August 27, 2004

Boggling the Mind at the Great Barrier Reef

You can't really go to Australia and not see the Great Barrier Reef. Partly the darn thing is just so huge, running for over 2000 km along Australia's eastern coast. But also you feel like you already know the reef and have to see it for yourself. You've seen it in countless documentaries -- on T.V., in movies, maybe in an IMAX -- is it really that beautiful?

Actually, it's even better than that. It's fantastic. It's unbelievable. It boggles, and also does some other pretty cool things for which there are no words, the mind. It's ... reef-tacular.

It's hard to say what's better about the reef: the fish or the coral itself. Both are otherworldly, painted with a pallette of colours that would make the most experienced Photoshop user dizzy. Call me a geek, but the one thought running through my mind as it tried desperately to grasp with what it was seeing was this: no designer could come up with something this stunning. You could sit down the most talented, creative person with a blank slate and an infinite supply of pizza and ask them to come up with the most visually arresting thing they could think of, and whatever they came up with just wouldn't be able to hold a waterproof candle to the reef.

In any case, the reef is simply something else. If you want to see it, though, you might want to get there soon. Sadly, the largest living organism in the world is slowly dying, a victim of human impact and coral bleaching widely believed to be exacerbated by climate change. The most dire predictions see the reef ceasing to exist -- as we know it today, teeming with such a bewildering array of life -- within 15-50 years.

We were lucky enough to have two reef encounters out on the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs (the Great Barrier Reef is really a reef system). The Agincourt reefs are part of the "outer reef," which is closest to the mainland in the more northerly parts of Queensland (both our trips therefore left from Port Douglas, not Cairns). Our tour operator was Quicksilver, allegedly the only company that can reach the outer reef in a day trip using its fast catamarans. The first time Miriam and I went alone, and I tried my first ever scuba dive -- very cool! The second time we went with Miriam's parents who were visiting.

Some of the highlights included various types of parrotfish (which nibble audibly on the coral; see also here, here and here) and the Moorish Idol (my personal favourite fish), giant clams, and the brain and staghorn coral. We also spotted some bigger fish, including barracuda and a whitetip reef shark. And yes, we saw a "Nemo". Several, in fact. They really were sheltering in the anemone. And there's nothing like having your magical underwater experience appropriated by a terrible blockbuster movie.

Exploring the ribbon reefs was fun -- an endless series of nooks and crannies to survey and the ability to move fluidly in almost any direction. While many of the individual fish and types of coral were fascinating, the really phenomenal thing about the reef is the overall diversity and quantity of fish. When you're in a good patch of coral, you can't turn in any direction without seeing an icthyological feast for the eyes. At one point near the end of our second reef trip, Miriam and I were swimming away from the ribbon reef towards the boat when we stopped to communicate and clear our masks above water. When we went back under, we had been surrounded -- in 360 degrees -- by a massive school of tiny fish that formed a shimmering, whirling pinwheel around us.

It was a fitting end to our time at the reef, where you get dizzy just trying to figure out which way to look.

More photos from the Great Barrier Reef.
More photos from Queensland (coming soon!).

Posted by anatole at 12:38 PM | Comments (4)

August 01, 2004

Valley of the Giants

One of the most interesting things we did in Tasmania was a self-guided tour of The Styx, an old-growth forest in the southwest of Tasmania. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Forestry Tasmania has its way, within a few years The Styx will become a mass of woodchips bound for export markets. If the Wilderness Society has its way, within a few years The Styx will become Valley of the Giants National Park.

The Styx is a forest of extremely old, extremely tall eucalyptus trees. The tallest trees range between 80 and 90 metres tall, not far behind California's giant redwoods. And as with many such old-growth forests, The Styx supports a complex, delicate, and biodiverse ecosystem.

Forestry Tasmania, a government corporation with solid political backing in both of the major Australian parties, has slated a large "coupe" for logging. The coupe is Coupe SX13C, and this is the coupe that we visited.

The Wilderness Society, originally the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, made its name fighting and winning one of the first colossal environmental battles in Tasmania over the proposed damming of the Franklin River in the early 1980s. The Franklin River is now part of Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park and the Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area. Now the Wilderness Society, along with Greenpeace and a host of other organizations, environmentalists, and other supporters, is trying to save Tasmanian old-growth forests that have no national park or world heritage protection: The Styx and, further north, the Tarkine rainforest.

As part of its bid to save The Styx, the Wilderness Society published a booklet that helps you self-tour the forest. It's really quite a clever little booklet. You drive to the beginning of the logging road that runs through The Styx and surrounding forest, zero your trip odometer, and then stop along the road as you reach points of interest marked in the booklet.

