Reef Encounter – An expedition to the Great Barrier Reef aboard a superyacht

31 May 2023

When it comes to putting your body on the line for the environment, glueing bits of it to the road is very much at the cussing edge (as stranded motorists scream at you) while sipping cocktails in a hot tub atop a 35-metre superyacht between delectable dives on the Great Barrier Reef is an infinitely more palatable approach.

There is still risk, of course, because some of us became so addicted to taking part in “Citizen Science” on board Beluga, a Port Douglas-based mega yacht normally chartered out for $22,500 a day, that we threatened to glue ourselves to the deck when it was time to leave.

Our chance to save the world one Martini at a time came thanks to Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a whole new kind of charity that is attempting to tackle a problem of almost incomprehensible scale.

Yes, we know the world’s most iconic reef (and they’re all important; coral reefs cover less than one per cent of the ocean floor yet host 25 per cent of all estimated marine life) is having issues, with both coral-bleaching events and attacks by the violently virulent crown-of-thorns starfish, but the fact is we don’t have the whole picture.

That’s because the Great Barrier Reef is even bigger than you think – larger than Italy and roughly the size of Germany, and made up of more than 3000 reefs, strung along 2300 kilometres of coast line.

Clockwise from top: on board express day cruiser, Minke; Citizens recruits below deck and surveying the reef.

“What came out was a need to do broad-scale reconnaissance, to help us identify key-source reefs and a vision of what’s happening.”

Given its scale, it’s not surprising that we only manage to survey about five per cent of it in any given year, but it’s still a shock to hear that 40 per cent of it has never been surveyed, according to Andy Ridley, who founded Citizens in 2017, having previously been the man behind the creation of Earth Hour at the WWF (launched in Sydney in 2007, its lights-off message has since spread to more than 5000 cities around the world).

Ridley, a lifelong conservationist who’s as overflowing with ideas as he is enthusiasm, attended a crisis meeting in Cairns after the back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017.

“What came out of that was a need to do broad-scale reconnaissance, to help us identify key-source reefs – the healthy ones that can reboot those around them – and to get a vision of what’s happening on a yearly basis,” Ridley explains.

“The hardest thing about that is getting boat time, it’s very expensive, and it’s hard to get people to do it, so how do you build a billion-dollar research program when you don’t have a billion dollars? You use everyone else’s boats, and everyone else’s time.

“So we came up with the idea of building a motley flotilla of vessels to survey as much of the Reef as possible, everything from tug boats to super yachts.”

Ridley could have been a hell of a salesman, because he really can talk people into anything, which is how he and his team, plus Mark LaBrooy – conservationist, chef and co-founder of Three Blue Ducks – and your correspondent found themselves on Beluga, our every need catered to by its seven full-time staff, including chef Steph Cormack, who impressed us all on a thrice-daily basis.

Also on board were angel investor, devoted diver and climate warrior Sandrina Postorino, and her husband, BRW Rich Lister Chris Ellis, the owners of Beluga, who were donating some very valuable boat time to the cause.

We were all taking part in the final stages of Citizens’ master work, the Great Reef Census 3. The first two – in 2020 and 2021 – covered more than 430 reefs, utilising 95 boats, and produced 59,000 images between them (all uploaded to the web, where they were analysed by scientists, with the help of an AI program developed, for free, by Dell). These images are used to expand our knowledge of the Reef’s health, and to guide the boats – which are sent out to inject vinegar into the insidious crown-of-thorns starfish – on where to go, and where not to waste their time and money.

The Citizens’ staff are the experts (although they’re not scientists either, this is Citizen Science, meaning anyone can get involved) but why is a celebrity chef here?

LaBrooy gives me a smiling shrug at first, but then leans into his subject.

“One of the biggest influences I can bring to the table with an organisation like the Reef Census is I’m quite connected within the spear-fishing community, I’ve been a spearo for over 25 years, and it turns out that that demographic quite literally have the best eyes on the reef, in the furthest reaches,” he explains.

“We want to go to the areas where there’s a lot of fish activity or shark activity, where regular people won’t go and snorkel, so getting us involved in the Census is going to increase the area it can cover.”

Sandrina Postorino, who very much drove the decision to make Beluga the least motley part of Ridley’s flotilla of free boats, is also passionate about the Census.

“A lot of other groups, they basically portray the Great Barrier as being dead, completely dead, but what Ridley is about is getting a snapshot of what is actually happening,” she enthuses.

Clockwise from above: superyacht Beluga and its tenders; writer Stephen Corby with Citizens’ Nicole Senn, Andy Ridley and chef Mark LaBrooy; and LaBrooy post dive.

“We need to raise awareness, we need to tell people there is a big problem, but at the same time, you have to tell the truth. They are providing data, hard facts. Because at this point, we’ve got no idea. I just see a dead patch somewhere – and I’ve seen the bleaching, corals turning white and then covered in slime, it’s awful – but what did that? Was it agricultural runoff? Was it higher temperatures? Or both?

“We just need a lot more data, and this is a great way to get it.”

From the very first moment we plop ourselves into the glowing, toothpaste-blue and mint-green water, luxuriantly warm at 31 degrees, everyone agrees this is an especially great way to do it, and a lot more fun than any of the science we did at school.

Each of us is armed with a GoPro camera, and we’re split into teams, spread around each new, previously uncharted reef. Our job is to snorkel into the maelstroms of movement and colour, the cornucopias of coral, flashing fish scales, torpedoing turtles and giant clams the size of double beds and simply take one photo every five flipper kicks.

Clockwise from top: Citizens in action; Beluga’s luxury exterior and interior; fresh fruit on board. Opposite, from top: Mark LaBrooy in the kitchen; free diving; and island views.

The five-kick reminder is there so that you don’t forget your job – overcome by awe and wonder – and so that you photograph everything. After the first survey, it became clear that some people were only shooting the good stuff, and not pointing the camera at the broken or dead bits, which are just as important for getting a complete picture (and, we’re happy to report, far less evident than the amazingly alive parts on our trip).

LaBrooy is in his element, free diving and frolicking, occasionally calling for his spear gun.

“You come out into these environments and it’s pure escapism, from the pace of the world that we live in,” he beams. “I’ve been coming up here for years, and now we’re starting to see the influence our world is having on this world. It’s not separate, it’s interconnected, and I think the more you can get people to engage with the environment, the more you turn them into advocates for protecting it.”

Getting people to take part in the Great Reef Census is one way to do that, and Ross Miller – the skipper of Aroona, another boat that’s part of the Citizens’ efforts – says it’s something that increasingly appeals to the people who charter his 22-metre luxury yacht.

“I’ve got these clients who’ve been coming up for years, they’re passionate snorkellers and they used to keep their own records of fish life they’d seen,” Miller says.

“They’re not scientists, they just want to understand the Reef, and they love the Census now. We’re going out with them and finding new reefs and it’s exactly the kind of meaningful tourism a lot of people are looking for these days. It really adds an extra layer to the experience.”

Ocean Alliance is a superyacht company specialising in unique charter experiences. To join a Great Reef Census expedition with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, visit oceanalliance.com

 

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