Anna Kooiman: Exploring the Great Barrier Reef

Exploring the Great Barrier Reef has been near the top of my Bucket List for a long time. If you have followed my work you know I am mad for travel. Whether around the USA or around the world, I can’t get enough of it. When my Aussie husband and I moved to Oz a little over a year ago, the anticipation began building. I knew this was my chance to explore one of our world’s greatest natural treasures.

I have been scuba diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, but I imagined the Great Barrier Reef would take things to a whole new level. Why?

Well, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World and it is larger than the Great Wall of China. To give more perspective, it is about half the size of Texas. And we all know as Americans that everything is bigger in Texas! Ha! Or how about this mind boggling fact: The Great Barrier Reef is so big it can even be viewed from outer space!

I booked a big boat excursion through a tourism group that departed from the Cairns marina in Tropical Queensland. About half the crowd chose to scuba dive while the rest of us snorkeled. I recently gave birth to my first child but I was pregnant at the time so I needed to follow my doctor’s recommendations, and not strap on the tank and go to the bottom.

I was about four months along at the time and felt him kick for the first time while on the boat! It was more of a flutter than a kick but it was so cool. And the way it happened was even cooler. We were on our way to our first snorkel/dive location and our tour guides spotted whales! It was in that moment I felt the baby kick as the crowd onboard was oooh-ing and ahhhhh-ing. It was truly a magical moment. Not a bad way to start my Bucket List adventure.

From the whales we saw breaching on the way to our first location... to the magnificent coral and fish... to the glass semi-submerged boat ride... to the helicopter ride we paid a little extra for to get a better idea of the size and scope of the reef... to the live music and games on the cruiser... to the provided lunch of tasty prawns, steak, white fish, and roasted veggies – all of it was amazing!

The moment my mask hit the water, I saw some beautiful creatures. The idyllic images are in my mind right now. How splendid to literally flutter my feet among schools of fish. Neon pinks, yellows, greens, blues, and purples. Wow! Swimming along the Great Barrier Reef was such an inspiring and eye-opening adventure.

Anna Kooiman

Anna Kooiman (Lyndon Marceau)

But I also saw and heard some things that make me want to encourage you to go see the Great Barrier Reef too... ASAP!

Upon booking the trip, virtually every Aussie I mentioned it to would say, "You better see it while you can. The Great Barrier Reef is disappearing. It's not what it used to be." These thoughts were echoed by several crew members during our tour.

I have to say I loved seeing all manner of exotic creatures, but I also saw loads of coral that had lost its color. It's a phenomenon you're likely familiar with called coral bleaching. According to NOAA, 'When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.'

(Calypso Photgraphy)

I imagine you've probably heard a lot of people talk about the issue, right? I certainly have, for years. I remember learning about it in my Oceanography class in college, and of course the news headlines that associate coral bleaching with climate change (human caused or not). It was quite troubling to see. I witnessed what looked like coral graveyards, a lot of them. That sounds weird to say, but that's exactly what they looked like. To be fair, I don't personally have a previous experience on the Great Barrier Reef to compare this one to, but the crew members leading the tour all seemed to have some rather strong and discouraging opinions.

Some of the coral looked similar in structure to those close-by, still in their usual shape, just missing color, and missing the marine life hustling and bustling by. It looked like a bunch of coral skeletons. But there were also a lot of areas that simply looked like a pile of coral 'bones' along the seafloor. I don't know how else to describe it. The pictures in my mind are quite grim.

Anna Kooiman

Anna Kooiman (Calypso Photgraphy)

The marine biologist leading the glass semi-submerged boat tour said she has noticed the bleaching getting much worse in the last couple of years. She says what we were seeing can be part of the natural process coral goes through, but that the current conditions have been speeding up the process at an astounding rate.  She asked us to take note, though, that just because the coral has turned white doesn't necessarily mean it is indeed dead, but it does mean it is at risk of dying. What a sad reality. We don’t want to lose this treasure.

The Great Barrier Reef has an ancient history and it is valuable today for a whole host of reasons besides its beauty. Many modern medicines are being developed from its plants and animals – medicines to treat cancer, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimers, etc. Countless communities depend upon the Great Barrier Reef for economic reasons. Tourism to the reef generates billions of dollars a year. Of course the actual fish provide food and livelihoods for residents as well. More than 1,500 fish species call the Great Barrier Reef home. It is easy to see why the Great Barrier Reef is considered a Natural Wonder.

My son is now six months old and I am already dreaming about the adventures we will go on together in our world travels. I must say I can’t wait to go back to the Great Barrier Reef so he can experience this wonder with his own eyes, rather than just in the womb. I hope the degradation doesn’t get worse so he can view the incredible marine life I did. He would most certainly enjoy it! Remember that first flutter!?

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