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Great Barrier Reef

In the days leading up to the 16th Annual Goldschmidt Conference, 26 people were in for a surprise beyond belief as I don't think they knew what they were going to expect. Twenty six delegates from around the world converged at Cairns in far North Queensland Australia with Prof. Malcolm McCulloch and Drew Christian for a three day glimpse of the spectacular World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. With a focus of showing the delegates the type of coral research we are involved in at the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, it wasn't hard to show our welcomed visitors what we are trying to achieve in our research efforts. The distinct interface between human encroachment and the natural wonders of such reef environemtns provides historical records of environmental conditions.

The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organic collective visible from Earth's orbit and lies off the east coast of Australia. It is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem and was declared a World Heritage area in 1981. The reef is scattered with beautiful islands and idyllic coral cays and covers more than 300,000 square kilometers. The Great Barrier Reef system consists of more than 3000 reefs which range in size from 1 hectare to over 10,000 hectares in area. The current living reef structure is believed to have begun growing on an older platform about 18,000 years ago, but the oldest datable coral on the reef now is a species of Porites often known as ‘Brain Coral' which is about 1,000 years old (it grows about 1 centimeter per year). The present, living reef structure is aged at approximately 6,000 to 8,000 years old.

The first day consisted of a boat trip from the port of Cairns to an inshore reef (Green Island) and then to an outer reef (Norman Reef) approximately 40km offshore. The brief stop over at Green Island enabled delegates to experience the diverse nature of an inshore reef that is often affected by flood plumes which enter the sea south of the Island. The diversity of coral species is somewhat limited at inshore reefs as many coral assemblages are quite sensitive to changed environmental conditions such as water turbidity, increased sediment and nutrient discharges. The group managed to peruse the islands magnificent rainforest walkways and see Green Turtles who abundantly inhabit this reef environment. At mid-day, we arrived at Norman Reef pontoon where we could partake in a number of activities provided. Delegates had the choice of SCUBA diving, snorkeling, helicopter flights over the reef, semi-submersible glass bottom boat rides for viewing the reef without getting wet and guided snorkeling eco-tours of the reef to explain the different marine life co-existence relationships. Most delegates could not believe such a fantastic wonderland existed and were extremely appreciative of why this area needs to be monitored and protected.

The following day we ventured up to the Atherton Tablelands to see the remnants of a volcanic landscape including cinder cones and crater lakes. Volcanic activity has been intermittent on the tableland for the past 3 million years, with the most modern eruptions being perhaps as recent as 10,000 years ago. The fertility of the soils in this area provides an exceptional foundation for agriculture such as sugarcane, banana and coffee produce. The group traveled up to Kuranda via the cable-cars with a birds-eye view of the spectacular world heritage rainforest. Some cultural shopping and wandering of the area gave the delegates an appreciation of Australian aboriginal culture. Our trip back to Cairns was on a the Kuranda Scenic Railway Train winding its way down the escarpment giving us a fantastic view of the port of Cairns and its surrounding highlands, waterfalls and catchment area.

The third day we ‘bussed it' to Port Douglas approximately one hour north of Cairns to our awaiting Quicksilver Wave-piercing Catamaran to take us to an outer reef called Agincourt Reef. Here the delegates experienced similar attractions to the first day however the pristine-nature of this reef was exceptional and fantastic weather enabled all to enjoy the reef in ideal conditions. Numerous marine life such as fish, soft and hard corals, sea cucumbers, sting rays, giant clams, resident Giant Wrasse and many Nemo's were vividly on display for the worlds enjoyment.

On top of this, delegates were treated to great "aussie" cuisine such as kangaroo, barramundi, crocodile, the iconic BBQ and many of our local beverages. The trip leaders would like to thank all the participating delegates for their enthusiasm and cooperation and we hope they can revisit more of the great wonders Australia has to offer in the near future.

Drew Christian
Tour Organiser