Could Tourism Help Save Australia's Great Barrier Reef?
Sean Fennessy
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Could Tourism Help Save Australia's Great Barrier Reef?

“Leonie’s our Virgin Mary,” said a man in a Hawaiian shirt, pointing down at a shark circling in a tank. Her three babies came from immaculate conception.”

He explained that, in an extremely rare event, they were produced with only the genetic material of a female. That Leonie happens to be a leopard shark, so called because of her brown-and-cream markings, is what makes you think: Really, Nature? The virgin birth had to happen in a leopard-print coat? Isn’t that a bit much?

A trip to the Great Barrier Reef is full of these moments when nature shows off in all its abundant weirdness. It’s a slow reveal, though, because after a long flight to Sydney and another journey 1,000 miles up Australia’s eastern coast, you arrive in one of the reef’s gateway towns of Townsville or Cairns and…see nothing. The reef—which stretches for 1,429 miles—is 40 to 150 miles offshore. Most visitors take a day trip out for a brief snorkel. Those who want to fully experience the reef stay on an island, at one of a dozen or so high-end resorts accessible by yacht, helicopter, or private plane.

The inherent challenge of encountering the reef is where the man in the Hawaiian shirt comes in. Fred Nucifora is the director of Reef HQ, which is the official, government-run aquarium of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a good preliminary stop where you can get to know the reef’s cast of characters that has increased steadily since two devastating cyclones in 2011. Travelers bring in around $2.9 billion for the country’s northeastern economy. In a recent survey of scientists and conservationists on threats to the reef, tourism didn’t even rank in the top five. For one thing, the industry is heavily regulated, because the area has been a government run marine park since the seventies. Around 85 percent of tourists are funneled into the Whitsunday chain of islands, leaving the rest of the reef virtually untouched. The government regulates the number of visitors to diving and snorkeling sites, and instructors are educated to ensure that visitors have minimal contact with the coral. In addition, each visitor to the reef is required to pay a nominal environmental management charge, introduced in 1993.

Related: Exploring Australia's Great Barrier Reef

Hotel development continues apace in this vulnerable part of the world. After the 2011 cyclones, several resorts renovated and a handful of new properties opened. Sometime in the next two years, Aquis, a massive resort financed by the Chinese, will open north of Cairns. These hotels have, for the most part, become ever more luxurious as well as increasingly ecologically attuned. And perhaps their most important role is to allow visitors to see the startling evidence of our warming planet for themselves.

Great Barrier Reef
A school of blue-green reef chromis off the coast of Orpheus Island. Sean Fennessy

As we were leaving Reef HQ, Nucifora and I passed by the aquarium’s hospital for turtles. He stopped to introduce a new patient: a baby turtle he thinks is a hybrid of the green and hawksbill species, “something arguably not seen on earth since the eighties.” It was nice to get some good news before leaving the mainland with two objectives in mind: to check out the reef’s newest and most luxurious hotels and to see how they’re operating against the backdrop of this disappearing natural wonder.

The islands from which the reef is accessible, more than 600 in all, are mostly uninhabited, and those catering to travelers show off just how much beauty is still apparent both above and below the water. Nowhere is this more evident than at Lizard Island: the resort sits on the edge of an island otherwise reserved as national parkland, and is a 60-minute charter flight from Cairns over a storybook landscape of turquoise sea and green mountains.

Lizard, the northernmost resort, is one of only a handful situated on the Great Barrier Reef itself. What this means for a visitor is a much shorter ride out to one of the world’s most famous dive sites—one that’s arguably the jewel in the reef’s crown. Early one morning, I joined a group of five divers, flanked by six crew members, and headed out to the legendary Cod Hole on a 56-foot dive boat, the Serranidae.

Great Barrier Reef
The northern end of Whitsunday Island, which is part of the Whitsundays chain. Most resorts, including the One&Only Hayman Island, are in this area. Sean Fennessy

Out at the Cod Hole I saw a mix of hard coral, which can resemble blocks of honeycomb, or sometimes a beehive, and the soft kind, which wave back and forth like ferns. There were pastels—which bring to mind flowers, like lavender or heliotrope—as well as traffic-light fluorescents of orange and yellow. There was barely any bleaching. (The area most affected is the reef’s northernmost quarter, which is 93 percent bleached and not accessible to most tourists.)

