The seats on our rickety plane from the mainland were made of a fluffy, fleecy material and smelled like a combination of pizza and ramen, but I didn’t notice any of that when I caught my first glimpse of Lady Elliot Island.
The island appeared on the blue expanse of the ocean as a green dot surrounded by a darker fan that I knew was the reef. When we touched down, the plane hurtled down the runway strip so fast that we were all convinced we were about to see the corals of the Great Barrier Reef from the inside of a sinking plane. Luckily, we had underestimated our pilot’s braking skills, and drew safely to a halt on the grassy runway, where we disembarked for orientation and a quick lunch.
The first thing we did on the island was suit up and head out to the reef for a snorkel. The water was a turbulent sheet, tossing our little boat to and fro over the waves, and every so often there were sprinklings of cold rain. When we reached a good distance, we put on our snorkel gear, shivering from the wind and from excitement, and jumped into the turquoise sea.
As soon as my face broke the water, I was immersed in a wonderland of colors and shapes. Growing up, I had a book on reef creature identification, and I spent hours flipping the glossy pages looking at colorful, otherworldly animals. They all had a deer-in-the-headlights look, probably the result of flash photography. Here in the reef, I saw those animals in their natural habitat. Colorful parrotfish nibbled coral with their sweet, earnest beaks, forests of staghorn coral lay like the graveyards of a thousand elk, and a school of flashy silver trevally flitted by under us.
After our first snorkel, we were all hooked (not literally, fishing is not allowed on Lady Elliot), and went out in our flippers and mask every morning at 7 to paddle around the shallow lagoon to the east of the island. The water was only a few feet deep at high tide, and we were so close to the coral that we could have reached out and touched it.
I saw fish of all shapes and colors, gently waving anemones, and friendly turtles that nudged my hand looking for back scratches to loosen the coat of algae on their shells. All these animals were amazing, but what really struck a chord in my contrarian heart were the sea cucumbers. These slimy, sluglike echinoderms are sought-after for Asian delicacies, natural medicines, and collagen used in anti-aging creams.
If fishing is a sport, collecting sea cucumbers is something of an easter egg hunt. They roll around in the tide, not even hidden, relying on their unappetizing colors to defend them against predators. Harvesting them is like taking candy from a baby, if the baby was the Great Barrier Reef, one of the largest wonders of the natural world.
Throughout the trip, we attended lectures from our guide, Tyrone Ridgway, a program manager at the University of Queensland. Tyrone had sunbleached blonde hair, a soft voice, and a knack for creating engaging Powerpoints. He sprinkled his presentations with documentary clips and funny videos.
Tyrone showed us the types of creatures we would see in the reef, and taught us about the biology of corals—they’re pretty amazing! He finished up his little lecture series with presentations about threats facing the reef, such as overfishing, physical destruction, and coral bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures and other stressors.
I’m so glad I got to come to Lady Elliot and experience the Great Barrier Reef first-hand. It’s amazing to me that through every moment of my life, every hour I spend I a lecture hall, every movie I watch from the comfort of my couch, the reef is still here. The fish still flit through the clear blue water, and waves still push against this shore, grinding the skeletons of countless corals into fluffy white sand. It’s disconcerting to think about, and it really drives home how much we take for granted. I felt no telling itch when 1/3 of the reef bleached. Would I feel it if I woke up one day and it was gone?
Before coming here, I felt a little bit helpless about the climate change situation, and I still don’t feel completely empowered. The decisions that affect the largest producers of carbon emissions are made by huge corporations, backed by money and bolstered with solid, acceptable arguments—jobs, energy, the economy.
I close my eyes in torture scenes in movies because it is easier to avoid looking at something painful than to force myself to watch something that I can’t change or help. I have often felt the same way about climate change. I’m a tiny speck on a huge planet, and telling me to ride my bike more, take shorter showers, or turn off the lights when I leave a room is a little bit like telling me to help the characters in the torture scenes by not torturing people.
However, seeing the optimism of scientists and communicators like Tyrone and Dr. Kris made me feel much more hopeful and confident about the future of the reef, and the planet. At the end of one of the lectures, Tyrone showed us a graph plotting the number of whales in the ocean through time. The numbers were terribly low a few decades ago, but the graph showed an almost exponential increase due to a public outcry against whaling, which led to many people working to save them. It was so encouraging to see a positive example amidst the sea of grim predictions. I know I’m only one person, but if millions of people, each only one person, all feel the same, we can make a difference. We will make a difference.