People along the Queensland coast have watched half of the Great Barrier Reef die in the last 30 years.
To capture some of these people’s stories, Guardian journalist Oliver Milman and two photographers, Christian Bennet and Mike Bowers, travelled the reef from Cairns to Brisbane for a week filming and talking to experts and locals.
The resulting story ‘The Great Barrier Reef: An Obituary’ is vivid, online and interactive.
Oliver Milman said the newspaper had wanted to draw attention to the results of the scientific gathering in Japan for the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] Working Group II five-year report on the impacts of climate change.
“We wanted to do something about that in relation with the reef, posing the question, are we near the end of the reef?” Oliver Milman said.
That began a two month project for Mr Milman, starting with research on the reef’s history and finding the sources to interview
“We specifically wanted to get interviews with people who had experienced the reef for years and seen changes.”
“Get a balance – scientists and experts, people who work on the reef, people who live alongside the reef and care about it – let the interviewees have the voice.”
The multimedia project was produced by the Guardian’s interactive team. It contains interviews, videos and photos that create a great picture of how feelings for the reef have changed.
From Captain Cook’s feelings of terror of being trapped and lost in an endless coral labyrinth, to the kitsch carefree feelings of the resort days of the 60s, to the love and caring feelings of Yarrabah traditional owner, Errol Neal.
“I feel for the reef. It seems to be dying,” Errol Neal said.
Mr Milman said the indigenous community leader’s views are especially poignant, because he is not a campaigner or an activist, but he has lived beside it and depended on the reef for food all his life.
The project shows forms of eco-tourism started on Green Island in the 1890s long before Green and Heron islands were developed in the 1930s.
The mood was all fun and wonder as the first daily cruise of the reef started in 1978 and Hollywood stars like Lee Marvin came to fish for Marlin.
“Everyone fell in love with it but nobody quite understood the potential harm that could be done by many different things such as tourism… agriculture and mining,” Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort Managing Director, Peter Gash, told the Guardian.
Lady Elliot Island, 35 minutes flight from Bundaberg, was the most beautiful inspiring experience of the whole project, Elliot Milman said.
Peter Gash has decades of connection and serious concerns for the future of the ecosystem that is home to 70 indigenous and Torres Strait Island groups, 3000 different reefs, 600 islands, 600 coral types, 1600 fish types, 133 types of sharks and rays and 30 species of whale and dolphin.
The resort director said CO2 has never been this high. It’s the “cumulative effect” like a “death of a thousand cuts”.
“The planet is speaking to us,” he said.
Milman’s saddest experience during the assignment was in Gladstone, talking to the owner of Gladstone Fish Markets, Tim Whittingham, who had to reduce his staff by 80 -90 percent because customers wouldn’t buy local fish and he wouldn’t sell it because the local fish-catch looked sick.
Tim Whittingham said fishing was Gladstone’s first industry, but local fish with infected lesions and abscesses have been common since 2011 when the dredging for the Curtis Island gas plants was done.
“I think that was really sad. Something that could have been avoided, but the government blames the flooding for the sick fish issue rather than the dredging,” Elliot Milman told Blank.
The Guardian journalist believes strongly in what he does.
“I think it’s the only way you can make a difference. Have knowledge on your side. Ask questions of the right people.”
He said a great thing about the Guardian is that cost isn’t the first consideration when there is an important story to do.
“Our focus isn’t on cost but on quality journalism.”
“Multimedia shows things in a very immersive way so it was very feasible for the Barrier Reef story.
“You can’t tell every story like that because the time and the cost is huge and you have to pick your topics.”
The story was targeted for Australians and internationally, and the international response has been strong.
“Australians know and love the Barrier Reef, but take it for granted, expecting it to always be around,” the journalist said.
He wrote that Australia with its coal mines has a vested interest in the world having a fossil fuel habit and called Australia a “quietly comfortable accomplice” in climate change.
It is comforting to know that there are journalists like Elliot Milman and news organisations like the Guardian in Australia who give the public the chance to be informed and engage.
Being “informed and engaged is quite powerful” because the people can influence government and corporate decisions, he said.
For a mix of the good news and the bad news have a look for yourself at the interactive story. See the marine scientists’ hope for the reef if changes are made urgently.
The IPCC report, described as alarming but not alarmist, was released 31 March.
It said the threat of global warming has increased and the Great Barrier Reef has little ability to adapt to it.
Action to reduce detrimental effects include reducing carbon emissions, nutrient run-off and over-exploitation.
Photo: Healthy coral at Lady Elliot Island. The island’s Eco Resort Director says CO2 levels in the atmosphere have never been this high. Photo supplied by Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort