GLAD STONED: surfing + working to protect the great barrier reef


Malia, founder of Sirens for the Sea, takes in the wide view over a swath of the Great Barrier Reef, roughly 32 nautical miles offshore. Nobody in sight.

As the sky switched to cerulean, our captain cut the engine, and we launched ourselves overboard into crystalline water, to take in the natural psychedelia of the reef systems. Suspended in the gentle pull of the Pacific current, my eyebrows rose in wonder with every passing neon fish, curious shark, bounding dolphin, graceful manta, breaching whale.

Alive. That’s the only way to describe the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a teeming celebration of diversity. “Although coral reefs occupy less than 0.1 percent of ocean area globally, they are home to at least one quarter and perhaps as much as one third of everything that lives in the ocean (or between 56,500 and 75,333 known forms of life), including the great whales.”*Reef systems play integral roles as habitat and in climatological balance on Earth; the fact is so obvious when you see it for yourself.

Parts of the reef were exhibiting signs of bleaching, but still teemed with life.

Photo – Lauren Hill

We’d spent the previous day in Gladstone, a small town six hours north of Brisbane, situated on the southern most point of the Great Barrier Reef. It is here we were based, a mix of tatted punk-rock ecologists, subversive surfers and ocean loving activists, who had scraped up enough cash to convince the crabbing captain to let us charter his boat. When we weren’t in the water, we loitered near the only grocery store with food decent enough to eat.

A couple of us boated into the Gladstone Harbour and were shocked by the sprawling industrial development nestled within several hundred meters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Effluent and discharge from each of the manufacturing or processing plants spilled into the harbour. Steam or smoke (or some substance) spewed into the air from smokestacks.

A speedboat brought a few of the crew out later.

Photo – Lauren Hill

It wasn’t quite the idyllic scene I’d envisaged when dreaming of THE Great Barrier Reef – the one that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Yes, there are allegedly strict environmental regulations placed upon the processes, but accidents happen. Like in 2010, when a Chinese bulk coal carrier slammed into the reef, inflicting a three-kilometre long, 400,000 square metre long scar. “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority now doubts the coral will recover.”**

The salty breeze in the harbour was heavy and metallic. We were obviously inhaling more than just sea spray. Later, a local business owner would complain about the plumes of coal dust that coat his pristine white cafe umbrellas, but in the same sentence assure us that Gladstone residents are surely at no greater health risk than any body else.

We spotted the grey nubby dorsal of a snub fin dolphin and mused about what life must be like underwater here; turbid with acoustic pollution from shipping vessels, the endless stream of runoff from industry and the thickness of sludgy, dredged matter.

The water in the background is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The foreground is a bauxite processing plant in Gladstone, one of many industrial influences in the region.

The waters around Gladstone have made national headlines of late. It is now considered unsafe to consume seafood from the region surrounding the busy port. We spoke with fishermen who are struggling to keep their livelihoods afloat by motoring further and further afield to catch edible enough fish to supply local seafood demands.

Just up the coast (and still adjacent to the GBR), the Queensland government has fast tracked plans to expand the already sprawling Abbot Point coal port, threatening to make it the world’s largest coal export facility. Thereby, making Australia a challenger for the top spot as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Port expansion at Abbot Point means making room for exponentially more ships, from the current 4,600 vessels annually to somewhere in the ballpark of 6,000 vessels. Doing so skyrockets the risk of endangering the reef through dredging, spills and navigational accidents.

Undeniably, most of us use coal to power some aspect of our lives. Still, we can (and should) legitimately question the scope and scale of what’s happening around the Great Barrier Reef. 54 percent of the coal produced in Australia is currently shipped overseas. This isn’t about meeting needs. It’s about long-term sacrifices for short-term profits, much of which does not go to Australians.

The proposed expansion of a new coal port in Abbot Point.

Photo –

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sprawling nature of environmental degradation. Even if you can’t be a part of direct action efforts, there are still easy ways to impact issues like the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. For example, development projects around the reef rely on financing from banks, which are often Australian. By taking your money out of those banks, instead supporting community credit unions, you refuse to help fund projects you don’t believe in.

The current political paradigm, on many levels, is moving further from serving the needs of actual people, instead prioritising the needs of corporations, of profiteers, of industry, as if they are of greater value to national wellbeing.

There’s no single panacea for climate change, or reef protection, or political chicanery, but the first step to undermining the forces that are escorting us into a culture driven solely by industry is to name it. To take off the blinders of affluence and know it when we see it.

We need to make it very clear that we do not find it morally/socially/financially or spiritually acceptable to chip away at the Great Barrier Reef. We must value it is a natural Australian monument, not as a necessary by-product, a mere externality, of economic “progress”.

*Coral Reefs: Going, Going… Gone –

**Minimal Barrier Reef Regrowth at Site of Shen Neng Grounding –



Originally published HERE

1 Comment

  1. Hi Lauren! I discovered your blog after the premiere of Bella Vita Film. I wrote about the film on my blog, I appreciate all of you. It was simply amazing to feel your emotions in my country.

    I lived in Australia for few months and I am really upset for the situation of Great Barrier Reef. I wrote something on my blog too. Thanks for this article. I shared it on my Fb page, I hope it is not a problem.

    Take care,

    Ps. Thanks also for the info for a surfcamp in India. It is one of my dream to surf there. But first, I need to improve my technique! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s