This is the first SFS Australia semester that has included a major reef component. As I explored study abroad programs, SFS Australia stood out to me because it involved ecosystem restoration studies, while also exploring the connections between the health of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and the rainforest. I have learned about the GBR in a variety of my classes since middle school, but always seemed distant and was something wonderful that I had only ever seen in pictures. When I got accepted to the program, I was so excited to study abroad in Australia, in an ancient rainforest and have the opportunity to snorkel on the GBR!
Our classroom learning has integrated a study of the rainforest and its complex relationship with the Great Barrier Reef. Over the course of the semester, we have taken three trips to snorkel on the GBR. Our first trip was to Green Island. We spent the night in Cairns and attended a talk by hosted by Reef Teach to learn about the marine animals we might see. This trip offered a comfortable way for new snorkelers to get comfortable in the water. We saw a lot of different corals, countless different reef fish, a few sea turtles, some sea cucumbers and so much more.
A variety of branching and leather corals. Photo courtesy of Savanna Conine
A giant clam. Photo courtesy of Savanna Conine
Our second trip to the reef was to the Orpheus Island Research Station. I think this was one of the most beautiful places we have been. Here we listened to a presentation on more marine animals that lived on the GBR. The water was tropical blue, we saw mangroves along the shore and little fish were swimming around in the shallows. On our snorkel here, I noticed that the colors of everything seemed brighter here. This reef was a contrast to Green Island and gave us the opportunity to see a more untouched reef.
Our final trip to the GBR was to an outer reef. Our day began bright and early so that we could leave CRS at 5:30am. We ate a quick grab and go breakfast, and all piled into the vans for the drive to Cairns. Most of us got an extra hour of sleep on the drive. Before falling asleep, I watched the sun rise over the mountains as we drove down the Gillies. We arrived at the Cairns Marina a little bit early which gave us a chance to go to the bathroom, put on sunscreen, get coffees and put on our swimsuits.
Once we were on the boat we were led to the upper deck where the captain’s quarters were. This last day on the reef was led by Reef Teach. Before Green Island (our first trip to the reef) we attended a presentation by Reef Teach. We gathered on the top of the boat to listen to Reef Teach brief us on how our day would go. We got fitted for our snorkel gear and then sat on the upper deck on the ride out to the reef.
The view of Cairns as we headed out to the GBR
Me beside a small boulder coral. Photo courtesy of Amber Bjerre
For snorkeling, we were divided into two groups so that each group would have a Reef Teach guide. Our guide pointed out interesting marine animals as we saw them – puffer fish, Christmas Tree Worms, anemone fish and many more. This my favorite of our three trips to the GBR. The water was perfectly clear, there was a higher level of biodiversity than anywhere we had been before, and there were huge bolder corals that had well established habitats for a variety of marine life including fish and anemones. I recognized most of the organisms from the presentations we had seen and it was amazing to see this marine life up close. On our second snorkel of the day, we had the opportunity to participate in a citizen research project called Coral Watch. We then had time to snorkel around more quietly in our small group. Everywhere I looked, I could see so much of the marine life we had been learning about. I am so grateful for these opportunities to expand my classroom learning while also having opportunities to explore the GBR.