An innovative Great Barrier Reef eco-project is challenging pre-conceptions about the state of Australia’s natural wonder—and the people who monitor it.
Words Stephen Corby / Photography Damian Bennett
If you picture marine biologists, in particular reef scientists, as those sporting beaded brows and salty sour mouths mumbling dire predictions of demise and death, then you’re doing it wrong.
In fact, you should be picturing ordinary folk looking extraordinarily happy, luxuriating over lychee martinis on the sky deck of a superyacht after a hugely rewarding day of Great Barrier Reef research, citizen scientist style.
But before we discuss how you, too, can help save one of the planet’s most important
ecosystems while enjoying a dreamscape holiday, we need to talk about the Reef and reports of its imminent death.
Yes, there have been mass-bleaching incidents—including two large-scale events in 2016 and 2017—and, while it’s a little more complex than, say, a crop dying because climate change delivered a scorching summer, there’s no doubt these are affairs of acute concern. So too attacks by the “cockroaches of the sea”, crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS).
But the Barrier Reef, our Reef, is the size of Germany, larger than Japan, and is made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching for 2,300 kilometres off our northern coastline—a distance longer than the entire US west coast.
Furthermore, and most strikingly, just five percent of the Great Barrier Reef is regularly surveyed, 40 percent of it never properly examined. Which means we actually don’t really know what’s going on beneath. Not yet.
It’s within this context that amateur scientists come in. And it’s here, within this framework that Robb Report recently joined the Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef team on board the superyacht Beluga—a 35-metre luxury vessel comprising staterooms, top-deck hot tub and seven full-time staff, including a mixologist and chef (gifted to a level that impressed the hard-marker of our team, Mark LaBrooy, chef and co-owner of the respected Three Blue Ducks group).
Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef (CGBR) was built by CEO Andy Ridley. If Ridley’s name rings with certain familiarity it’s because he’s the same man who conceived, and made a global success of, Earth Hour, which now has supporters in 190 countries. He launched CGBR in 2017 to tackle the problem of the Reef’s scale by using what any yachtie will tell you is the best kind of boat—someone else’s.
“After the bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, there was a big crisis meeting in Cairns, and what came out of that was a need to do broad-scale reconnaissance, to help us identity key source reefs—the healthy ones that can reboot those around them—and to get a vision of what’s happening down there on a yearly basis,” explains Ridley. “The hardest thing about that is getting boat time, it’s very expensive. So how do you build a billion-dollar research program when you don’t have a billion dollars? Well, you use everyone else’s boats, and everyone else’s time.”
And so the idea of a motley flotilla of vessels was formed. “To survey as much of the Reef as possible,” says Ridley. “Everything from tug boats to tourist dive boats, to superyachts.”
Ridley makes the idea seem simple, obvious even, but then how do you get people to give their boats, brains and time for free, particularly a boat like Beluga, which charters from $27,000 a day?
This is Ridley’s gift. He’s not just good with ideas (he was originally going to call Earth Hour “The Big Flick”, and the idea was to turn off all the lights in Sydney except those at Prime Minister John Howard’s Kirribilli address; it eventually grew to more than 5,000 cities globally). And while not a scientist, he is a kind of alchemist—capable of taking someone’s interest in conservation and turning it into gold.
Beluga is owned by Sandrina Postorino—an angel investor, environmental warrior and deeply passionate diver—and her husband, Chris Ellis, who interestingly, given the mission here, is the co-founderof Excel Coal.
When Ridley approached Postorino in 2020 when conducting the first ever Great Reef Census—which involved anyone who wanted to help snapping photos of the Reef and uploading them—she was on board immediately.
“Initially, Chris was very sceptical … There’s a lot of other groups that basically portray the Great Barrier Reef as being dead, completely dead, and so he said, ‘I’m going to get even less charters by participating’,” recalls Postorino.
“But once he started talking to me, he realised Andy was not like that, that the idea was to get a snapshot of what is actually happening, establishing a baseline, so it wasn’t biased one way or the other. So he sort of reluctantly agreed to it.”
Postorino says that if it was solely her decision, she’d lend their stunning superyacht for more than half of every year: “We need to raise awareness. You need to tell people that there’s a big problem, but we also need more data, and in that way I think Citizens is very good at keeping a balance and providing hard facts.”
That involvement led to Beluga winning BOAT International’s Ocean Awards “Yacht of the Year”, which recognises vessels, and their owners, that demonstrate a commitment to ocean conservation.
“How do you build a billion-dollar research program when you don’t have a billion dollars? Well, you use everyone else’s boats and everyone else’s time.”
Clockwise from left Beluga has won awards for its work in ocean conservation; Mark LaBrooy and Citizens CEO Andy Ridley search for suitable reefs to survey; Robb Report’s Stephen Corby talks to Citizens recruit Nicole Senn, with Ridley and LaBrooy.
The initial Great Reef Census surveyed 115 reefs using Beluga and 30 other boats,
and produced 14,000 images. Census 2, in 2021, used 65 boats to cover 315 reefs and produced more than 45,000 digital photos.
Once again, Ridley was faced with the problem of scale—experts had worked extremely hard to get through the initial batch of images, using them to make maps of where the Reef was struggling, flourishing or under attack from COTS, but the data had now exploded.
Technology and computing outfit Dell was talked into developing an AI program that could do image analysis—with 90 percent accuracy. To check that data, the Citizens project then enlisted school children, running a program held across six schools in Queensland and one in NSW where students were given iPads and asked to analyse the imagery.
