An Underwater Learning Curve – Volunteering on the Great Barrier Reef

Posted by: Alasdair H.

I didn’t know what to expect as our boat, The Passions of Paradise, sped out of the calm waters of Cairns Harbour and out towards the Great Barrier Reef. Our group of volunteers on the Great Barrier Reef Conservation project had spent the past week obtaining our PADI Open Water dive certifications and acclimatising to life in tropical Queensland, but now it was time to put our new skills as divers to use in monitoring the health and biodiversity of the reef.

My uncertainty as to what would greet us when we reached the ocean floor was grounded in the increasingly worrying reports of mass coral bleaching that have been making headlines the world over. Sure we had dived on the Reef as part of our PADI training, not a bad way to learn to dive, but so absorbed were we in learning the processes that stopping to assess and marvel at the underwater world we were visiting had somehow become a secondary consideration.

Not this time, however. A briefing, from our eco-guide Russel combined with a ‘Reef Teach’ seminar we had attended on land meant that we were entering the water with knowledge of what to look for in terms of reef health, and when we got into the water we wasted no time in getting to work.
We began by looking for species that are key indicators of reef health, ranging from everything from Anemonefish (also known as ‘Nemos’) to sharks and turtles, the latter of which glided effortlessly past us minutes after we entered the water.

This was followed by a coral health assessment, and each dive was rounded off by a swim through the section of reef in which we reverted to gob-smacked tourists trying to take in the colours and movements of such a truly unique ecosystem. As the days progressed and we became better at conducting these surveys I learnt two crucial lessons.

Yes the Great Barrier Reef is clearly at risk; we were seeing significant amounts of bleached coral. But it is far from all doom and gloom. The reef, or at least the sections we visited, is still teeming with life, and bleaching to a certain extent is a natural occurrence.

The second thing this experience taught me is that yes, I love diving, but diving with a purpose is brings an entirely new perspective to the sport.
Emerging from the water with not simply an appreciation for, but also an understanding of what I was seeing when I was down there is what is making me want to go back, and underlines the importance of the continuation of conservation projects on the Great Barrier Reef.