The self-drive tour was itself amazing, although driving down the logging road was a little bit harrowing. The self-drive isn't illegal, and the workers we encountered along the way were quite friendly, but you never knew when a huge logging truck was going to come at you around the corner! We got to see areas that had already been clear cut, as well as some of the tallest trees still standing (including what is possibly the world's tallest hardwood). We also had lunch at the Wilderness Society's idyllic picnic spot.


For the record, the Wilderness Society is not against logging. Neither are we, of course. But there are some serious problems with Forestry Tasmania's plans for the state's old-growth forests.

  • First, most of the old growth trees logged in Tasmania are turned into woodchips and exported. You don't need old growth wood to make woodchips. And for all the forestry industry's fear-mongering about job losses if environmentalists have their way, woodchip production does not create a lot of jobs (nor very high quality jobs). The environmental groups fighting the logging plan argue that woodchip demand can be fulfilled through plantations and have employment plans for laid-off loggers, through a mix that includes tourism and higher-value forestry-related jobs.

  • Tasmanian forest clear-cutting is a particularly brutal form of clear-cutting. After all the trees are cut down, the clear-cut area is burned to a crisp. Then a whole lot of carrots are laid out in the area. So Peter Possum and Walter Wallaby and all of their little friends come out and very gratefully eat the carrots. Then a whole lot of carrots laced with 1080 poison[*] are laid out in the area. So Peter Possum and Walter Wallaby and all of their little friends come out and very gratefully eat the carrots and die a slow and agonizing death. This is so that Peter Possum and Walter Wallaby, the greedy buggers, don't eat the new plantation trees while they're young.

  • Forestry Tasmania claims that it is protecting the tallest trees from logging. Trees over 85m tall will be spared, and a "Big Tree Reserve" has been established. Unfortunately, there are very few trees over the arbitrary 85m limit. Moreover, an 85m tree standing on its own doesn't, for all its effort, make much of an ecosystem. The "Big Tree Reserve", which we visited, is laughably tiny. It might make for a nice 20-minute walk for tourists, but it won't help conserve biodiversity and it certainly won't provide for the next generation of tall trees, as Forestry Tasmania suggests.

It was very interesting to contrast Forestry Tasmania's Big Tree Reserve with the potential National Park trails, marked with ribbons by the Wilderness Society. The trails took us deep into the forest. It was moody and breathtakingly beautiful. It's very easy to see it becoming a National Park, and a popular one at that. By contrast, the Big Tree Reserve seemed somehow lifeless. Forestry Tasmania's informational plaques came across as transparent propaganda, and the reserve's major attractions (including the tallest harwood) featured -- as though to drive home the senseless madness of cutting down these trees -- gratuitously artistic wood seating spaces.


Near the Big Tree Reserve, a small group of environmental activists have set up a base camp. In a bit of fitting irony, the lack of protection for the park's trees also seems to mean that Forestry Tasmania can do little to evict the activists until they actually get around to using their logging permits (that or they don't want the publicity before the upcoming Australian federal election.) The activists -- some from Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society, others "freelancers" -- used to live in one of the tall trees. They had lived there for a couple of years, in remarkably tree-friendly fashion, garnering international media attention for the plight of the forests. They had also decorated another tree -- the Christmas Tree -- with beach balls and thousands of "fairly lights". When Forestry Tasmania had the gall to complain that the lights would bother the possums, the activists brought up the clear-cutting and the 1080 poison. Not surprisingly, Forestry Tasmania dropped the issue. In any case, we spoke with a couple of the activists living permanently in the tent camp in the forest. They had only recently come down from the tree, ostensibly to give the tree a break (skeptics allege they were getting sick of spending cold Tasmanian winters up in an 80m tall tree.) The activists pointed us towards their "reception" (as in a hotel reception), a station near the tree they had occupied with even more information about Coupe SX13C.

It's easy to say that such issues are never simple, and indeed you could spend an inordinate amount of time understanding all the political nuances and economic minutiae of the forestry debate. But sometimes you just have to look at something incomprehensibly beautiful and special and demand its protection. There's got to be a better way.

[*] 1080 compound is registered for very limited use in the U.S. and in Canada but is used more extensively in Australia and New Zealand (including for conservation purposes -- i.e. to eliminate invasive species.) It is controversial even where it is legal. Some references in addition to the U.S./Canada links above:

Posted by anatole at 03:43 AM | Comments (0)