Corals on Loomis Reef are dying as one veteran scientist lets the “veil” of academia drop to reveal anger and frustration
April 21, 2016 — Stretching for half a kilometer or so, Loomis Reef is the place where the alarm bells started going off.
Prof Justin Marshall has been diving this reef, about 270km north of Cairns, for 30 years. Right now he is, to say the least, angry.
“My veil is down,” he says, no longer bothering with the kind of polite niceties common among academics.
“I have cried. I have broken down in front of cameras. This is the most devastating, gut-wrenching fuck up,” says Marshall, of the University of Queensland.
Back in November, researchers and staff on the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station started to see the early signs of coral bleaching – faded colours, odd fluorescent hues and chunks of white.
The Great Barrier Reef, of which Loomis is just one of 3,000 reefs, is in the death throes of its worst ever coral bleaching event – part of the third global mass bleaching since 1998.
Latest figures show that 93% of the reef has been impacted by bleaching. The worst affected areas are in the reef’s north.
“Loomis Reef was an amazingly diverse, beautiful little reef about 500 metres long – covered in lots of different coral. Now it’s going to be a big ball of slime,” Marshall says. The past tense, it seems, is deliberate.
“It’s in an area that tourists use – you can pretty much snorkel there right from the shore. You don’t need a boat.
“At the closer end on Loomis there is a nice Porites coral – they can be thousands of years old. The one on Loomis would be maybe hundreds.”
“You get a lot of large fish coming through – there’s a big nurse shark about eight foot long that lives there – beautiful, totally harmless.”
Loomis Reef has a history almost as colourful as the corals that have attracted tourists and scientists for decades.
The reef is named after the late American Henry Loomis and his family, who stumped up $110,000 in the early 1970s to help establish the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island research station.
Henry, who had a background in physics, was a former director of the US government’s Voice of America. His dad, Alfred, was a former Wall Street tycoon and science patron who built his own laboratory so grand it attracted the likes of Alfred Einstein.
Images from Loomis and its neighbouring reefs have been featured around the globe. In particular, there was a spectacular but haunting photograph of a bright orange “Nemo” fish nestling among a bleached sea anemone.
“Any of these animals trying to hide themselves in the coral now stand out against the reef like dogs’ balls,” Marshall says.
A large part of Marshall’s area of expertise is in understanding how ocean animals see underwater – research known as visual ecology (he is best known for studying the amazing vision of the mantis shrimp and its oversupply of photoreceptors).
“But it’s not just the corals but the animals and the fish that live on them,” he says.
“I have six students on Lizard right now and they have been asking me where all the fish are. Well, they have either moved on, died … I don’t know. But you lose the small fish, then the bigger ones … then it all collapses.”
The mass coral bleaching event started in Hawaii last year before sweeping quickly and mercilessly across reefs around the world.
What is happening on Loomis, is mirrored across the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef and in coral ecosystems around the globe.
Corals get their colour and their nutrients from the zooxanthellae algae they live with. When corals sit for too long in unusually warm temperature, the algae and the coral skeleton separates leaving a “bleached” animal behind.
The link between fossil fuel burning, coral bleaching and a long-term trend in rising ocean temperatures is clear, scientists say.
Water temperatures over the Great Barrier Reef’s corals in February and March were the hottest on a record going back to 1900, according to figures cited by the government’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority.
Marshall, the chief investigator for citizen science project CoralWatch, expects that “well over 50%” of the corals that have bleached on Loomis are dying or are already dead. Recent photographs show corals covered in algae.
While the global mass bleaching event means Australia loses corals, Marshall points out that for other communities around the world bleaching means “that they can’t feed their kids”.
There are hundreds of millions of people who depend on healthy coral reefs to sustain the populations of fish that make up their diets.
As news of the bleaching spread around the globe, the Australian government granted more approvals for what could be Australia’s largest ever coalmine in Queensland’s Galilee basin.
To Marshall, the timing of the announcement was galling.
“This is not just about little Australia. This is a global event. When we mine coal and sell it, that is killing all reefs – not just ours,” he says.
Marshall remembers the 2014 speech that the US president, Barack Obama, made at the University of Queensland. Obama told the crowd, much to the annoyance of several Australian government ministers, that the reef was in danger and that he wanted it to be there for his children and grandchildren to visit in the future.
“But now we can see it’s not about our grandchildren – it’s our kids. It’s us,” Marshall says.
“It’s happening right now – not in some future where we’re dead. Kids are saying ‘grown ups, what are you doing? You are stealing our future, our livelihood, our wonderment’.
“I have taken my kids to Loomis for the last 15 years. I would not take them there now. This is Australia’s biggest ever environmental disaster.”