All of a sudden, a potato cod emerged from the depths, pursing its spectacular Kylie Jenner lips. A strange thought drifted by: everyone around me was eating. There were tiny Nemo look-alikes nibbling; two reef sharks cruised for something more substantial; even the coral themselves, undulating in the water, are always feeding.

Back on the boat, the Lizard Island staff had read my mind and laid out a spread on white linen not often seen on the high seas. There were tureens of antipasti, juicy Australian prawns, salad, sushi, passion fruit, and papaya. When the boat returned to the resort a few hours later, it dropped anchor about 30 yards from the beach. There was still a lot of seafood left over from lunch, so when a tawny nurse shark came to greet the boat one crew member knew what to do. Overboard went prawns and prosciutto and crab. Other fish joined the feast, but the nurse shark was the star of the show. It even agreed to be scratched on its smooth, flat face while snacking away. “Even the sharks here are five star,” said the instructor as the sleek gray form glided away.

It sounds strange to say a resort is up to shark standards, but here we are: Lizard Island is a consummate exercise in discreet, environmentally conscious luxury. (Hidden behind the resort itself are generators enabling full self-sufficiency, both for water and electricity.) After the destruction of the cyclones and a $50 million renovation, the resort reopened in 2015 with 40 rooms spread across white weatherboard structures, some arranged in pairs along the gentle curve of Anchor Bay and others, featuring plunge pools, on a bluff overlooking boulder-strewn Sunset Beach. In the middle is the main pavilion, where outside of mealtimes, petulant seagulls congregate alongside businesspeople desperate for a fix of the island’s Wi-Fi. (There is no signal in the rooms.) The food was much better than I expected, given the obvious logistical challenges. Red emperor, saddle tail snapper, and coral trout are flown in daily from the mainland, and a barge comes by once a week with other supplies, all from the area around Cairns and its surrounding tablelands, to keep down the total carbon footprint. The executive chef, Mark Jensen, prepared refined, even cautious dishes: oysters with a dash of nahm jim, salt-and-pepper squid, cheese plates, and affogatos in place of fruity tropical desserts.

The rooms were understated, too, in a muted palette of white, sand, and gray, with hidden appliances. While the daybeds in the villas were an inspired touch, ideal for observing the sunset, the minimalist suites seemed designed to encourage guests to go outside and underwater. Even the pool appeared to be an afterthought, set back from the beach. Fair enough. When else will you get the chance to swim into a garden of coral pulsating with color, teeming with life?

Orpheus Island, farther south and closer to the coast, is a short helicopter ride from Townsville. Like most resorts, Orpheus is not actually on the reef itself. Instead, the island is surrounded by fringing reefs. Frankly, these smaller, stand-alone reefs are just as spectacular to anyone but the most serious of scuba divers.

With a capacity of 28 guests, the service was rapid and attentive. The rooms themselves were cookie-cutter seaside, but the beautiful communal areas encouraged lingering: a 45-by-82-foot infinity pool from which to spot bait fish leaping out of the ocean; plentiful hammocks from which to gaze up at the ospreys soaring overhead; a spectacular fixed jetty used for private dinners where the only sound is the gentle splash of the resort’s pet barramundi.

Unfortunately for wild barramundi, the chef knew exactly what to do with them, which was to pan-sear them and serve them with a saffron bisque reduction and calamari curried risotto. The resort’s opening chef, Arie Prabowo, worked under Cheong Liew in Melbourne, who is regarded as the father of Asian fusion in Australia. At first, the rotation through a different ethnic cuisine every day at lunch seemed strange. But guests at Orpheus generally stay longer than they would on other islands (up to 10 days), and so the variety of food turned out to be a boon.

