Could you believe that the Great Barrier Reef did not have a single reef restoration organization or charity until 2016? Neither could I, nor the incredible individuals who started Reef Restoration Foundation in November of that year.
The Great Barrier Reef is known worldwide as the largest living ecosystem in the world and is comprised of more than 32,000 individual reefs. In Queensland alone, over 64,000 jobs depend on it and the tourism brings in over $6.4 billion dollars annually.
Unfortunately, all of this is in danger due to climate change. The increasing sea temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution will have severe impacts on fragile coral.
What is the Reef Restoration Foundation’s goal?
The Reef Restoration Foundation aims to plant 1 million corals back on the reef by the year 2026. They are choosing to bleach resistant mother corals, breaking off parts and encouraging them to reproduce asexually. They do this by planting coral trees in stable conditioned areas, then monitoring the growth, cleaning them of extra algae and out planting them.
How do they plan to achieve this?
Through working with tourism operators, they hope to bring in many more trees to heavily utilised diving sites on the Great Barrier Reef. The fragments which grow into a sufficient size can then be taken and outplanted to these high-value tourist areas.
How do you regrow coral?
The way Reef Restoration Foundation regrow coral is by taking “mother” corals which have successfully withstood bleaching events. This suggests they have some form of resilience to bleaching, and therefore would be beneficial to have it’s “offspring” or “clones” repopulate damaged reefs.
Fragments from this mother coral are taken, and hung up on thin plastic lines on ‘Trees’ made out of PVC piping. These trees are designed in a way that allow the maximum amount of corals to be hung in the water column.
After around 4-6 months, depending on the growth, these fragments could have grown sufficiently to be able to be outplanted onto a damaged section of the reef.
Divers take these baby corals and take them to a damaged part of the reef, where they outplant them by either attaching them to metal rods with string or zipties or secure them down with a cement mixture.
Why use coral nursery trees?
The trees are used to the corals are kept safely above the ground, where they are potentially in the danger of being attacked by Crown of Thorns starfish. Hanging in mid water also allows them a greater surface area to be in the current, therefore have more possibility to capture nutrients for growth. Not having competition also means they can spend their energy on growing quickly, which is the goal of these setups.
What volunteering jobs do you do with Reef Restoration Foundation?
Depending on the trip that you do to Fitzroy Island and your experience level, you might be given one of the following jobs.
Cleaning the Coral Nursery Trees
Algae attach itself to the tree branches and threaten to overtake the baby corals. For this reason, volunteers spend time in removing this alga to give the coral the best chance of survival.
Monitoring the growth and health of coral
Another job is going around the trees with a clipboard and measuring the growth of the coral fragments. You will be on the lookout for the change from the previous measurements, as well as writing down the health of the coral. Are any of the coral fragments sick? Is any experiencing bleaching? It will be your job to gather the data and report back to the group leader.
Restocking the trees
Whether it is because a coral fragment died, got lost, or got planted, sometimes the trees need restocking with new small coral fragments. In this job, it will be up to you to fragment the mother coral and attach the small, new pieces onto the plastic threads onto the trees.
Out-planting Coral (being a coral gardener)
This job entails collecting coral which is ready to be planted from the coral nursery and then taking them to a designated dive site. There you will find an appropriate rock, rubble, or dead section of the reef and begin planting the coral. You will either use a combination of metal pegs and zip ties, or a mixture of cement to attach the coral to the substrate.
What does a day with Reef Restoration Foundation look like?
7:30 – Meet with the fellow volunteers and dive leader at the Cairns Marina.
8:00 – Take the Fitzroy Flyer to Fitzroy Island. This boat trip lasts 45 minutes and can get a little rough so take your sea sickness medication.
8:45 – Arrive at Fitzroy Island and bring your equipment to the Fitzroy Dive Center.
9:00 – Listen to a briefing from the dive supervisor. Here you will learn what the day’s goal is. On the day I went out with them, we were to clean the coral trees from algae, note the growth progression of the growth and see if any of the corals had developed diseases or bleaching.
10:30 – Begin gearing up. Every diver should bring their own equipment including safety sausage, gloves, stinger suit.
11:45 – Get on the boat and head out to the dive site.
12:00 – Enter the water for your first dive. In your buddy teams, you will be cleaning the coral trees with bamboo toothbrushes off the invasive algae.
13:00 – Finish first dive, switch over your tanks and eat lunch during your surface interval.
14:00 – Jump into the water for the second dive.
15:00 – Get out of the water, clean your gear in fresh water.
15:30 – Debrief the dive and tell your dive leader the information you have gathered. This is when the data about coral health is transferred into the database.
17:00 – You and the other volunteers will take the 5pm ferry back to Cairns.
If you do wish to volunteer with the reef restoration foundation, there are a few prerequisites you must meet.
- 18 years of age.
- Minimum of 50 dives
- Scuba certification equivalent of a PADI Rescue Diver or above.
- Be available and passionate to give your time to reef restoration
Unlike many volunteer opportunities worldwide, this is one you do not have to pay for. The Reef Restoration is lucky to receive support from NAB, Fitzroy Island Resort and other partners.