We seem to be wilfully blind when it comes to nature. Right now, Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented environmental disaster. The largest living structure on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef, is mortally sick. Across hundreds of miles of ocean, from Papua New Guinea and all the way southwards along the east coast of Australia, the reef is dying. Famously, the GBR is the only living structure visible from space – almost two thousand miles long and about the size of Germany. It’s suffering what the scientists call ‘bleaching’, a process where corals eject the algae that give them their bright colours, and turn white. They do it when they suffer stress, most commonly when the water in which they live warms up by more than 1°C above what they are accustomed to.
Professor Terry Hughes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, has been flying up and down the reef in a helicopter photographing the damage. Hughes, the most cited coral expert in the world, says: 'It’s been the saddest research trip of my life. 95 percent of the corals in this formerly pristine region are showing signs of bleaching even from the air.' In the next few weeks around 50 percent of the bleached corals will probably die.
Coral has bleached all across the tropics this year. Something similar happened in 1998. I was living in Seychelles then, and witnessed previously healthy reefs die en masse, leaving expanses of ugly coral rubble where previously there had been undersea gardens filled with exquisite butterfly fish, anemones and sea fans. On sites where I had led dives hundreds of times I would sometimes get lost, unable to spot a single familiar feature. It was like visiting the grave of a friend and for the first time ever, I found being underwater a depressing experience. Ever since, I’ve been messianic in my zeal to get divers and non-divers to worry about coral. But hardly anyone cares.
There’s something quite infantile about our attitude to conservation. Many people seem to base their love of animals on relationships they had with their favourite childhood cuddly toy. Show us a picture of an elephant slaughtered for its tusks or a tiger shot for its spurious medicinal properties and many of us reach for our wallets without batting an eyelid. Pandas, those indolent and rather smelly creatures, have long been a symbol of everything that deserves saving. But the sad truth is that if all the pandas on earth died tomorrow we wouldn’t really miss them in any practical or environmental sense. We might feel guilty for a while, but in practical terms we wouldn’t miss them any more than we have missed the Tasmanian tiger since it was wiped out in the 1930s.
My gripe is that if you care about an organism that is truly critical to billions of people, but it happens to be ugly, or prickly or one that goes about its business largely unseen, then you are really up against it. Corals aren't good at public relations. They live their lives obscurely. Reefs cover less than 1 percent of the seabed, but more than 1 billion people depend on the fish that live directly upon them. They protect against storms and tidal waves more effectively than any man-made barrier, and infinitely more cheaply too. Over 4,000 species of fish rely on them for feeding and breeding, and they are spawning sites for everything from sea cucumbers and lobsters to manta rays and sharks.
Coral scientists were the first to reach a consensus – following the 1998 bleaching -- that man-made warming was the cause. Before the climate change deniers start posting their rage, let me acknowledge that no-one knows just how much of the GBR will die as a result of this devastating bleaching. Corals have undergone mass extinctions in the past. And reef communities do have a remarkable tendency to bounce back, perhaps through genetic selection or by changing the range of species that build the reef over time. But right now, tropical reefs are in a dire state. Many coral scientists think that warming seas and ocean acidification will see most of them gone within 50 years.
The imminent demise of corals isn’t an easy cause to fight. Understanding their biology requires a bit of application. And, like so many things that live in the sea we tend to ignore their peril until it’s too late. As an indicator of what we are doing to our planet, the corals are hard to beat. If only they weren’t so small and complex. And if only they could whimper.
Tim Ecott is the author of Stealing Water and Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World.