One way Joanne and I figure out where we want to travel next is to prioritize those places that are disappearing the quickest. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef jumped to the top of our list when we learned how quickly climate change is damaging the coral. After a bit of research, we found a place on the southern, cooler part of the reef where the coral and the creatures that depend upon it were still hanging on.
Heron Island is a small, high spot in the Pacific Ocean that sits right in the middle of a chunk of the Great Barrier Reef and the Heron Island Resort offers visitors the privilege of living with the creatures that inhabit this unique environment. Did I say small? Yes, it is so small you can walk around the whole sandy island in about 45 minutes. The resort and a scientific research station are the only human digs on the place.
If birds freak you out this is not the place for you. The resort is essentially built right on a sea bird rookery so Noddy Terns, Silver Gulls, Narrow-Tailed Shearwaters and numerous others share their real estate with the resort guests. We visited in the Australian springtime so mating and nest building were in full swing. Most of these birds are pelagic wanderers but for a short time every year they come to shore, en masse, to stake out nesting spots. It turns out to be a huge, cascading land claim dispute with the birds acting like old men yelling at each other to keep off their lawns. They squawk, grunt and scream continually and only quiet down a few decibels at night. They have little fear of humans so we were able to watch their crazy antics up close.
Snorkeling was our main objective and one very appealing aspect to those of us who get seasick in a bathtub is that you don’t have to take a boat out to get to the reef. The reef exists 360 degrees around and just a few yards from the sandy shore. Great snorkeling, swimming and diving are everywhere. Boats do carry those who want to dive deeper out to farther reaches of the reef. To each his own but we found more than enough to keep us busy just lazily floating off-shore.
There is a wrecked ship a few hundred yards off one of the beaches that harbors some of the most picturesque shoals of piscatorial denizens of the deep. Rounding the rusty, submerged bow of the ship we found shaded schools of sea life, big and small, all seeming to share the secret that within this wreck lie good hides.
Joanne and I coasted over a spotted ray and later a grouper the size of a coffee table. We swam through sparkling moats of tiny Blue Green Chromis fish. On other excursions we got scary-close to rows of partially sand covered Cowtailed rays…the tails have barbed stingers. Woe be it to the swimmer that steps on a seven foot ray. Black-tipped Reef Sharks, Giant Shovel-nosed and Eagle Rays rounded out the mega-fauna that shared our swim.
Sea turtles are among the animals that we have divested of habitat and generally devoured out of existence. As a matter of recent historic fact Heron Island, in the 1920’s, was a turtle soup processing facility. Thousands of the apparently tasty turtles were killed until it was reckoned that since it took 30 years for a sea turtle to grow to reproductive maturity, that they were pretty much a non-renewable resource. The soup factory shut down and now sea turtles are protected.
On our last day on Heron Island, Joanne and I got up at 4 am to do a moonlit beach walk. October is the start of sea turtle breeding and egg laying season. Sea turtle beach tracks look like the single print from a Caterpillar tractor driving up from the water, landing craft style. In the dim light of a waning gibbous we came upon a turtle track ascending from the water’s edge, grinding its way 50 yards to the tree line. There she dug. We watched well away from her, behind some driftwood, for two hours until she finished and made her beleaguered way back to the water. These turtles are not built for land travel and the egg laying process is so depleting that they can only manage it every two years. “Our” turtle slogged seaward for a few yards and then plopped, head down, in the sand to rest. After a minute or two she recuperated and then recaptured a few more yards back toward the safety of the ocean.
The sea turtles on Heron Island have gained rock star status. Groupies come here just to catch sight of them and as the sun rose a crowd formed to watch. We were soon amongst 25 early morning turtle fans. There was a collective sigh of relief and light applause as she plodded into the waves and the water started to float her massive form. For us it was the perfect cap to our Heron Island experience.
Today the Great Barrier Reef lies at the edge of existence. This and all ocean reefs are in danger. Recent figures from the Australian Research Council (ARC) indicate that 97% of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected by coral bleaching, but that is a mixed bag of results over a huge area. Suffice to say that the northern third of the reef is 85% severely bleached and the menace is moving southward rapidly.
Corals live in a narrow range of water temperature and when the temps rise they shed their component of algae. It is the algae that gives them color and substantial nutrition. The shedding of algae is called bleaching. This algae exists in a symbiotic relationship with the coral, and without it the coral eventually dies. This is happening world wide as the sea absorbs more and more heat from human-caused global warming. With 25% of the sea’s fish dependent on reefs and a good many people dependent on ocean fish to live, we tolerate this damage at great risk to ourselves.
So we got a glimpse of the great reef environment before its passing. Honestly I’ve listened to the optimism of the environmentalists who hold out hope for a coral comeback but I think the odds are long. I do think we can put a long tail on this environmental downward trend and prolong the wild world by spending eco-tourism money to see these “last things.” Heron Island is a little oasis in the Pacific Ocean. An oasis for the birds, turtles and fish but also an oasis for us. As our reefs disappear, it is a precious perch from which to see what we’re losing.