ENL 357: Environmental Essay Final
Word count: 1403
The Sad Truth about the Great Barrier Reef
As told by Celine Gomes
I entered the year 2019 with a horrible hangover, a broken heart, and a newly opened credit card. The year prior consisted of several rejections, many of which I did not know how to bounce back from. I was petrified with the realization that I had centered my whole life around somebody only to end up floating adrift, desperately seeking something to ground me. My emotions were erratic. All I wanted was to feel whole again. Feeling lost and unstable in your early 20’s most definitely sounds like a recipe for disaster. In a way, it was. But not in the way you might think.
The silence from my cell phone was driving me insane. It didn’t help that I worked as a security officer on overnight weekend shifts in Boston. The days seemed to drag. I was entering a dark place, as I’m sure many are familiar with, and I needed something to keep me from drowning. That’s when the universe sent a lifeboat my way.
During one of my overnight shifts when I arguably should have been out at some college party, I got a facetime call from my good friend, Beth. Beth was studying abroad in Sydney, Australia. While it was 2 AM here, it was only 6 PM over there.
“Hey, girl!” She exclaimed, clearly intoxicated from the fountain of life.
“Hey!” I said, trying and failing to mimic excitement.
As if she sensed my despair, she said: “So, I have an idea, you ready? Come visit me!”
If I am being completely candid, it didn’t take much to convince me to drop everything and book a roundtrip flight to Australia. I had never been anywhere on that side of the hemisphere and having something to look forward to surely lifted my spirits. My credit card was itching to be used (or I was itching to use it). At that moment, nothing felt more right.
Flash forward to the end of the semester when I boarded my flight less than 12 hours after my last exam. This was the first time I would be traveling alone. Mind you, the flight itself (including the layover) was almost 24 hours long. However, I was prepared. I had my king size Reese’s bars, downloaded Netflix shows, and a diverse music playlist to get me through. I even secured the window seat.
I had quite a bit of time to reflect during the flight (as you can imagine). Instead of wallowing over my sorrows, I started to illustrate a picture of the Great Barrier Reef in my mind. I had to see it, after all, it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Great Barrier Reef was home to one of the most complex natural ecosystems on the Earth. I visualized a body of water stretching out in every direction. Underneath the warm, clear, and calm water, there was a luxurious coral reef so colorful it looked like a giant rainbow had fallen to the ocean floor. The marine life was booming of biodiversity, the fishes swimming in schools so large in numbers that I couldn’t see past them. Although I was very much (reasonably) afraid of bodies of water, my heart began to flutter with excitement. The Reef was the first thing on my itinerary.
Sure enough, within a few days of landing in Sydney, Beth and I boarded a domestic flight to Queensland. Three hours later, we caught a taxi from Cairns Airport and made ourselves at home in a hostel near the coast. I remember not being able to sleep that night. It wasn’t because of my broken heart nor because of the strangers that slept just a few feet away from me. Somehow I knew that the next day was going to change my life forever.
We had an early start that morning. Beth whipped us up some avocado toast while I packed the sunscreen, a change of clothing, and our waterproof cameras. A bus picked us up right in front of the hostel and our journey began. The bus brought us right up to the docks. We trailed behind several other families until we found our vessel.
The boat ride was a nightmare. It was far from the smooth sailing I had envisioned on the plane. Instead, the winds were powerful. It created currents so strong, water would crash onto the boat, prohibiting us from getting up from our seats. If someone had told me I had to ride a water rollercoaster before reaching the Great Barrier Reef, I probably would have thought twice about it! The boat fought against the current for what felt like hours. During the ride, instruction videos were playing on how to put on a scuba suit and mask. We reenacted drills on how to decompress once we submerged in the water. My heart was racing.
Finally, the strong currents subsided and the boat came to a stop. We were floating in what felt like the middle of the ocean. There was no land as far as the human eye could see. The ocean stretched out in every direction and for a moment, I didn’t care for my fears. I was ready.
Beth and I put on our scuba gear and headed to the stern (the rear end of the boat). Our instructor taught us a few hand signals, how to clear water from your scuba mask and regulator, and how to descend. He told us we would only be underwater for about 15-20 minutes. Then we saddled on our air tanks and stepped to the edge of the diving platform. We were told to look toward the horizon then take a giant step toward the water. They made it look so easy (of course) but Beth and I managed to replicate their movements. Once in the warm 70-degree water, we held onto a rope that was anchored from the boat to the ocean floor. We pulled our way down, periodically decompressing and reminding ourselves to breathe. Once I got the hang of it, I willed myself to look around. Then I saw the reefs and my eyes widened.
Never before had I seen such an awe-inspiring coral reef. It wasn’t as colorful as I imagined but it was grand nonetheless. The water wasn’t swarming with fish but there was still a great variety. The scuba instructor told us we might see white, brittle and broken, or gray corals that have been covered with bacteria. It was like a whole other world. I remember seeing a lone jellyfish cruising its way straight toward a turtle. That turtle is done for, I thought. As the distance between them closed, I worried more and more for the turtle. Yet, when their paths crossed, it was the turtle who bit the jellyfish! If it wasn’t for my mouthpiece, I surely would have erupted in laughter at my own assumptions. I wanted nothing more than to slow down time so I could take in the beauty of this natural wonder. How amazing it was to witness the only living structure that can be viewed from space. And to think, the coral reef is home to almost 2,000 species of fishes (making up 10% of the world’s fish species) and 25% of all known marine species. At that moment, I remember feeling small, humbled, and a little scared.
Now here comes the sad truth: the coral reef is still unmistakably beautiful, partially vibrant, and vital to this day. And the Great Barrier Reef is still dying at an alarming rate. According to NY Times reporter, Damien Cave, rising temperatures are exponentially bleaching the reefs. The ocean continues to absorb the heat from the greenhouse gases that humans release into the atmosphere. In fact, 2019 was recorded to be the hottest year on record for the world’s oceans. Climate change has proven to be cataclysmic for the coral reef. As we continue to lose the reef, marine life will, too, become endangered.
If anyone still has doubts about climate change, I would strongly recommend a deep dive (whether physically or virtually) into the Great Barrier Reef. Its prehistoric structure has been sustaining both human and animal life for centuries. Without the reefs, the surrounding human civilizations will surely find themselves with a humanitarian crisis. Before this trip, I thought my life, as I knew it, was over. As it turns out, I was right.