May 28, 2024

Ffrom the dry laboratory on One Tree Island Research Station – about 100 km off the coast of Gladstone and in the southern region of the Great Barrier Reef – I watch a steady procession of scientists walk to their next meeting with what has become the largest palliative care unit on the planet.

These scientists go out to the reef like doctors on their way to a hospital with no control over saving their patients. They go to a hospital where there is no medicine they can administer to ease the pain or make death easier.

Indeed, the largest living structure on Earth is rapidly becoming the largest dying structure on Earth.

I wonder if you can see it from space?

When I ask why they do this work, one of my newfound reef science friends says, “Well, it’s not for the money.” Their work as scientists is not about saving or fighting for the reef.

It is about scientific hope in the face of unprecedented adversity.

It takes extraordinary courage to persevere in these circumstances, when powerlessness and despair are deliberately suppressed by extraordinary passion and commitment.

Being a reef scientist now, you can’t afford to think like that. It’s too overwhelming, so they look for signs of life, breathing, for coral breath.

Just do your field notes, identify fish, corals, count, record and repeat – lift it, swim there, carry it, descend here and climb there.

Tears are hard to see under water. You can’t feel the bubble in a stomach or the weight on these strong shoulders.

Scientists steer their boats in and out of the lagoon all day, waiting for tides and watching the weather. The work looks important and skilled – diving equipment, buckets, equipment, and everything with purpose. They talk about sites, about scientific names for fish and coral – of samples and testing – of water temperatures, bleaching, bleaching, death.

As a writer and social scientist, I bring different equipment and ask different questions of the reef and its scientists. Questions that cannot be recorded in rooms, counted in transects, collected in water or sediment samples.

I see good people who show up every day – actually several times a day – and testify to a disease that they can record but not treat. It’s similar to visiting a loved one in their final days, not because you necessarily want to, but because it’s the right thing to do.

To be there and do what you can.

I see the man and humanity in these scientists. And it is as beautiful as any coral I have ever seen.

The scientists tell me that the fluorescent coral is also quite beautiful. The neon blue, purple and yellow sparkle, although they also mention that these colors are like the corals that scream and rather suddenly any skerrick of beauty disappears.

Everywhere, coral colonies starting from the sea floor and extending to the light on the surface are fluorescing, dying or dying. I snorkel over these colonies where other marine plants and animals live and I actually “find Nemo” hiding in white tentacles. Today he would do well to reconsider his escape from the dentist’s tank.

On a visit nearby Heron Island while on One Treeeminent reef scientist Prof Terry Hughes uses his profanity and describes the bleaching as “fucking awful”.

Before I arrived, I checked in with several scouts and they were much more cautious. “That’s pretty bad,” they would say. “Pretty bad.” And then the conversation will fade.

So at first I’m quite surprised by the amount of marine life I see on my first snorkel along the famous “gutter run” on One Tree Island. The chute extends from the sea to the island lagoon, about 300 meters. At a high enough tide, you can snorkel with the current and see what was once a dizzying array of happy corals, now full of screaming and death.

I cry for the corals, but the marine life is encouraged. It is a relief that is short-lived.

During our dinner conversations, the reef scientists explain that while there is death, some species are doing quite well. Well, anything that eats algae – the herbivores are at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But like the short-term buzz of a cruise ship buffet, the food and the feeling of fullness are not going to last. “They don’t know what’s coming,” says one scientist.

On my final days on One Tree Island, the weather turns, winds howl and downpours whip those trying to navigate boats through shallow reefs. It’s cold.

The scientists are also cold; wet wetsuits and driving rain remove any delusion of island life and piña coladas.

This silent group of reef warriors march across the coral reefs after another day of exhaustion, physical and mental.

As I watch them prepare and get ready, I remember their animated descriptions of what it’s like to be at eye level with the fish – not above them, but with them. “You have to try it,” they all insist. “You’ll love it.”

And I think it’s a metaphor for their connection to this reef—being part of an ecosystem. Not above it, but along with it.

When I get back home, I promise to get my diving certificate, because whatever it is that I saw in these reef scientists – that courage, passion, humanity – it’s beautiful, and I want to be a part of it.

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