When you go on a snorkel with Maya Knowles, you won’t just be sightseeing coral reefs. You’ll be learning about a vast underwater world– and what you can do to help save it. Knowles is a marine biologist specialising in coral ecology. She works with Down Under Cruise and Dive in Cairns, Australia, where she gives tours of the Great Barrier Reef, “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather work,” she says. “It’s definitely a privilege. I feel very lucky, and I also feel a great deal of responsibility for it.”
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. It’s a network made up of billions of living corals that stretches along thousands of kilometers of the Australian coast. It can even be seen from outer space.
But, Knowles reminds us, it’s in peril.
The corals that make up the Great Barrier Reef are highly susceptible to environmental pressures. Corals depend on minute algae-like protozoa living inside their skin called zooxanthellae. “That zooxanthellae provides them with the majority of their energy needs,” Knowles says. “It also provides their color.”
In response to stress, corals expel the zooxanthellae from their skin. This phenomenon is known as “coral bleaching,” since it causes the corals to lose their color.
“It usually indicates that that coral is going to die pretty soon,” Knowles says. “And it indicates that the system– if you’ve got a lot of bleaching in one reef– is under a lot of stress and pressure.”
As climate change raises temperatures in the Great Barrier Reef, more mass bleaching events have been taking place– and scientists expect these events to become even more frequent (1). This poses a huge threat to species diversity in the region– coral reefs are known as the “rainforests of the sea,” housing a brilliantly diverse population of underwater creatures. “A system as large as GBR, being 344,000 square km, is going to play a huge role in ocean health in general,” Knowles adds.
So what can people do to help?
“One of the things that anybody anywhere in the world can do to help protect the Great Barrier Reef and keep it healthy is just to be aware of their own personal carbon footprint,” Knowles says. “Because one of the things that does put a lot of pressure on our little corals is climate change.”
The Great Barrier Reef also needs innovation, Knowles says. “If we could dream big, I think one of the best things would be to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” she says.
Dream big with us by joining the #BlueRevolution.
We’re accepting applications for the Blue Economy Challenge for one more week. This challenge is a call for innovative solutions that will help break down the barriers to truly sustainable aquaculture and help improve the health of our oceans. The three challenges each address a different area where innovation is needed: rethinking feed for aquaculture, designing new ocean products via aquaculture, and creating sustainable aquaculture systems. Learn more about how you can develop and submit your project idea here.