I could tell something was wrong 90 seconds after jumping into the Coral Sea.
The screen on my iPhone wouldn’t respond. Then it went dark. I had that sinking feeling: The waterproof case I had carefully secured my phone in had failed.
For two months, I had researched Australia’s Great Barrier Reef with my colleagues in Sydney. Now, on Hamilton Island, a jumping-off point for reef visitors, I was ready to snorkel along a section of this amazing and threatened ecosystem. The photos I planned to take would accompany this essay, as well as provide a personal bookend to a project I felt privileged to be part of.
That wasn’t going to happen. So I pushed it out of my mind and did what more than 2 million people do every year: soak in the beauty of the reef. Acres of branching coral stretched beneath me. Giant clams sat perched on reef walls, green turtles swam by. At one point, an enormous school of bigeye barracuda darted beneath me. Here and there, clownfish, the same animals popularized in “Finding Nemo,” nested in anemones.
With my camera dead, I didn’t worry about capturing the moment anywhere other than my memory.
This is part of our series “” on efforts to save one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.
Saving the Great Barrier Reef won’t top everyone’s priorities. That’s fair. The health of its coral is one of a growing and seemingly endless list of important and sometimes competing concerns, like ending hunger, poverty and cancer. As beautiful as it is, the reef is very far away for most people, and its problems can somehow seem less pressing.
Still, being there – and now without any purpose other than appreciating the experience — helped me understand why some people, many of whom my colleagues spoke with for our project “Rebooting the Reef,” had dedicated their lives to raising awareness of it. Richard Vevers quit the ad industry to form The Ocean Agency and document coral reefs using cutting-edge technology. Marine biologist Erika Woolsey splits her life between Australia and California, where she makes of coral that shine light on their complex beauty. Daniel Harrison, a research fellow at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, is so captivated by the reef that he and an American team have proposed : blasting salt water into the clouds so they’ll reflect more sunlight away.
Efforts to make the Great Barrier Reef accessible to everyone through the internet are also important. Already in Sydney, the journey was a (relatively) short 1,000-mile flight for me. If you’re in Europe or North America, it’s more involved and expensive. Flying from London, you could be in the air for almost an entire day. And, oh yeah, it’s another one going back.
If you can’t make it to Australia, the technology that connects us will let you see it. And you won’t have to wriggle into a wetsuit.
David Attenborough’s interactive reef website is among the best. The site’s five chapters take place at different parts of the 1,400-mile expanse, which covers an area the size of Germany. They explain the reef’s ecosystem and how it’s threatened by our activities. It’s filled with spectacular photography and accompanies Attenborough‘s BBC documentary and virtual reality experience.
Google also offers a series of underwater Street View images shot at the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, it’s not the same as swimming over the coral, but the project, conducted with The Ocean Agency’s Vevers, lets you maneuver through spots on the reef and appreciate its otherworldly beauty.
You can also watch “Chasing Coral,” a documentary on the reef featuring Vevers, on Netflix.
We detail other ways to see the Great Barrier Reef from home. In one way or another, they all record the reef’s magic.
I couldn’t capture the moment in digital photos. Instead, I surrendered to the reef’s stately majesty and swam on.
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