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Turns Out Dying Coral Reefs Smell Even Worse Than They Look

The Great Barrier Reef is a living animal. And bleaching is turning it into a stinking, decaying coral graveyard.

Diving next to decomposing coral on the Great Barrier Reef, captured by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey at Lizard Island in May this year

The Great Barrier Reef as we once knew it is gone forever. Almost a quarter of its coral is dead, and scientists doubt that complete recovery is even possible at this point. And as climate change continues, and the waters get warmer, things can only get worse.

Talk to people scuba diving in the areas hit worst by recent coral bleaching events, and you get a devastating picture of just how bad things have gotten. Coral is an animal, and when it dies, it begins to rot almost immediately. People diving in the worst affected parts of the reef are literally swimming amid millions of stinking, decaying corpses.

The reef has been reduced to millions of stinking, decaying corpses. All images supplied by XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Richard Vevers has been diving around coral reefs for decades. He founded the Ocean Agency, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of how climate change affects marine life. Working with US-based NOAA, he's been globally surveying coral reefs around the world for the past two years, focusing on coral bleaching events like the one ravaging the Great Barrier Reef.

Speaking to VICE, Vevers says that usually his team visits sites as they're undergoing a bleaching process. The coral's whiteness becomes so bright, he says, it "can be spectacular."

"But now we're going in after the event," Vevers says, describing his team's most recent visit to the formerly pristine northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef. "We were expecting to see something similar to what we saw five weeks earlier... but we jumped in, and it was amazing how quickly the corals had died."

"It was amazing how quickly the corals had died."

The scene wasn't just upsetting—it was disgusting. Vevers said the coral was "completely covered in algae; you couldn't tell they'd been there in the first place. It was really the soft corals that surprised me—half had disappeared, and the rest were kind of rotting. They're decomposing, falling apart."

While even bleached coral can be beautiful to look at, the stage afterward—when the coral starts to die and decompose—isn't photo-worthy. "It's a revolting sight," Vevers says. "We were speechless after the dive. We climbed back into the boat, and that's when it hits you. You stink of rotting animals. It's something you can't even imagine."

Commercial Great Barrier Reef tour diving companies operating in Cairns are unsurprisingly reluctant to admit that the reef-diving experience has changed for the worse in recent times.

One of the biggest operators, Tusa Diving, has been showing the reef to tourists for more than 30 years. Speaking to VICE, its media representative Katrina said she thought reports about the death of the reef were "a bit alarmist and exaggerated" although admittedly, "this year has been a little worse than usual."

Katrina was also cautious about linking the recent spate of coral bleaching directly to climate change, insisting that "there are so many other factors involved."

But Vevers says what he's seeing in those parts of the reef worst affected by coral bleaching is totally unprecedented. "I've seen some horrific sights over the last four years of the reef's decline," he tells me. "But nothing like this, where you really are faced with death in such an obvious way. Often you get there, and the reef looks like it's been dead for years. It's horrific."

This is all very depressing, but Vevers emphasizes that hope isn't entirely lost just yet. "The northern part of the reef was amazingly healthy generally until this event," he explains. "So it does have the ability to bounce back. But it can take ten years."

So the Great Barrier Reef can recover from bleaching events like this, but it will take time. And unfortunately, time is not something we necessarily have. Reef waters are only getting warmer, which means governments need to act fast and reverse the impact of climate change before it's too late.

"As global warming continues, we've got about two decades or so of committed heating," Vevers says. "So the oceans are going to continue warming, which means more bleaching events, more frequently, probably more severely."

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