Climate Witness: John Rumney, Australia
I arrived in Far North Queensland over 30 years ago, keen to explore the majesty and wonder of the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef is probably my heart and soul. I left the States to come here to explore it – and I’m still totally fascinated by it.
When I first arrived in Port Douglas I spent many years fishing and diving on the Reef; spending weeks at a time at sea with my wife Linda and eventually with my young family. Overtime I started noticing that my idea of the Great Barrier Reef as a pristine wonderland didn’t match with what I was observing. Once I started to notice there were less and less fish then I changed my life more and more.
Getting researchers out to the reef
In the early 1980s the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority chartered my commercial fishing and charter vessel to study what was the state of the newly formed Marine Park. Having the different researchers on board opened my eyes to the lack of funds and access to remote reefs for research and the excitement and wonder of the reef. The concept of harnessing the adventure diving dollar to fund research was born.
In 1995 I embarked on a journey to fulfil my youthful dreams when I joined forces with Rino and Diana Grollo to start ‘Undersea Explorer’. The vision of the Undersea Explorer was to create a “new Calypso,” where adventure divers could join researchers for unique and heightened reef experiences. While the adventure diving for the tourist is a priority, the Undersea Explorer provides funding for a multitude of research projects, access to key reef areas and employment and support for marine scientists and students.
My business has flourished and the vessel has provided an important base for research into shark biology, dwarf minke whale biology and human / whale interactions, water quality, florescent corals, bio-erosion as well as the elusive nautilus.
Uncertain future for the reef and the communities that it supports Despite my success in assisting with environmental reef management issues like water quality protection plan and the rezoning of protected areas on the Great Barrier Reef from 4.5 % to 33%, I am still very concerned about the future; not only for the Reef, but for the community in which I live and the landscape around my home.
My initial concern about declining fish numbers has spread to the damage caused by nutrient-rich farm run-off on the Reef’s inshore areas. However what worries me the most is the threat of coral bleaching caused by global warming. Seeing a bleached reef for the first time is a ghostly experience. A seemingly healthy vibrant and colourful reef can go to a bleached wasteland within a week or two.
Aside from my concern about the impacts on the health of the Reef, my thoughts turned to the impacts that coral bleaching may have on my business and community. The first time I saw bleaching as distinctly different from Crown of Thorns feeding scars was about 8 years ago and now it’s common.
In 2009 we were on alert for what was expected to be a major bleaching event after a very hot year, but in the end, the severity of cyclone Hamish in 2008, changed currents and brought cooler water from underneath thereby averting a major bleaching disaster. The cyclone definitely destroyed a lot of coral but we were relieved that it forestalled a major bleaching event.
In addition, pressures on coral reefs by local influences like declining water quality which triggers outbreaks of coral predators like the Crown of Thorns Starfish, can potentially make the impacts of climate change much worse. I have lost about 10 % of my dive sites to Crown of Thorns and bleaching in the past 6 years and I know what’s happened in the Caribbean and the Maldives – if that happens here – what will we show the guests?
Acidification of the Ocean killing corals
In 2008 I became aware of a new threat to the reef when I learned about the problem of acidification. Due to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide and becoming more acidic. This then inhibits corals from forming skeletons.
We have all been so concerned about coral bleaching and Crown of Thorns predators but that may be nothing compared to the threat of acidification.
The impact on tourism will be massive
We’re very lucky here in Port Douglas – we have the World heritage rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef…but everyone comes here because it’s nature tourism… to connect with nature… if we don’t have a healthy environment to show these people they will become removed from the natural word they depend on, and end up going to Disneyland.
With tourism in the Great Barrier Reef catchments producing revenue of about $5.5 billion annually and employing over 60,000 people, I have good reason to be worried.
We must listen to the thousands of climate scientists and look into our hearts for what is obviously the truth and take corrective steps to adjust our behaviour.
Watch this short documentary about the climate change impacts that John Rumney has observed on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the action he is taking to reduce his carbon footprint.
Scientific reviewReviewed by: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Centre for Marine Studies, University of Queensland, Australia
John Rumney has provided a balanced account of the experiences that people all over the world are having when it comes to coral bleaching, rising sea temperatures and climate change. In recent years, tourist operators like John Rumney (who visit the Great Barrier Reef almost daily) have experienced a steady deterioration of the key resource underlying their businesses.
Mass coral bleaching events have occurred six times across the entire Great Barrier Reef. In each of these episodes, up to 60% of all coral reefs have been affected within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The underlying driver for these bleaching events has been elevated sea temperatures that are increasing at rates which are 100 times faster than any time over the past 740,000 years (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007, Science Magazine, December 2007).
John has also linked local factors to the decline in the health of coral reefs. His mention of the Crown of Thorns Starfish, which is probably driven more by local factors like elevated nutrient levels, emphasises the synergistic links that we are now finding between local and global factors. Basically, coral reefs are affected by local factors have a much lower chance of bouncing back from global climate change caused events such as mass coral bleaching.
A recent summary of the problems facing coral reefs can be found in the science review article ‘Coral Reefs under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification’ (reference below). It highlights the important relationship between global warming and ocean acidification – “the silent killer of coral reefs”. It is unlikely to be seen on a day-to-day basis by tour operators such as John Rumney. However, changes in ocean acidity may eventually extinguish coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef and prevent their return for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years.
- Bellwood, D.R., Hughes, T.P., Folke, C., and Nystrom, M. (2004). Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429, 827-833
- Bruno JF, Selig ER (2007) Regional Decline of Coral Cover in the Indo-Pacific: Timing, Extent, and Subregional Comparisons. PLoS ONE 2(8): e711 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000711
- Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Mumby, P.J., Hooten, A. J., Steneck, R.S., Greenfield, P., Gomez, E., Harvell D. R, Sale, P.F., Edwards, A.J., Caldeira, K., Knowlton, N., Eakin, C. M., Iglesias-Prieto, R., Muthiga, N., Bradbury, R.H., Dubi, A., and Hatziolos, M. E., (2007) Coral Reefs under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification. Science 318: 1737-1742
All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.