. I wonder who’s waiting just beyond the horizon?

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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