A dying spectacle
The Lizard Island Research Station offers a backstage look at how climate change is killing Australia's Great Barrier Reef
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I didn't expect the vomiting.
The ferry churns in the choppy sea. With each rising swell, the sound of retching echoes across the swaying ship, packed with queasy tourists. A beefy man covered in tattoos staggers toward the outdoor vestibule, shouldered by a kindly crew member.
"You'll be okay, mate," he says, patting Beefcakes on the back. "Let's get you some air."
Sweaty and seasick, I grab my barf bag and join the puking party, thinking one thing: There's gotta be a better way to see the Great Barrier Reef.
Turns out, there are 99 ways to see the world's largest living structure, and a tourist boat isn't the only one. It's why this woozy writer ventures 240 kilometres north of Cairns to Australia's Lizard Island, a far-flung protected park located right on the Great Barrier Reef. Because here on this idyllic isle, there's no commute to see colourful coral and marine life – just snorkel or dive from any of the 24 white-sand beaches.
Whether you're a tourist or a scientist, Lizard Island is one of the best places on Earth for reef-spotting. And considering that many scientists believe that the Great Barrier Reef is critically endangered, now is the time to see this natural wonder just in case it vanishes forever.
I get my first glimpse of the magnificent reef from the air. For an hour, the tiny plane chartered to Lizard Island soars over waters swirling with 50 shades of turquoise, cerulean and sapphire blue.
"The reef's giving you a million-dollar view today," the pilot says into his mic.
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It's an incredible aerial spectacle of the Great Barrier Reef, which spans 2,300 kilometres down the east coast of Australia. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the only living thing on Earth visible from outer space, and is home to 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 1,625 species of fish and countless other marine life.
Despite its scale and dazzling beauty, there is also a harsh truth to digest: The Great Barrier Reef is damaged and dying, but not from natural causes. Some (like The Guardian newspaper) are even calling this a "murder." Human influences have resulted in a 50-per-cent decline in coral cover from 1985 to 2012, and despite recent conservation efforts, some scientists are predicting the Great Barrier Reef's extinction by the year 2050.
Of course, this reality flies under the radar: Most visitors flock to Lizard Island Resort for a luxurious eco-retreat rather than to witness a possible slow death of one of the natural wonders of the world.
I'm here for the reef, not relaxation. Soon, a tropical island appears in the distance, fringed with white sand and lush hills, and as the plane touches down, conjures images of King Kong's Skull Island. But it's far less ominous: If you've ever fantasized about being castaway on a dreamy, deserted island, this is your chance. Here in Lizard Island National Park, there are no shops, exactly one luxury resort and lots of lizards.
"Captain Cook named the isle," the pilot explains, helping me out of the plane. "His ship got stuck in the reef in 1770. Climbing to the hilltop to chart out a course, he kept seeing giant goannas everywhere."
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Although the beach beckons, on my first day, I trek down the bumpy road to visit the Lizard Island Research Station. For 27 years, this leading institute for coral-reef research has attracted scientists from all over the world, and was recently featured on the TV series Great Barrier Reef, narrated by David Attenborough.
"The station was set up here because of its proximity to different parts of the reef," says Suze Garrett, our naturalist guide. "It's only an hour by boat to the outer reef, which keeps costs down, especially for new researchers. A lot of the science has to do with climate change."
Touring the facility, we get a backstage look at how climate change is endangering the Great Barrier Reef. Using clamps, Garrett reaches into an aquarium and warily pulls out a spiky starfish, currently considered an aquatic A-bomb of sorts.
"These crown-of-thorns can strip away a huge amount of reef," she says. "It can produce approximately two million eggs a month. Researchers have developed a single-shot lethal injection to kill off the crown-of-thorns."
With global warming, this coral-eating culprit has morphed into a breeding machine and destroyed the reef in "plague proportions." They feast on coral, sucking the tissue of all nutrients and colour and leaving a stark, white skeleton – all within one to three hours.
