At least a third of the 2300km reef showed “widespread bleaching”. It’s the first time such devastation has been recorded in a La Niña year when cloud cover and high rainfall usually give our World Heritage-listed coral gardens time to recover.
There were fears this might happen when I was up there in February. The Coral Sea had been overheating since the start of summer 2021-22 when the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded the highest December sea temperatures since it began monitoring our reef in 1985.
On that visit I spent several days with marine biologists who dedicate their lives to finding solutions to the threat of climate change.
Some have partnered with tourism operators in the Coral Nurture Program which, since 2018, has planted more than 70,000 corals across dozens of sites.
I visited coral nurseries in the Coral Sea and on land and spoke to a brilliant bunch of PhD brains all studying how corals tick so we can better protect them against the effects of global warming.
Their efforts and words inspired me and I sincerely hope they succeed. But with dozens of coal and gas projects currently approved by Australian governments, it feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle to save the reef. Solving that dilemma is outside my pay scale, but there are definitely things we, as individuals, can do to help.
Down in the dreamy Whitsundays, for example, you’ll find the archipelago’s first carbon-neutral resort. Elysian Retreat has been 100 per cent solar since 2019. The Queensland sun powers its 10 bungalows, planted beneath palms along a rocky shore, its central lodge and a magnesium pool perched above a dugong-friendly channel that separates Long Island from mainland Australia. (The 9km Long Island is the closest Whitsunday island to the mainland.)
Sadly, I saw no dugongs, but the day I arrived an eagle ray soared out of the water while I sat on my deck swing staring out to sea.
The next day, a white-spotted guitar fish shimmied through the shallows when I returned from a boat trip. Reef sharks are also abundant.
Elysian is powered entirely by sun and batteries, but you don’t feel like you’re missing out on any luxury.
Its gleaming white bungalows feature such comforts as coffee machines, mini-bars and earth-friendly ayurvedic toiletries. Each has a Bose speaker, fan, air-con and a super-comfortable king-sized bed with an ocean soundtrack. The best kind of waterbed. Villa 10 has just been fitted with a plunge pool.
The main lodge, with bi-fold glass doors opening to the ocean, is a comfortable lounge of cushioned cane sofas, rope-swing bar seats and a breezy dining room. The lodge spills onto a deck where white egg chairs circle a fire pit – popular for evening canapés and cocktails – and a mezzanine pool deck with lounges, hammocks and a four-poster daybed.
Elysian Retreat is the sort of place where you might strum a guitar (there’s one in the lounge), read a book, play a boardgame, laze by the pool, do yoga, kayak, snorkel, hike into the rainforest, or sip a Long Island Iced Tea in a hammock. It’s definitely not the spot for anyone seeking a choice of restaurants and bars, hair salons or kids’ clubs (kids aren’t allowed).
The staff all seem really happy to be there so the vibe is warm and relaxed – an island of willing castaways.
The food is seriously good. Standout dishes included a sriracha chilli and garlic calamari salad, pork belly bao and a kombu-wrapped red emperor, along with good wines and great cocktails.
Do get out on the reef. For all their suffering, corals are resilient creatures and there are always pockets of beauty to be found beneath the Coral Sea.
Many tourism operators are now also reef protectors; the money you spend with them helps spread the conservation message and fund vital monitoring and rehabilitation work. Ocean Rafting does exhilarating day trips to the beauty spots of Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet with guided snorkelling on still-vibrant reefs.
My favourite time of day on Long Island is at sunset when the sea and sky are cast in rose-gold light so brilliant and beautiful that every guest reaches for their phone cameras to capture this transformed, and transformational, place.
“These days a lot of travellers are very conscious of their carbon footprint,” says Elysian’s manager Charlton Craggs. “The dream is to make the Whitsundays a carbon-neutral destination.”
OFF-SETTING THE SCENE
Elysian Retreat currently offsets 150 per cent of its annual emissions, including all the diesel fuel used to transport supplies, staff and the occasional guest by boat. Though most visitors arrive by helicopter from Proserpine or Hamilton Island. Those emissions aren’t directly offset by the resort, but once they reach the island the stay’s completely guilt-free.
The writer travelled to the Whitsundays as a guest of Tourism Australia. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com