Shark humor has its time and place, but not when I’m snorkeling somewhere called Shark Bay. At the Heron Island Research Station, a laboratory on the teardrop-shaped atoll 45 miles (72 km) off Australia’s east coast, the suntanned, chirpy station manager gives a parting wave to the three students who are taking me out for my first look at the legendary corals of the Great Barrier Reef. “Just don’t get eaten, will you?” she says. Ha-ha. Happily, there are no sharks in Shark Bay that morning; in fact, there’s not a whole lot of anything. As I follow the students’ snorkels, we pass over circular beds of brown, monochromatic coral and empty expanses of rippled sand. A handful of small, glimmering fish hover in the water column, but they’re the only life we see during an hour-long swim. Where are the schools of coral trout? The famed Maori wrasse? Wading back to shore, one of the students shrugs: “Sorry there wasn’t more.”
Up in the Air
Above the clear water off Heron Island, a single windmill whirs in the breeze, its legs anchored in the shallows while it sends power to a tangle of computers and carefully looped cables perched on floats a few feet away. The computers are measuring, among other things, the pH levels of the water flowing through four plastic chambers mounted on the reef. The information gathered at this lab could give the world a clue as to what’s in store for the Great Barrier Reef — and the other 90% of the world’s corals. The makeshift station is the first experiment to measure how coral responds in its natural environment to ocean acidification, widely thought to be one of the biggest threats today to marine environments. Oceans absorb about half of the carbon dioxide humans produce, and while that helps lessen the effect of fossil-fuel emissions on the atmosphere, it also causes a reaction that makes seawater more acidic.
Continue reading ‘Testing the waters’