By Bob Halstead
“Halstead, you have the body of a God!”
What’s this? Praise from one of my fellow divers as I stripped off my shirt preparing for the first dive of the day? I was already feeling good since essentially I am a positive person, an optimist. I awake in the morning happy, full of fun and rejoicing in anticipation of my day ahead. Especially, as in this case, if I am in PNG aboard the FeBrina, one of the world’s top live-aboard dive boats. The sun is shining, the water warm and gloriously transparent and, through the surface, I can see the reef is lush with fishes, and healthy corals.
“Yeah, Budda! Ha! Ha!”
I remind my diving colleagues that dolphins and whales do not have waists, and it has taken me many years to develop a perfectly insulated and streamline body shape with just, yes, a hint of a bulge in the middle.
But, nevertheless, the day is a little less sunny and a chill breeze cuts through the sultry air. I glance at Mount Ulawun, the Father Volcano. It is not very far away, and the constant volcanic plume belching CO2 from its peak looks a little thicker. I think of Pompeii under Mount Vesuvius. It is amazing how a few negative words can change the day.
Which is why I am going diving and hence avoid the harping negativity spouted by our Globaloney brethren. These doomsayers tell lies, fly “Save the Planet” flags, and seem so lacking in joy that, if they were not so ugly, I would have the urge to hug them and say “there, there, I’m sure it will be alright”.
I thought the Catholics bad enough with Original Sin, but the doomsayers have primordial guilt for humankind and think everyone else should be guilty too. Strange, because I feel blessed.
It seems that, even though our planet Earth has been through huge changes in climate and sea levels, and that extinction is the norm rather than the exception over the past 5 billion years, humans are to blame for everything, even though we have only been around for a minute fraction of that time, and bad since the industrial revolution. Coral reefs have been around for over 500 million years, and survived much higher temperatures and CO2 levels. If coral reefs are to die it has to be because of something different and relatively new, and I think I know what.
I am just up from my dive, it was wonderful and an affirmation of my faith in nature. The reef was truly beautiful. No sign of bleaching, crown of thorns, Drupella infestations, anchor or storm damage, overfishing or littering. The water was clear and warm – very warm actually, over 30 deg C – so I’ll start my story.
The temperature of the water in Kimbe Bay is often 30 – 31 deg C. and occasionally higher. According to some Globalonists this is far too hot to support coral growth. But that is not true, because I have just seen one of the most splendid reefs imaginable, alive and thriving.
I have also seen coral bleaching. Milne Bay Province in PNG was one of many regions of the world to suffer coral bleaching. I saw the whole process in 1996 and again in 1998. What happened however was not what is commonly reported. Yes, the temperature of the water was higher than normal, but it was not heated in Milne Bay – it was carried on an unusual current from a hotter place.
For most of the year the prevailing current, driven by the South East Trade Winds, produces an ocean current from the cooler South-East – the Coral Sea. This current runs usually to December when it changes to a short-lived warm current from the North-West. In both 1995 and 1997 I noticed that there was a North-West current running as early as September/October. If you dive regularly this is easy to observe on the reefs exposed to the oceanic currents. Warm water was BROUGHT to Milne Bay, stayed for a much longer period than normal, and was responsible for the bleaching which occurred in April of 1996 and 1998. I have to say here right now that we have not seen any significant bleaching at all since then in Milne Bay, and recovery has been swift and with an increase in biodiversity.
In other words what we had in Milne Bay was our own kind of El Nino. The El Nino has been well known off the west coast of South America for a very long time. One of its characteristics is that it is very hard to predict …. And not caused by “Global Warming”
Even though the corals in Kimbe Bay in 2007 are magnificent, they have in the past suffered bleaching – in year 2000 I am told was the last event. I guess that if you took corals from the GBR and transplanted them to Kimbe Bay – they would bleach. Corals do not like sudden rises in water temperature.
So coral survival does not depend, within limits, on the absolute temperature of the water, but corals ARE sensitive to sudden CHANGES in those temperatures. They can eventually acclimatise. My observations suggest that rising sea temperatures in certain areas at certain times are principally due to changes in currents bringing warmer water, and not Global Warming, whatever that is. Calm days with clear skies contribute to the amount of solar radiation penetrating the surface and there is evidence this may increase the extent of coral bleaching, or at least reduce the degree of recovery, but ocean currents seem to be the critical factor. Direct solar radiation is of course a function of the sun’s activity, and should not be confused with the “Greenhouse effect” which warms the atmosphere, (maybe).
If sea temperatures were to slowly rise it is possible that instead of all coral reefs dying, they would appear further away from the equator. Off Brisbane perhaps! See, I really am an optimist!
What is a huge problem for reefs is water quality. Chemical pollution of the sea is excessive in many areas and we should rightly be ashamed of that. Chemical pollution not only kills reefs, it hinders or prevents recovery. On a very positive note Cairns City Council has introduced a “Cleaner Seas” initiative so that the major pollutants in the city’s sewage, particularly phosphates and nitrates, are being reduced by 80% of previous levels before being released. It is an expensive project and ratepayers make a contribution. Personally I am happy to pay for it, and hope it is enough to ensure recovery.
To me this is the key. In PNG there is virtually no chemical pollution of the seas. There is also deep water very close to shore so dilution of any run off is immediate. The one place where a sewage outfall was placed in a lagoon close to shore – Port Moresby – there was obvious degradation of the nearby reefs within a short time.
I think the results of the cleaner water off Cairns will soon be evident in rejuvenated reefs. Of course there are other sources of pollution – storm water is a particularly difficult one to counter, but not impossible particularly if it is possible to get cane farmers to reduce their use of fertilisers.
While I’m here lets look at a couple of myths.
1. All pollution is bad. No, Object pollution can provide habitats for marine life. It might be unsightly (so are wind farms) but it might also be beautiful. Just dive the Yongala and see how wonderful that is!
2. Oil spills are a disaster. No, they are unpleasant and certainly cause temporary degradation of the environment – but they can always be cleaned up. The problem is with CHRONIC chemical pollution. The sort of pollution that emanates from sewage outfalls, factories, mills and the like that continues day after day, year after year.
I have had to bang my head on the wall a few times watching divers “clean up” their local dive site removing habitats, and thus killing the marine inhabitants, while a nearby outfall is steadily poisoning everything. It is all a bit pathetic.
Now I’m getting upset again, time for another dive!