Diving the Great Barrier Reef (& Other Things You Should Do With Your Grandma)
My family visited me in Australia before my final exams at the University of Sydney. Contrary to what you may think, this was actually perfect timing for me because I like to do all of my studying in maniacal, coffee-fueled focus sessions the night before and morning of exams (0/10 would not recommend this method of study).
Among other things, the fam and I hiked and antique shopped and watched movies in a family-owned cinema in the little town of Bowral, NSW.
We also lost our rental car for 3 hours in a parking garage in Sydney and subsequently missed our flight to Cairns. This was slightly less fun than the antique shopping and movie watching and even more physically exhausting than the hiking (picture me and my aunt running up and down the steep non-pedestrian entry ramps of every parking garage in the greater Darling Harbour area).
We did finally make it to Cairns (1 day and 2 very long drives between Bowral and the Sydney Airport later) and I’m immensely thankful we did. Because the only thing better than getting to scuba dive over the Great Barrier Reef is getting to see your grandma don goggles and a giant orange life jacket and snorkel for the first time in her life (did I mention over the Great Barrier Reef?).
As if I am not lucky enough, I also got to witness my mom fall headfirst into the ocean while trying to put on a pair of very large flippers. I am truly blessed.
A very sincere thank you to the crew at Ocean Freedom who treated my grandma as if she was their collective grandma and (literally and metaphorically) held her hand throughout the entire trip. There was a very genuine level of love for the reef and respect for the water that I felt from every crew member I was able to talk with. My grandma loved her snorkeling helper, Scott, so much that I think she may be trying to legally adopt him. He spent our entire boat ride home discussing the sea life we had seen and answering my questions about threats to the reef.
Something I learned from Scott and the rest of the crew that really stuck with me is that – though coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is widely reported about in the news and heavily visible on social media – it’s not actually the reef’s greatest threat. Natural disasters like tropical cyclones and naturally-occurring overpopulation of organisms like the crown-of-thorns starfish are responsible for huge amounts of reef destruction each year. I also had no idea that a “bleached” coral does not mean a “dead” coral and that there is a distinct possibility that the bleached areas of the Great Barrier Reef can become healthy again.
Reef bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures and reef destruction caused by overfishing, pollution, and coastal development are also huge problems and I understand why these issues are highlighted the most in news coverage – because we as a society have direct control over these issues through our carbon emissions, pollution, land development, etc. Human actions are having a profoundly negative impact on ocean ecosystems around the world and are making it incredibly more difficult for reefs to deal with and recover from their naturally-occurring threats. But, the hopeful, science-based outlook on reef loss that I felt from the crew on my dive trip – in contrast to the hopeless, “all is lost” language that I often see in news articles about the “Death of the Great Barrier Reef” – reminded me of how important it is to always do my research on issues – whether climate-related, political, or anything else – and to look to science to form my understanding of events and problems.
We live in an age of information overload and newspaper headlines and viral Facebook videos often respond to this by sensationalizing and politicizing issues rather than feeding us the “boring” facts that are easily overlooked. Yes, we should be saddened that large chunks of the Great Barrier Reef have been bleached due to human-induced global warming. But, being sad and letting everyone on our social media pages know that we are sad is much less useful than doing our research, forming a comprehensive understanding of coral reef threats, and then actually involving ourselves in efforts to save the reefs that we now know are able to be saved because we did our research and formed a comprehensive understanding of coral reef threats.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of societal problems that is dropped on our heads every time we dare to open a newspaper. But, it’s important to remember that there are people out there fighting the good fight and slowly working to chip away at these problems – often behind-the-scenes or in ways that we don’t even realize we should be working. Like the nice man on my dive trip who was training for his job and who opened my eyes to the fact that there are Australian government employees out there who are paid to scuba around the world’s most famous reef and depopulate crown-of-thorns starfish with an injection gun and apparently incredibly good luck. Who knew?
Anyway, enjoy the above video, which features some very cool scuba shots of the reef and some even cooler shots of my grandma. It should go without saying that – no – you should not touch or pick up anything on the Great Barrier Reef unless you are given permission by a diving instructor, researcher, or some other human who is responsible and knows what he or she is doing (both for safety reasons and because the reef is not a petting zoo and needs to be protected (see above rant)). I was lucky enough to be the only certified diver on my boat so I got an unplanned private dive with two very cool instructors who let me linger at all the spots I liked, searched out White Tipped Reef Sharks for me to see, and took GoPro videos for me in all the places I was too scared to get close to because I am a subpar diver and was terrified of breaking off chunks of reef with my jerky flipper movements.
If you’re interested, the dive company that my family and I used is http://www.cairnspremierreefislandtours.com
They have an Advanced Ecotourism Certification through Ecotourism Australia (you can check out the criteria for ecotourism certifications at https://www.ecotourism.org.au) & I can personally vouch for the very cool and very responsible crew, at least on my own trip.