Friday, 9 November 2012

Coral island in a changing world

Nick Brennan, the warm hearted fair-haired guide on Lady Elliot Island, which is an eco-resort on the Great Barrier Reef, has been chatting with me about the effects of climate change and the state of the coral island in this changing world.

At first, I was struggling with the inherent contradiction in that we fly to this island: it is in fact the only island on the reef with an airstrip, and it is the only eco-island on the reef.  And we stay there.  How can that help the environment I asked?  Nick replied saying that the Great Barrier Reef, in spite of being ‘protected’ and called a ‘Marine Park’, is not well managed at all.  He talked about the ‘Hunters and Shooters Party’ being in power in New South Wales and allowing general use of the reef, saying they don’t protect it and certainly don’t police it.

Lady Elliot Island is the only green zone, and is the only eco-island on the entire Great Barrier Reef.  It means no fishing, no moving coral, no moving the numerous sea cucumbers without putting them back exactly where they were as they only move a foot a year.  It means no taking anything from the island!

The island has to police itself if people turn up to fish, which they do – the young staff have been known to canoe out to offending boats to tell them to go.  The fishermen say ‘There are no fish anywhere else”. Yet surprisingly the island has pulled itself back from the brink of extinction.

Over 200 years ago the guano (Bird droppings) which was over 1 meter deep was drastically harvested for fertilizer, and all the vegetation and trees died.  The birds died.  It was practically a dead island.  Some time later, the government had to build a lighthouse and they imported goats onto the island to feed the lighthouse keepers.   That meant that any new vegetation that tried to shoot up was promptly eaten by the goats.

Then in the late 60’s one man, Don Adam, visited the island and determined to re-vitalise it.  He planted native trees, coconuts, pandanus, casuarinas and shrubs.  As the lighthouse was now being automated he shot all the goats.  Gradually the seabirds returned.  There are now thousands of resident birds, including many white-capped noddies.  They like to nest and breed in the pisonia trees which are now healthy and plentiful.

I snorkeled around the coral and marveled at the abundance of fish; the colours are astonishing underwater; so bright, lit up from the inside like neon.  Nick told me that even in the last five years since it has become a Green Zone the number of fish in their waters has increased considerably; it is amazing how quickly marine zones can recover.  Even the coral is in good shape here, and is not suffering too much from bleaching as it is elsewhere on the Great Barrier Reef.

The main danger that they are all worried about is the acidification of the seas.  The more carbon dioxide we use the more the oceans absorb it, and that is what is causing the bleaching and thus the death of much of the coral further north from here.  Coral is an extremely sensitive living animal; it is not a plant, it is an animal, and it cannot tolerate temperatures too high or too low, and certainly not too acidic.  That will kill it.

Nick believes that the way to justify the use of the island by tourists is education.  He is immensely knowledgeable about the coral, fishes, birds and vegetation of the island and greets each new arrival with an introduction to the ways of the island.  Don’t stand on the living coral, don’t move anything, don’t take anything away.  Here we value each living being, including the 300,000 birds on the tiny island.

It is so small you can walk round it in an hour, as I did. And that includes time to stop and wonder.  Yet it has so many fish.  He takes visitors out on reef walks, gently pointing out that what looks like scum at the shoreline is in fact sunscreen made by the coral itself to protect it from the sun, and is the active ingredient in the suncream which we use.   He can spot a clam from a long way off, and can name almost every fish we see, including the striking blue Picassotrigger fish.  He encourages us to pick up sea cucumbers, which feel rubbery like car tyres, and which squirt.  He tells us to put them back exactly where we found them as because they move so slowly, a foot a year, they will be completely disorientated if they are moved.

It is deceptive, as when you look at the water from the shore, particularly when the tide is out and the water is just in the lagoon, it looks as if there is nothing much happening in the water.  You can see the shape of the coral, its amazing mushroom layered growth, some are like huge brains, and you can see the white sand which is actually dead bleached coral.  It dies when it is exposed to the sun, so when it grows upwards and pokes through the sea to the sun, it dies, or the central bit does, and its only recourse is to grow sideways instead, thus staying under the water and eventually forming a lagoon.  Some big corals grow very slowly, at just one millimeter a year, and we calculated that one particular coral in the lagoon which we were walking around, was two meters across which meant it was actually a thousand years old.

Yet when you put a mask on and look through it, beyond the surface to the life underneath, you see that even right up to the shoreline there are fish swimming about, lots of little intense ultramarine blue ones, long moray eels, tiny little baby fish which are what the birds eat, transparent butterfly fish which are exactly like butterflies you might see in a meadow, sometimes there are turtles.  In the nesting season there are thousands of turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs.  We just missed that as we are too early, but we saw turtles mating and gently swimming past.

The island uses solar power for most of its energy needs, and desalinates sea water so that it is self-sufficient in water.  There is still much more to be done, as they do still need to import fuel.

I went on a snorkeling safari this morning, which means spending longer out in the deeper water, again with Nick to guide us.  We were taken out by boat, and then urged to jump in when it was 4 or 5 metres deep.  Nick does put himself under pressure to ensure we see turtles and also Manta rays, and swims about looking for them for us.  And occasionally he will take a deep breath and swim down to the sea bottom and pick up something to show us.  This time it was a pineapple cucumber; a sea cucumber which is much larger, looks like a pineapple, and is squishy.   He brought it to the surface to show us, and then minutes later took another deep breath and gently placed it back in the sand where he had found it.

I am completely hooked now; I could spend ages looking at this extraordinary world. I don’t mind whether we see a turtle or a manta ray; just the everyday shoals of fishes are amazing.   They move so quickly; I look up out of the water to check where Nick is for example, then immediately look under water again and new different fish have teleported themselves right beside me.   They are not afraid; of each other, or of us.  They bump into me, checking me out.  One delightful turquoise fish stayed with me for ages, swimming around my face and touching my cheeks. I felt as if I had a friend.  Other snorkelers said the same; that a big shoal of fish would adopt the human fish and stay with him or her, incorporating them into the group.

At night, I was most surprised to see in the pitch darkness that the sky was full of stars and that there was a new moon.  Something didn’t look quite right; it was wrong somehow.  Then Patrick, my partner, pointed out what it was: the new moon crescent was at the bottom of the moon, lying along the rounded bottom.  Where I come from in Appledore the new moon crescent is either to the left or the right of the moon.  It did look odd, as if we were on a new planet.

Now I have unfortunately left Lady Elliot Island and am in Brisbane where I am due to give a workshop to the Brisbane potters tomorrow, on Creative Throwing and Intuitive Sculpture.  We shall see what transpires!

Sandy Brown is an internationally renowned ceramicist who lives and works in North Devon. She is the Art Advisor at Resurgence magazine.
Find out more about Sandy Brown

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