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Trouble Down Under : When 1.2 Million Visitors Hit the Great Barrier Reef Each Year, Something Has to Give

September 19, 1993|BOB DROGIN | Formerly The Times' Manila Bureau chief, Bob Drogin now reports from Johannesburg, South Africa. His last article for this magazine was on the 1992 Philippines elections.

It is almost dusk. Soon purple and gold will swirl across the tropical sky, and the ocean will change. Sunset means feeding time and a changing of the marine guard. Sharks and other pelagic predators step up the hunt. Moray eels with needle-sharp teeth slither out of coral crevasses. Lobsters and crabs scuttle from their holes. Even some plankton-eating corals, dull brown by day, blossom into brilliant yellow starbursts at night. I wanted to see it.

I check my scuba gear and roll off a rubber dinghy into the Coral Sea. The water is warm and clear. At 75 feet, a single white-tip shark, big but harmless, swims silently by. The wreck of the Yongala, a passenger ship that sank in a typhoon in 1911, is just below, encrusted with coral from bow to stern. Two giant eagle rays glide gracefully past, just out of reach. With a flip of my fins, I push forward to touch the undulating wing. It feels like fine sandpaper sliding through my fingers. A flash of silver catches my eye. It is a school of barracuda, watching warily from a distance.

My dive mate, marine biologist Carolyn Williams, leads the way along the wreck, past lace-like fans, delicate feather stars and basket sponges. Two loggerhead turtles, their green shells dotted with white barnacles, chew noisily on hard coral at mid-deck. Using our flashlights, we part a gleaming curtain of jackfish and swim into a dark hole in the deck. Deep inside are old bottles, rusted fans and two large bones, presumably from one of the 121 people who perished aboard the Yongala. Back outside, poisonous banded sea snakes slither along the sandy sea floor. Orange and white damselfish play amid the swaying tentacles of flower-like pink anemones. Fat-lipped, dour-faced groupers, each the size of a small car, peer out under the stern.

This is Australia's Great Barrier Reef, or at least a tiny portion of it. I've dived on reefs across the Pacific, and I've never seen anything like it. There is nowhere like it.

The world's largest coral reef system is, in effect, the world's largest living structure. The intricate maze of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands and cays stretches for 1,400 miles along the continent's northeast coast, spread over an area bigger than Britain. The ocean teems with life: more than 1,500 species of fish and tens of thousands more of mollusks, crustaceans and other creatures. There are 22 types of whales alone, including huge humpback whales, the only ones to give birth here. And the coral is incomparable. More than 400 species thrive here; the entire Atlantic Ocean has only 65. Up close, the Great Barrier Reef is a fantasy world of surreal shapes and dazzling colors. From space, satellite pictures show it as a dappled white line, a jeweled necklace in the azure Pacific. So big and so little understood.

Scientists only learned in 1981, for example, that a majority of coral polyps, the tiny creatures that build the reef with their skeletal remains, spawn simultaneously on one or two nights a year here, usually just after sunset on a full moon in November. Responding to some unknown signal, countless polyps release thick clouds of pink and orange eggs and sperm, forming a slick that covers the ocean for hundreds of miles. The goal may be to overwhelm predators and ensure survival of the species. It is surely one of nature's greatest sex shows. "We call it the world's biggest orgasm from the world's biggest organism," one marine biologist says with a grin.

Australians embrace the reef as a national symbol, much as Americans treasure the Grand Canyon. Eighteen years ago, the Australian government, demonstrating the concern of its 17 million outdoors-minded citizens, made the reef a national park--the world's largest multi-use marine playground. Six years later it was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

But despite the attention of these environmental bodies, the Great Barrier Reef is under growing threat today. Rampant tourism, wanton development, destructive fishing and illegal pollution are taking an accelerating toll on an exceedingly fragile environment. Runoff from farms and urban sewage are poisoning lagoons and nourishing algae that suffocate the coral. Hundreds of huge oil tankers, chemical carriers and other large vessels steam down a navigator's nightmare of sunken shoals and deadly reefs in a shallow shipping channel that has one of the world's highest accident rates.

"It's very likely there will be a major spill on the reef," warns Graeme Kelleher, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government-chartered agency headquartered in Townsville, a bustling university town on the Queensland coast that is a world center of marine studies.

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