The Great Barrier Reef is currently experiencing the best coral coverage in 36 years
Dr Terry Cummins. OAM, PhD on diving The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) was World Heritage-listed in 1981 and is considered one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders. It covers 344,400 square kms, is 2,300 km long or approximately half the length of the Eastern Australian coastline. It comprises 3,000 individual reefs, 300 coral cays, 600 continental islands and 150 inshore mangrove islands, making it the largest barrier reef in the world.
Apart from its size, the GBR has high levels of biodiversity and is considered one of the most complex natural systems on earth. With over 600 types of soft and hard corals, more than 100 species of jellyfish, 3,000 varieties of molluscs, 500 species of worms, 1,625 types of fish, 133 different species of sharks and rays, six out of the seven sea turtles found in the world and more than 30 species of marine mammals, it is an enormous ecosystem.
Currently, the world press and some institutions would like you to think the GBR is dying or already dead. Although we all have grave concerns for the future of the world’s reefs due to the combined impacts of the planet’s overpopulation (e.g. coastal development, increased agricultural run-off, climate change, etc), the GBR is very much alive. Unfortunately, ‘the reef is dead’ headline suits some but is a total over-exaggeration of the facts.
Recently, marine physicist Peter Ridd implied that these headlines are ruining the reputation of its “premier tourist attraction” – the GBR. The latest data from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) 2021 / 22 Long-Term Monitoring Program Report states that the GBR has recorded the highest level of coral cover in 36 years. It is indeed a pity that I as the Chair of Dive Queensland Inc, have had not one reporter from the media contact me about this excellent news.
Good news is rarely reported these days. Ridd states: “You have just got to wonder how bad some of these institutions have been in terms of exaggerating the loss of corals in these events” and “it proves without a shadow of a doubt that many of them are completely untrustworthy.”
Furthermore, my research shows that even a number of dive store owners within Australia and beyond believe what they read in the press. Additionally, some travel wholesalers would rather send their clients overseas where there is much less diversity of coral and other marine life. For example, the Caribbean has just 90 species of coral compared to the GBR’s 600 plus.
I agree with Ridd that the “mass bleaching events” described by the press and some institutions are entirely misleading. Yes, there have been four bleaching events in pockets along the GBR’s 2,300 kms length, which is hardly “mass”. One of these events was in the 1990s and the other three in 2016, 2017 and 2020. There has been minimal bleaching along the entire length of the GBR in 2021 and 2022. Coral bleaching is not coral death! Impacted corals can, and many do, recover.
There are other instances of misinformation about diving the GBR. Here are a few results from my PhD thesis that you may find interesting where I surveyed over 530 divers returning from a trip to the reefs off Cairns. Please note that I asked them whether they had dived on coral reefs before visiting the Cairns section of the GBRMP, 75% of them indicated they had. Further analysis revealed that they had collectively dived on coral reefs at 841 locations across 16 countries/regions, so they were in an excellent position to compare their dive with other dives they had done elsewhere.
The analysis revealed 72% of the divers were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality and abundance of coral, 76% were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality and abundance of marine life. Also 79% were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the underwater visibility and 85% were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the general diving quality.
Apart from the condition of the Reef, another rumour that my research identified was the impact of the Queensland dive regulations. Rumours are that the Code of Practice (dive regulations) limits diving to 20 meters and dives of only 45 minutes. However, 85% of the divers I surveyed expressed they were either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the quality of the dive briefings. More importantly, 88% agreed or strongly agreed Cairns is a safe place to dive because of the dive regulations.
Without boring you with the massive amount of data I collected, service levels, crew quality and the dive vessels’ standard (day and live aboard) all scored very high levels of diver satisfaction (70% plus).
Finally, the divers were asked to compare to their diving experiences on the Reef to other places they had dived, which included comparisons to 934 coral and non-coral dive destinations used by the survey respondents. Most said the diving was better, 83% said they would return to dive Cairns, and 88% indicated they would recommend Cairns to others.
These rumours of depth and time restrictions in Queensland are exactly that – a stupid rumour which may have been generated from the operational character of some dive packages< This is where some dive operators offer three 45 minutes dives on a day trip at different locations. Of course, the liveaboards offer five dives per day or even more. I have spent all my adult life in the dive and dive tourism industry sectors and have been diving the GBR since the early 70s.
My wife Cathie and I dive the Cairns section of the GBR weekly with various operators. Our dive profiles regularly involve 60-minute plus bottom times, and we regularly reach depths of over 20 m. We are not sure where this other equally misleading rumour – “you can’t dive below 40 m” comes from, especially since the Queensland Government, in close consultation with the dive industry, was the first to introduce a ‘Technical Diving Code of Practice. So yes, you can participate in technical diving in Queensland, training and extended range. For example, Cairns has one operator totally specialising in Tec and there are others who offer Tec throughout the State.
Having dived in over 16 countries and logged over 7,200 dives, I can honestly say the diving Queensland has to offer visitors is extraordinary. It is also has without a doubt the best managed marine park on the planet. So, you will not have ticked all the boxes until you visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Terrence (Terry) Cummins is currently the President of Dive Queensland and a prominent figure in the global dive community. He is a diver, photographer, writer, and educator and has been a senior executive of diver training agencies. He sits on several governments, NGOs and business advisory committees relating to diving, tourism and business sustainability. Terry has a long list of prestigious awards and accomplishments, including an appointment as a Fellow of the Explorers Club of New York and an Order of Australia Medal for his contribution to scuba diving.
Photo Credit: Cathie Cummins