Since the 1980s, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral, with the bulk of damage caused by this creature. The outbreak is so severe that the Australian government is funding dive teams to manually inject the starfish one by one. Scientists are doing what they can: The single-shot injection has limited success for the short term, but it doesn't address the devastation from cyclones or coral bleaching.
"It looks like someone ripped [the coral] off, dumped it into a bucket of bleach and put it back," says Garrett, holding up a bone-white piece of coral.
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When the ocean gets too warm for too long, the coral gets stressed and "bleaches" – spewing colourful algae living inside them and leaving behind a stark white skeleton. Without this source of energy, the coral starves, dies and eventually rots. Surveys have revealed that 93 per cent of the almost 3,000 individual reefs have been affected by bleaching, and an average of 35 per cent of coral is now dead or dying in the northern and central sections.
"We don't even know what we're losing," Garrett says. "Because we haven't even discovered particular species. A lot of scientists believe that we've gone past the tipping point. So even if we stop what we're doing right now, it might be too late."
There's more than just a tourist attraction at stake. As I learn, the Great Barrier Reef contributes an estimated $5.2-billion annually to the Australian economy, and acts as the world's medicine cabinet, providing possible treatments for everything from cancer to heart disease. Suze plunges her hand into an aquarium and pulls out an oval-shaped coral. Cupped in her palm, the creature begins to drip a stringy goo.
"See that mucus?" she says. "It naturally protects against the UV rays. Right now, scientists are close to synthesizing it into a sunscreen pill that could significantly reduce skin cancers."
Absorbing all this info, I'm eager to explore the reef before it's gone forever. Back on the beach, I don a mask and flippers, and follow one of Lizard Island Resort's professional divers into the sea. Within minutes, I'm drifting over a sunken wonderland of colourful coral, clown fish and giant clams.
And then I see him. Lurking on the sandy floor, there's a pancake-shaped critter with a menacing stinger.
"It's a marble ray!" the guide says when we surface. "He won't hurt us, but let's give him some space."
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What else lurks in these waters? While marble rays aren't on my wish list, I'm jonesing to swim with sea turtles.
"Try snorkelling near the research centre," my guide says. "We call it Turtle Highway. They love it there."
On my third and final day, a boat drops me on a deserted beach with a lonely stretch of powdery white sand. Here, it's desolate and quiet, with only the sound of waves lapping the shore. For an hour, I snorkel around reefs and grassy areas, admiring the beaming coral and lively schools of fish until my legs ache. Where are the turtles?
Suddenly, I see something bobbing in the water, and seconds later, I'm swimming with a sea turtle, side by side. It feels magical to be floating with this gentle creature, so close that I can almost touch his wrinkled face and checkered shell.
I get one last wildlife encounter before leaving paradise. Climbing aboard the boat, I turn around and wistfully gaze out onto the sea, looking for my sea turtle. Instead, there's a black-tipped fin circling in my snorkelling spot.
"It's just a reef shark," the boat's captain says. "They're mostly harmless. Although he could bite off your leg."
Because that's how nature rolls in Australia – it's a fine line between dazzling and deadly. I'm a little rattled by the Jaws sighting, but not enough to want to depart from this dreamy island, which I hope will survive for future generations to enjoy.
"No one ever wants to leave Lizard Island," says the captain, revving up the boat's engine. "It's always one more day."
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Australia. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.
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See the Reef your way
- By “Reef Sleep”: Departing from Hamilton Island, you can sleep on a floating pontoon at the Great Barrier Reef with Cruise Whitsundays. As the sun sets, watch for sea turtles and other creatures, while enjoying a gourmet barbecue on the deck. Then lie back on your swag bag, and stargaze late into the evening. Wake at dawn for one last snorkel or scuba before heading back. Rates from $440 per person.
