While Passion Passport seeks to bridge communities and expand experience through travel, we’re aware that adventuring to far-off places can leave quite the carbon footprint. Our Sustainable Travel Series celebrates eco-travelers, low-impact ways of living, and explorations that honor both people and places. We hope it inspires you to travel with the environment in mind.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world. But, in recent decades, coral bleaching, terrestrial runoff, and a host of other problems have threatened its survival. Enter Great Barrier Reef Legacy, Australia’s only independent research vessel, seeking to provide scientists with free access to the world’s largest reef. We caught up with team member Christine Roper to learn a little more about the initiative.

How did Great Barrier Reef Legacy come about?

Our director, John Rumney, started conservation initiatives for the Great Barrier Reef in the ’90s with the formation of the Low Isles Preservation Society. He also pioneered the science-tourism model — in which tourism dollars are used to fund research projects — with the Undersea Explorer. Through many other initiatives promoting community engagement and education, including partnerships with the Great Barrier Reef management authorities, it became clear that access to the reef made a significant difference. Even with all these efforts, reef health continued to decline due to poor water quality, invasive predators, and climate change. John knew there needed to be a tax-deductible institute to overcome the inaction and address the reef’s declining health.

As a result, he and his wife, Linda Rumney, along with a group of passionate volunteers, founded Great Barrier Reef Legacy in 2012. Through this non-profit organization, donations fund research, immersive education, engaging multimedia, and innovative solutions. This framework connects communities with the reef to help preserve it into the future.

3 men standing side-by-side holding coral
John Rumney (GBR Legacy), Charlie Veron (Coral ID Expert), and Dean Miller (GBR Legacy)

What exactly is Great Barrier Reef Legacy’s mission?

Great Barrier Reef Legacy is changing the way our reef is understood and protected by operating the only independent research vessel on the Great Barrier Reef. Access to the reef is often very difficult and expensive for researchers to obtain. With philanthropic, corporate, and private funding to overcome this obstacle, we’re providing a floating laboratory for researchers and innovators, an immersive classroom experience for the next generation of reef guardians, and a multimedia platform to raise awareness. This multimedia element is vital, allowing us to provide better education and communicate directly with a global audience regarding the challenges the reef faces and the importance of saving coral reefs worldwide.

Yacht out on the open water
MY Flying Fish, luxury yacht — supplied by Northern Escape Collection and converted to a research vessel for this expedition

Can you tell us a little more about the potential impact of further damage to the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the world, probably best known internationally for its beautiful coral and marine life. However, it offers much more than just its intrinsic beauty. It also provides crucial services to humanity. Protection from storms, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and novel medical treatments are just a few of the services that make this reef so important. If this system were to die, we would lose these critical services, along with large-scale losses in biodiversity and declines in our fisheries.

What are some of the most worrisome challenges currently facing the Great Barrier Reef? Could you give us a Marine Biology 101 description of each of those challenges?

The single biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef is climate change, which is causing an increase in ocean temperatures. Corals are animals, and like us, they require a relatively steady temperature. As a result of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide warming our planet, our oceans are also getting warmer, stressing our reef ecosystems. When temperatures vary outside of the suitable range for corals, they lose the symbiotic plants (algae) living inside their tissue, which supply most corals with over 95 percent of their food. This phenomenon, known as coral bleaching, causes the corals to starve, which can ultimately lead to death if temperatures don’t return to normal ranges within a certain time.

Woman scuba diving and examining coral
Christine Roper using Coral Watch slate to assess the health of coral

Meanwhile, the Great Barrier Reef is facing other stressors, including poor water quality, pollution, and invasive predators. One of the most recognized threats to our reefs is terrestrial runoff from cities and agricultural land, which contains high levels of nutrients and toxins. These chemicals can result in disease outbreaks and algae blooms, where large seaweeds can block sunlight and smother the coral. Improving water quality by reducing land-based fertilizer and heavy metal runoff is a crucial action and will help our reefs be that much more resilient against other impacts, such as climate change.

How has Great Barrier Reef Legacy helped researchers learn more about those challenges?

The first photo taken of a new coral species (photo by Zack Rago)

During our first expedition in November last year, we took 10 leading marine scientists to the remote, far-northern section of the Great Barrier Reef in order to investigate how it fared during the 2016 and 2017 mass bleaching events. One of the most exciting outcomes from this trip was the discovery of a new coral species by Dr. Charlie Veron, “the godfather of coral.” On top of this, scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Technology Sydney identified and collected coral species, termed “super corals,” that were found to be particularly hardy and that had survived multiple bleaching events. Researchers also discovered the most diverse site of branching corals ever found on the Great Barrier Reef, and Dr. Charlie Veron has since called for a greater understanding and preservation of this site to protect its genetic store.

Man scuba diving examining coral
Neal Cantin (AIMS) collecting a sample of a newly discovered coral species

What are a few of the bright spots on the Great Barrier Reef’s horizon?

Although rising temperatures are causing massive coral bleaching events, some species of corals are also proving their ability to adapt to these changes. Referred to as “super corals,” these hardy species are more tolerant to stressors such as bleaching events and disease, and they are providing hope for the survival of corals and coral reefs in the future. Recently, many institutions have been investigating the traits that make these corals so strong, as well as looking for ways to pass those genes on to future generations of corals.

Man scuba diving and examining coral
Neal Cantin collecting Acropora

What’s next for Great Barrier Reef Legacy?

We are constantly working toward our ultimate goal of running a full-time, independent research vessel on the Great Barrier Reef. While we continue raising funds for this objective, we are reaching out to environmental organizations, educators, and innovative scientists and research institutes in order to solidify new partnerships. These relationships further the collective goal of saving our reefs. Keep an eye on our website and Facebook page for an exciting announcement that will be released in the very near future.

Last, but not least, what can ordinary people do to help the Great Barrier Reef?

Get involved! The best thing that people can do is to become an advocate for our reefs. Joining a club or volunteering are great ways to get involved, but it’s even more important to become educated about threats to our reefs and spread the word far and wide! There are also simple, everyday changes that can be made, such as recycling, saying no to single-use plastics (grocery bags, straws, coffee cups, etc.), and taking initiatives to reduce your carbon footprint. Together, all of those small changes help the Great Barrier Reef in a big way.

For further information on how to help the reef, see GBR’s website.

Header image by Yanguang Lan

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.