The Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people are a tribe of ancient people who have lived by the waters of Australia’s northeastern coast, just outside the city of Cairns, for a long time now. Their lives by the ocean has allowed them knowledge of their land- and seascape that has otherwise, until very recently, eluded even modern science.

Specific to the Great Barrier Reef, which spans for 2,300km across that same coast, the tribe tells an ancient story that has quite accurately chronicled the origins of the waters that cover the reef, for generations now.

The tale speaks of a spearfisher named Gunyah, who, while out on a hunt one day, accidentally pierces a sea creature sacred to the tribe. Enraged by Gunyah’s insolent action, the creature, a great stingray of sorts, starts to violently flap its pectoral fin, causing the ocean to swell far inland and cover what was otherwise marsh and swampland, and then further still to drown out land that is now the seabed where the Great Barrier Reef has taken root.

Today, modern science confirms that much, if not all, of the shallow seabed that the Great Barrier Reef occupies was, in fact, once dry land. Ten thousand years ago, at the end of the last great Ice Age, the melting of snowcaps caused a great rise in sea levels that engulfed masses of coastal lands — land that includes the northeastern coast of Australia.

While science and the story told by the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people may well not agree on the culprit for the rising sea levels, but the timeline is spot-on, because it is now just about 10,000 years since their tale of Gunyah and the sacred sea creature had originated, which coincides perfectly with the age of the Great Barrier Reef suggested by scientific findings.

The point to establish here is that, just as the story still fairly fresh in the minds of the people who tell it, so the age of the great reef is not that old after all. Coral growth propagates in most shallow tropical waters all around the world. However, for it to occur on the scale of the Great Barrier Reef, and in the amount of time it has taken to do so, is simply unheard of.

Owing to the uniqueness of the Great Barrier Reef and where it is located, it not only supports species of marine life that exist nowhere else on the planet, but a great many other creatures that aren’t necessarily native to the reef, have developed migratory patterns that trail through the reef. Whether it is for sustenance or just to take shelter among the corals from the perils of the open ocean, animals both great and small make pit stops here on grand oceanic migrations as part of their mating and feeding habits. And therein, the reef has established itself as a crucial living structure that, in one way or the other, impacts all known (and unknown) marine life.

So where was all this life when the reef wasn’t there a mere 10,000 years ago? The earth obviously changed drastically at that point in time, and nature, in its own time, drew up new plans for its own course, in the midst of which, no doubt, new forms of life were supported, and some perhaps lost. Whatever the case, because this was all managed by nature herself, it was sustained change that ultimately brought balance to the global marine system.

Change is happening once again today, except that this time, it’s not initiated by nature. This is a far more rapid change that seems to be on a collision course bound for more damage than anything else in the long run. What’s triggering this is, of course, global warming: an accelerating rise in global temperatures caused by the increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

For marine life, this has not only meant rising sea levels, again due to melting polar ice caps, but also rapidly increasing sea temperatures. The thing about life is that it almost seems to be balanced on the edge of a razor-sharp blade. The slightest of disturbances can tip the scales over, causing cataclysmic effects. In the instance of the Great Barrier Reef, the rising sea temperatures has disturbed many a type of coral in and along the stretch, resulting in a phenomenon called “bleaching” of corals.

Coral structures are essentially limestone features built up by tiny organism called coral polyps. These creatures are mostly at the mercy of the ocean currents for whatever micronutrients that may float by in order for it to obtain the necessary nutrients. But even before it can obtain nutrients, it must first obtain the energy with which it can feed. This energy is provided for by photosynthesizing algae, which the coral allows to grow on its calcium carbonate abode. It’s a symbiotic relationship of the most visual kind, because it is the various types of algae that grow with their specific partner corals that give rise to the multitude of colors that we so readily identify with coral communities.

So here we understand why shallow waters are necessary for coral growth — it’s because the algae, which is the primary source of energy for the coral community, wouldn’t be able to photosynthesize at greater depths where light cannot penetrate. Now that sea levels are rising, and along with rising water temperatures, it is the algae that is increasingly unable to grow as effectively on the coral structures, leaving behind barren white limestone structures. The corals, as earlier mentioned, are starting to “bleach” and the effect of this phenomenon is slowly rising up the food chain and affecting the larger ecosystem that is the Great Barrier Reef.

In a recent piece of panic-stricken news, it’s been reported that a quarter of the reef is already showing signs of this disease. However, on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef earlier in April, organized by our friends at Oris, Australia, we found that the exuberant and colorful life that yet exists along the northeastern coast of the continent is — simply put — hard to miss.

Every site we were brought to, be it from within a semi-submersible or left to our own devices to snorkel about in open waters and discover these towering “bommies” covered in colors unimagined, there was life. Every bit of water seemed to be teeming with fish of all sorts, greenback turtles and even carefree reef sharks.

Simply said, the richness of life you encounter in these waters is astounding. And it proves a point — that nature is exceedingly hardy. But the word of caution, and perhaps the other point that was put across to us over the course of the trip by our new friends from the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), who came along for the excursion, was that, yes, there is a fair bit of the reef that is now showing signs of this dire ailment; however, a larger portion of it is still in excellent health. So if we were to make the decision now to fight for its conservation, by affecting global initiatives that trigger healthier oceanic life, then not only will we save what is left of the great reef, but what is lost will also be regained.

On a personal note, I would encourage you to go out for a visit to the reef for yourself. It’s a guarantee that witnessing it for yourself will turn you into a life-long advocate. But larger corporate bodies and such must play their part as well. Take Oris, for instance, a watch company all the way from Switzerland: they have created a watch inspired by the colors of the great reef and the deep blue of the waters where the reef lies. Owing to the fact that it is a very handsome watch that they’ve created, the brand has caught the attention of many a dive-watch enthusiast, and therefore drawn eyes toward the cause of the reef from far and wide.

So well has the watch done, in fact, that as of Basel 2016, all 2,000 pieces of the Oris Great Barrier Reef Limited Edition II that were produced are already sold out — which isn’t surprising, because Oris have also promised that a good sum of the proceeds from sales of the limited-edition timepiece, will go toward the AMCS’ efforts to preserve the Great Barrier Reef.

The watch itself is a 46mm steel dive watch, created with all of Oris’s dive watchmaking know-how. Fitted with an automatic movement with date indication at six o’clock, the watch is water-resistant to 500m because of its screw-down crown and solid caseback that bears an embossed map of the Australian continent on it. And last but not least is the safety anchor and quick-adjustment sliding-sledge folding clasp developed by Oris that comes with the supplied rubber strap.

Now, the name of the watch includes the words “Limited Edition II”, because this is the second time Oris has initiated such a gesture in partnership with the AMCS. That the second effort has done so well once again, is perhaps an indication that it’s not that people are ignorant, but that not enough is being done to shine light upon the impending fate of the Great Barrier Reef.

Here’s hoping then that this is the point of change — that many other corporations will take a cue from Oris to do their part to bring attention to the plight of one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind.

An Ending Note

If you wish to learn more about the Great Barrier Reef, then I urge you to go pick up a copy of Sir David Attenborough’s newly aired, return to the Great Barrier Reef documentary. It is in this film that Sir Attenborough tells the story of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people and showcases the great reef to the world like it has never been seen before.

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