- By seaplane or helicopter over the Heart Reef: There’s only one way to see this stunning naturally heart-shaped coral: from the air. Take a seaplane or helicopter tour from Hamilton Island, and get a bird’s-eye view of this famous natural wonder. The Heart Reef is a popular site for proposals and declarations of love. The pilot will help to make the flight special if you plan on making a romantic gesture. Rates from $600 per person.
- By sea walking: From Green Island, secure your noggin with a space helmet, and then walk underwater with Seawalker. On a marked trail at the bottom of the reef, helmet divers come face to face with coral and fish life. This is easier than scuba diving, because it requires only a 10-minute briefing versus a long diving course. Rates from $172 per person.
- From a glass-bottomed boat or kayak: If you don’t like crowded boats or getting wet, this is a fantastic option from Lizard Island. Led by a marine expert, a flat glass-bottom boat whisks over shallow reefs, as corals, turtles, giant clams and other critters appear underneath. The boat is smaller, accommodating up to 18 passengers, and allows for a more intimate reef experience. Or for the ultimate solitude, hop in one of Lizard Island Resort’s glass-bottomed kayaks, and gently glide over the reef from the shoreline.
- By cruise ship: From Cairns, set out the seas with Coral Expeditions, a boutique cruise line that accommodates up to 44 people on multiday excursions to the most colourful, pristine and rarely visited sections of the Great Barrier Reef. Explore the underwater world at your leisure on a glass-bottomed boat or snorkelling tour, or just laze on deserted tropical beaches or take a guided rain forest walk during stopovers. Some trips include a morning at Lizard Island. But the best part? There’s a resident marine biologist on board as your private guide, giving you the inside scoop on the reef. Prices start from $1,596 per person, twin share, with no single supplement fee.
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If you go
The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is from April to November, when rainfall is rarer, bringing clearer visibility and better snorkelling and diving conditions.As the most northern resort on the Great Barrier Reef, the best time to visit Lizard Island is July to September. This is well outside of the wet season (which can bring cyclones), before the hotter summer months, and a season described by locals as "heavenly."
Whether you're swimming or snorkelling, wear a "stinger suit" – a full-body Lycra outfit that makes you feel like a Teletubby. But it'll protect you from both the sun and excruciating (and potentially deadly) jellyfish stings, especially during the higher-risk period from October to May. Many resorts and outfitters provide stinger suits for guests, including the Lizard Island Resort.
A member of the Star Alliance, Air New Zealand connects to most major Canadian cities and features overnight flights from Vancouver to Auckland, with a connecting flight to Cairns. Bonus: Break up the trip and do a free stopover in New Zealand or even the tropical Cook Islands.
Since the Great Barrier Reef is located miles offshore, some form of travel is usually required. Most day trips by ferry depart from coastal cities such as Hamilton Island, Cairns or Port Douglas, and take roughly two hours or more each way. Bring seasickness pills!
If this option doesn't float your boat (no pun intended), there are many enchanting islands to use as a jumping point for reef exploration: from Hayman Island, a private isle marooned in the reef, to Lady Elliot Island, a tiny isle ringed by stunning corals and home to manta rays and green turtles. Of course, there's always the magical Lizard Island.
Where to stay
The Lizard Island Resort is situated right on the Great Barrier Reef, fringed with coral reefs and 24 powdery white beaches to explore. Accessible only by a one-hour chartered flight from Cairns, this secluded all-inclusive resort is the sole lodging on a protected national park and offers five-star accommodation in 40 stylish rooms and suites.
There is also an excellent day spa, as well as tennis courts, swimming pool, fitness centre and beach club that arranges reef activities and fishing excursions. If you ask nicely, staff will arrange a gourmet picnic hamper for you to enjoy on a desolate beach.
Those seeking the pinnacle of luxury should stay at the resort's new Villa – a two-bedroom suite with a butler's kitchen, private eight-metre plunge pool, and expansive deck perched high above the Coral Sea.
While guest pampering is paramount, remember that the Lizard Island Resort is on a far-flung tropical island and some mainland offerings (such as WiFi) may be limited. Rates from $1,800 per night, twin share.