Great Barrier Reef
The northern end of Whitsunday Island, which is part of the Whitsundays chain. Most resorts, including the One&Only Hayman Island, are in this area. Sean Fennessy

Befitting the vibe of determined relaxation, there is only one daily activity offered. One day, the resort’s marine biologist led a walking tour of a giant clam garden just offshore. The tide was low, and most of the 300 clams were completely out of the water, enabling a closer look at their strange, slightly ominous makeup. When opened, the clams displayed a velvety mass of flesh colored emerald green, or indigo, or scarlet.

Farther south at Hayman Island, in the Whitsunday Islands, there are so many activities that the staff provides a daily schedule. Hayman is one of the newest resorts from One&Only. Though there are some reasonably priced day trips, a vacation on Hayman is less focused on the reef and more on cultivating relaxation amid what is unquestionably the most attractive terrestrial landscape of the resorts I visited.

The sand on the beaches appeared pearly white from a distance; up close, it was dotted with colorful crushed shells that resemble the toppings of an everything bagel. The lush rain-forest setting, kept green thanks to recycled water, obscured the buildings, many of which were built in 1950 and renovated by One&Only when it took over in 2014. One area, called the Hayman Pool Wing, is an enormous geometric marvel crisscrossed with pedestrian bridges; a central lanai with eight beach villas; and the Hayman wing, which retains a mid-century appearance. (Though it doesn’t have the pared-down look of an eco-conscious resort, it makes efforts to minimize waste—even the cooking oil is recycled into biofuel.)

Great Barrier Reef

Left: A beach villa with a private pool at One&Only Hayman Island. Right: The infinity pool at Orpheus Island, with a view of Hazard Bay.

Sean Fennessy

When One&Only transformed the property, it reduced the number of rooms from 210 to 160. A spectacular breakfast buffet was included, but for other meals, a reservation at one of the on-site restaurants was required. Bamboo, an Asian restaurant lit with paper lanterns, lacked atmosphere—I found it hard to remember I was in a remote paradise, even when enjoying an excellent rendition of crispy pork belly. Bar Fifty, a high-end cocktail bar, suffered from a similar problem; better to order a piña colada in a coconut stamped with the resort’s name to sip by the pool. In fact, you might find it hard to leave one of the poolside cabanas, though the outstanding spa, featuring clinical-grade pedicures by a French technician, was temptation enough to eventually move me.

On my final day at Hayman, a stroll along the beach reminded me why we had come all this way in the first place: I saw a tiny, scaly head bob out of the water every few minutes—a sea turtle. The Great Barrier Reef has six of the world’s seven varieties, one of which cannot be found anywhere else: the marine flat back. Environmentalists don’t call them “charismatic megafauna” for nothing. Just that one glimpse of green was enough for reality to come flooding back. The bleaching, the mining, the madness we have inflicted on this turtle and his home. Tourism used to be part of the problem, back in the days when tramping over the coral was permitted, and the bottoms of boats scraped the shallow seabed. These days, a trip to the reef is an educational experience, a stark reminder of what’s at stake for our rapidly warming planet. Its fragile beauty inevitably converts visitors into evangelists, ready to preach the gospel of a more sustainable future long after the sand is gone from their shoes. “The reef my children see will be different,” Fred Nucifora had said, back at Reef HQ. The time to see it is now.

The Details: What to Do In Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Getting There

There are three airports serving the Great Barrier Reef area: Cairns, Townsville, and Hamilton Island. Each can be accessed via a connection in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane. Most island resorts will help arrange transportation from airports, either by charter yacht, helicopter, or private plane.

Resorts

Lizard Island: A recently redone luxury resort that’s well suited for serious scuba divers because of its proximity to the famous Cod Hole. lizardisland.com.au; all-inclusive packages from $1,498 per night.

One&Only Hayman Island: 160 rooms, four restaurants, three pools, and dozens of activities attract families to the stunning Whitsunday Islands. oneandonlyresorts.com; doubles from $725.

Orpheus Island: A boutique property surrounded by small, diveable reefs near the mainland. The pool has great views of the Coral Sea. orpheus.com.au; all-inclusive packages from $1,062 per night.

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