Wanted, urgent: Next-Gen Jacque Cousteaus to be our tour guides to Planet Ocean!

Tony Fontes

As my Australian diver friend Valerie used to say, the trouble with many of us land-lubbers is that we have ‘no idea what’s going on in the sea that covers three quarters of our planet’.

Yet what we do – and don’t do – affects the fate of the sea and all its creatures and systems. That’s a big problem.

Take, for example, roral reefs. Among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet, they are sometimes called rainforests of the sea. And these rich and colourful habitats are now under siege from multiple pressures, ranging from indiscriminate fishing and tourism practices to global warming.

Yet, the coral reefs haven’t attracted the same kind of public concern and outcry as has the destruction of tropical rainforests. How come?

Is this a case of out of sight and out of mind for a majority of the world’s land-lubbers? This is what I asked Australian diver Tony Fontes, who has been a diver and dive instructor for 30 years, much of it at the largest reef of all – the Great Barrier Reef off the north-eastern coast of Australia.

“It sure is – and ideally, everyone should become a diver, so we can all see and feel the wonders of the reef,” he replied.

He added: “At a minimum, we have to do lots of awareness raising. This is why we need to bring back Jacques-Yves Cousteau!”

Tony was engaging journalists at the 7th Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held in Viterbo, Italy, from 25 – 29 November 2009.

This year’s theme is ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’, and Tony was one of 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled to the central Italian city from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change. Climate Witness is a global programme by WWF International to enable grassroots people to share their story of how climate change affects their lives and what they are doing to maintain a clean and healthy environment. All Climate Witness stories have been authenticated by independent scientists.

Great Barrier Reef: A planetary treasure under siege

Tony lives and works in Airlie Beach (Whitsundays) in Queensland, Australia. It’s a small seaside community right in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Most of his time is spent underwater on training dives – he has clocked over 10,000 hours of professional diving. He generally dives many of the same sites over and over again.

This long and deep immersion in the marine realm gives him uncommon insights into the state of the reef – and it’s not a healthy or pretty picture.

He says: “Through personal observations as well as those by other divers, I have noted changes to the (marine) environment hat are most likely climate induced.”

Increase in coral bleaching is the most noticeable change. From a rare occurrence in the 1980s, it went on to become a regular summer event by the mid 1990s. The past decade has witnessed the largest coral bleaching events on record. And unlike in the past, these have led to large scale coral death and decay.

“Many popular dive sites have lost their lustre due to coral bleaching,” he says, pointing out that the reefs need up to 10 years to fully recover.

He adds: “However, with more bleaching events occurring every year, I wonder if the reefs will ever recover. Without the postcard reef scenes, many visitors are disappointed in their reef experience and are not likely to return.”

It’s not just warmer seas that affects the Great Barrier Reef. Occasional outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, marine pests who eat up the healthy reef, add pressure on the reef. In recent years, scientists have identified another threat – sediments, fertilisers and pesticides from agricultural run-off. This was investigated in Sally Ingleton’s 2003 film, Muddy Waters: Life and Death on the Great Barrier Reef.

Listening to Tony reminded me of Muddy Waters, which journeys to the sugarcane plantations of northern Queensland and into an underwater world to find out what’s killing the reef and what can be done to save it. I was on the international jury of Japan Wildlife Film Festival 2003 when we voted it for the Best Environment and Conservation Award.

“It’s hard to get farmers to change their ways,” says Tony, who works with three local initiatives aimed at reef conservation and related educational outreach. This includes Project AWARE, a non-profit environmental organisation that encourages divers to take action and protect the environment.

The clown fish who moved the world
Global warming now threatens to nullify all these efforts. “If the coral reefs of the world are to survive, we cannot afford the predicted 2 – 3 degree increase in ocean temperature. But we also need to…reduce all impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. This would include improving the water quality of the reef.”

Tony comes across as a man of few, carefully chosen words. His answers are brief and precise. But his passion for the reef and the ocean is clearly evident.

He had a simple, emphatic message to the world’s leaders and activists meeting soon in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Summit: “How are we going to explain to our children and their children that we lost the Great Barrier Reef?”

Perhaps we need not only the next generation of Jacques Cousteaus, but also every kind of communicator who can take the marine conservation messages through factual and entertainment media formats. It’s encouraging to note that Finding Nemo, the 2003 Disney-Pixar animation movie set in the Great Barrier Reef, is the highest selling DVD of all time – more than 40 million copies, and counting.

WWF Australia backgrounder on the Great Barrier Reef