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Advertise on the Tentacle

September 5, 2007

The Great Barrier Reef

Tom McLaughlin

Cairns, Australia (pronounced cans), is located at the very top of the eastern coast also known as the Gold Coast. A resort town, it is the jumping off point for explorations on the Great Barrier Reef or "the reef" as known there.

A huge tourism industry has opened around the reef. Hundreds of boats from glass bottoms to swift catamarans take visitors to view the underwater sea life. Hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, pubs, a casino and souvenir shops all vie for the vacationers dollar, yen, pound or euro. The scene is tropical with palm trees, parrots and a man made beach where people are often found sunning.

The wind was blowing strong when my daughter and I arrived and we decided to wait until the weather abated for our trip out. We selected an expensive excursion ($130) with only about 20 people. The captain would take us out to the farthest part of the reef, a place I thought we would see the most wildlife. Sadly, I was wrong.

The trip out took about an hour and a half. The boat anchored and the mates helped the scuba folks off first. After a safety lecture, they let us snorkelers into the water.

I was confused at first because I couldn't find the reef. I had swum over reefs in the Red Sea and thought I knew what I was looking for. I swam over mounds of white bleached coral with very few colorful fish.

Frustrated, I traveled further out seeking the color and brilliance I had remembered. Still nothing. I spent over an hour sliding over the reef where it was about a foot deep to my tummy and then into deeper seas along the edge of the shelf. Still nothing but the dead, off white coral carcasses. I thought someone had dumped tons of oddly shaped cement into the water.

We were waved aboard for lunch, and the scuba people soon joined us. We all had a perplexed look on our faces. I asked a German couple if they had seen anything and they shook their heads no. Young honeymooners from Holland also stated it was nothing like the reefs in the Cook Islands. I asked several other people and they all agreed this was definitely not what we had expected.

Following a huge smorgasbord of lunch, the boat motored to a different location and we snorkelers and scuba people had the same results. In fact the captain was surprised to see that most of us had returned early to the boat because there just wasn't anything to see.

In response to this obvious disappointment, charter boats now advertise a gourmet lunch and a boat ride in the Pacific Ocean with visits to other locations; previously the reef was enough justification, and a hot dog lunch would suffice; now extras need to be added.

I spoke with captains, mates, educators and marine scientists and have concluded there are many forces at work in the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. Global warming seems to be one factor, although it is blamed for everything including why I can't balance my checkbook. Water temperatures are increasing and the rise is slowly moving southward.

Between the reef and the coast is an inland waterway where large ships transverse to serve the few ports. Oil spills and sewage dumped from these vessels seems also to be a factor.

Cyclones moving across the reef also are blamed. They are hurricanes and when approaching and then passing over the reef tend to do a lot of destruction.

The raiding of the reef by smugglers who steal coral and other marine organisms for the home aquarium market compounds the problem.

However, one factor stands out as the most probable; and that is tourism. Mates and others quietly told me that visitors often break off a piece of the reef to take home as a souvenir. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to see this world wonder and if only a small percentage take home a chunk, then the results are devastating.

Australia relies heavily on tourism and to stop the reef from deteriorating further, though I don't see how it can get much worse, drastic steps need to be taken. Visitors must be warned of the severe penalties of removing material from the reef. This can be accomplished through the captains and mates who take them out. Airlines and cruise ships can also spread the message before visitors arrive in Australia.

There will be naysayers who will protest this intervention by the government, stating it will be bad for tourism. Once word gets out, through this and other articles, people will not travel for hours on an airplane. And this does not count airport security, taking off your shoes, immigration, travel to and from the airport, wrapping toiletries in plastic bags, finding luggage on a carousel, plus thousands of dollars, all for a lunch aboard a boat in the Pacific to view dead coral.

Australia needs to act now to protect whatever is left of the Great Barrier Reef. And, the mates and captains can start now.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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