By Kaz Hing
From 11 - 15 January 2018, I journeyed to the Coral Sea with Mike Ball Diving Expeditions, aboard the MV Spoilsport. I joined fellow passengers and crew making the journey just over 1,000 kilometers off Australia’s mainland, into remote territory, off the beaten track for tourists, and currently protected from commercial fishing and mining exploration.
I’ve been a diver for over 10 years, and have dived in many places around the world - both in tropical and temperate climes - and the Coral Sea had been on my radar, even through I didn’t know a great deal about the area, or even exactly where it was. All I knew was it was GREAT for diving!
So when the team asked me if I could travel to the Coral Sea to report back on what I saw, I jumped at the chance!
My adventure began in tropical north Queensland, in the city of Cairns. We left in the evening, steaming overnight in order to wake the following morning in the Coral Sea ready to dive! The first night was the hardest. We weren’t used to the boat noises or constant rocking movement of being on open sea, so we didn’t get much sleep. Despite this, I woke, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, super-keen to see the sun rise over the ocean, then get stuck into the day’s diving. A single bird (a booby?) glided over the surface of the water searching for a feed and it soared above me in one swift and graceful movement. I watched as this one turned into two, then three and soon a small flock was dipping and diving, soaring and searching all around a still sleeping Spoilsport.
When my fellow dive buddies were woken by the dulcet tones of our trip director, Kerrin - “Wakey wakey” - it was time for a quick bite to eat and before I knew it, I was kitted up and jumping over the edge, into the blue waters of the Coral Sea, for the very first time.
I was quickly overcome by a sense of calm and quiet. Things seem to move in slow motion when you’re below the surface of the ocean. It’s a pace that allows for the adjustment of consciousness needed to overcome the body and mind’s confusion of breathing underwater. A whole new world opens up beneath you. What you see above is not reflected below! Above is ocean as far as the eye can see. Below is movement, colour, excitement, wonder, life. Coral mountains rose above and dropped below me and, at times, I felt a slight sense of vertigo looking down the sheer walls - I stuck close to the walls for comfort before building up my confidence to hang over the edge.
The scale of this underwater landscape is like nothing I’ve seen before. Sure, I’ve dived on walls and coral *‘bommies’, but this is something else entirely. There are rocky and sandy valleys and caverns between these giant coral mountains, enticing us to explore. Caves hide nudibranch, eels, octopus, turtle and fish and open to shafts of daylight, as you cruise through. Hunters like trevally, tuna and shark patrol the edge of the reef. Schools of snapper, drummer, parrots and wrasse of all types all play about the reef. And all about me butterflies, anthias, sergeants, chromis and damsels dart in and out of the corals at shallower depths, where the sun illuminates the array of colour of these stunning fish. Big stuff, little stuff; hunters and prey. It all happens here, on these remote reefs.
Other sites are slightly less dramatic in scale, but no less impressive in their fish life, bringing schooling barracuda, Napoleon wrasse (Maori or humphead - it has many names) and man-sized potato cods. Out here in the Coral Sea, I saw the biggest Napoleon wrasse I have ever seen. It must have been nearly as big as me! I also saw a large aggregation of this same wrasse that included two large males - not sure what was going on there, I’ve never seen them in such numbers, congregating together. The Napoleon wrasse is an endangered species and also a prized aquarium fish - it’s really in need of protection, and while the remoteness of these reefs provide some security, there’s no guarantee of absolute safety.
Even in this remote area, away from human activities, such as farming and industrialisation, there was some evidence of damage to corals on some of the sites - maybe bleaching or storms.
But then, other sites had absolutely pristine coral cover, with only patches of dead or distressed corals. This is a strong indicator of how vulnerable coral reefs are, yet it also shows its resilience. I wonder though, if the reefs in the Coral Sea would be able to withstand added pressures if it’s protection status was reduced. Pressures from activities like commercial fishing, and the pollution that comes with an increase in boat traffic, could have a devastating and lasting impact.
One of the attractions of visiting the Coral Sea is its remoteness and the lack of human activity. This enables the reefs to sustain life and evolve undisturbed for thousands of years. And this is the true value of the Coral Sea, its pristine state. This should be protected.
Taking away the MPA (marine protected area) status will only cause harm and deteriorate the natural value, and surely the short-term gain is nothing compared to losing one of our natural treasures. Once disturbed, these reefs would never be the same.
We can't let the MPA status be removed from this amazing underwater world. Please join me in sending a virtual postcard to key federal politicians to let them know to #PreserveOurReserves.