“We were expecting each kid to do maybe five images, but we had 350 students involved and they just blew us away, as they analysed more than 24,000 images—one kid did 920 on his own,” says Ridley.
“The headmaster at Cairns High went into the detention room and found kids doing reef analysis, and not as a punishment, but because they loved it.”
Moves are under way to take the school program global, even though the AI is constantly getting better at its job, having been fed more than 60,000 new images from Reef Census 3 (covering more than 630 reefs, using 95 boats).
We joined the team on Beluga for the final three days of surveying of that Census, across some previously uncharted reefs a few hours’ out of Port Douglas.
After sitting through a PowerPoint presentation about Citizens (during which we all tried hard not to be distracted by either the aquatic views or the fact that we were sitting in a superyacht lounge more often found within a Point Piper mansion), the Census process and our part in it—point GoPro camera at coral, shoot, repeat every five fin kicks until you have 30 photos—we are shown on a map how our teams will survey four sides of each reef to get as full a picture as possible.
It’s all starting to feel a bit like work, or at least the kind of industrious science you might have done at school—until we hit the Swift boats. Here, the idea that the experience will be in any way arduous evaporates like the salt spray on your face as you zip low across water that’s as impossibly blue as a 7-Eleven slushie.
Lighting the horizon with a sub-surface glow are the reefs we’re here to investigate.
Only five percent of the Reef is regularly surveyed; 40 percent is never properly examined.
The transition moment—as your mask splashes into the water—feels like seeing for the first time after being blindfolded for a week. The broiling blue surface turns to inky green, streaked with sunbeams, lighting up a world that feels like Shinjuku Station for fish. The coral itself is a feast of shape, texture and wafting wonder, but it’s the living things that are the burning stars in this damp universe, proliferating in such numbers and variation as to dazzle both your brain and camera.
The “five fin flips” rule had to be introduced after the first Census when it became obvious that people were just taking photos of all the exciting things they saw, rather than shooting a whole area, be it good or bad.
Across our 15 dives we saw some spectacularly alive reefs, some disturbingly patchy ones and a few that looked like those empty enclosures at zoos sporting signs that read: ‘this environment is being reimagined”. Overall, however, the Reef looked and felt like a vast bounty of wonder—something we really should do everything we can to protect.
It’s something that Mark LaBrooy—a keen spear fisherman who can do incredible things with a given catch—is passionate about. “You come out into these environments and it’s pure escapism from the pace of the world that we live in. And I’ve been coming up here for years, and now you’re starting to see that our world is having an influence on this world, it’s not separate, it’s interconnected,” says LaBrooy.
“In my time, I’ve seen areas of the reef die and coral bleaching, I’ve seen those big graveyards of coral. So I love what Citizens is doing, it’s so community focused, and I think the more you can showcase and engage with your environment, the more you turn people into advocates for protecting it.”
Another Reef regular who’s passionate about the need for more research is Ross Miller, the skipper of Aroona, another yacht that’s repeatedly donated its time and resources to Citizens and the Census.
“We’ve definitely lost reef in some areas but there’s also a lot of regrowth in other areas,” offers Miller. “So it’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to explain in a newspaper article, which is why they often miss the mark.”
Miller and Aroona—a 22-metre vessel operating out of Yorkey’s Knob, Far North Queensland—have been traversing and touring these waters for two decades. “We’re always exploring new reefs but now we’re not just doing it to see what it’s like, through the Census we’re doing research for the scientists that help manage it.
“I’ve got some clients who’ve been coming up here for six years, they’re not scientists but they’re just passionate about understanding the Reef and they’ve come up to be part of the Census for the past two years, and probably 90 percent of the new sites we went to were looking fantastic.”
Miller adds that many of his clients are now also involved.
“They feel like they don’t want to be just on holiday, they want to be supporting something, it’s this kind of ‘meaningful tourism’ that really adds an extra layer to their experience.”
Andy Ridley, of course, will take whatever help he can get as he continues to chip away at a job that seems almost implausibly large and impossibly important.
“I think our greatest achievement so far has been that we’ve become hugely helpful in guiding the COTS boats on where to go. There are about a dozen of them, funded by various agencies, and they go out diving and inject the COTS with vinegar to kill them. It’s a tough job because they’re like the cockroaches of the sea, so hard to kill, and just bump a bit off and it will fall to the bottom and regenerate into a whole new starfish,” he explains.
“In the past, those boats were going out and surveying, trying to find the COTS. Now we can tell them the areas they don’t need to look in and save an enormous amount of time and money.”
As a life-long conservationist with a restless mind, Ridley is also looking beyond Citizens to what the model he’s established could achieve elsewhere.
“The way we look at it, it’s almost a pilot project for how we could do massively scaled-up conservation, with a big reliance on technology and an even bigger reliance on people giving their time,” he says. “What conservation has historically done is said, ‘give us your money and we’ll go and do it’. This model is different, it still needs money but not as much, it’s more about ‘we want your time, and we want your brain and we’d like your boat’.
“So our list of demands is quite high, but people seem to want to be more legitimately part of the effort, rather than just handing over cash.”
“What conservation has historically done is said, ‘give us your money and we’ll go and do it’. This model is different.”
Clockwise from left LaBrooy being taken out on a Swift boat; Robb Report participated in 15 dives across three days; one of many contemplative moments on the Reef.