In 1979, having travelled from my home in California, I arrived on the shores of Australia as a backpacking dive instructor with one thing on my mind ... to dive the Great Barrier Reef.
To this day I remember my first dive on the Reef, because it changed my life forever.
To make a long story short, I never went home. In one dive, I went from being a Yank to being an Aussie. That's what happens when you dive the greatest reef on the planet.
I consider myself both lucky and privileged to have spent the last 40 years working on the Reef as a dive instructor, guide and naturalist. It has given me a lifetime of adventure. I have had the opportunity to interact with some of the most incredible marine animals, from the huge and majestic humpback whales to the tiny nudibranches as colourful as butterflies.
I have no doubt that I have seen the Great Barrier Reef at its best.
But over that same period of time, I have witnessed a slow, inexorable change taking place. Almost a dimming of the Reef's magnificent qualities. The past 40 years have not been kind to it. Numerous impacts, including poor water quality and, more recently, climate change, have taken a serious toll.
In 2016, 2017 and 2019, the Reef suffered serious marine heatwaves fuelled by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These heatwaves caused significant coral bleaching and large-scale coral mortality.
There are few things as heart-wrenching as watching your favourite dive site be slowly cooked by a marine heatwave. As corals overheat, they bleach, becoming a bright white, or a bright, almost glowing yellow, green, pink or even blue pastel. As beautiful as bleaching corals look, the coral animals are stressed and dying. If the heatwave continues, the corals will die, and disappear under a cover of dirty brown algae.
Coral reefs can require up to 15 years to fully recover from a major bleaching event.
As bad as the past has been, the Reef's future looks even more grim. The recently released IPCC report is not optimistic. It warns that climate change has pushed the Great Barrier Reef's corals to their "adaptation limits", and further ocean warming could make their survival impossible. The world is failing to reign in enough carbon emissions to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, which would give coral reefs a chance for survival.
The Morrison government is a world leader in that failure. It's thrown billions of dollars at the Reef, but all that money is about as useless as trying to hold back the tide if they're simultaneously refusing to reduce emissions at the speed and scale necessary.
The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's most beloved icon. It is also an economic powerhouse, generating $6.4 billion annually and supporting 64,000 jobs. Despite what so many of our politicians say, we don't need to choose between protecting the economy and the environment. The Reef shows us how a healthy environment underpins the economy.
It is all of our responsibility, and especially the government's, to lead the world in the effort to protect the Reef. But currently, we are recognised as among the worst laggards when it comes to effective climate action.
We have around a decade to get our house in order and bring carbon emissions down. If we truly care about the future of the Great Barrier Reef, we must hold our government accountable and insist that Australia develops an effective climate policy. Now.
- Tony Fontes is a Whitsundays dive operator and conservationist.