Lizard Island might be the most beautiful in all of Australia, but it’s under threat. With more plastic than people visiting this tropical paradise, Solaye wants to remind us all that the time for change is now, not tomorrow.
There are few things more enthralling than David Attenborough’s voice recounting the wonders of the natural world, especially when that place is somewhere you’re about to see with your very own eyes.
I’m sitting in the East Air waiting area, about to board the one hour flight from Cairns to Lizard Island.
Through the TV mounted above a thematic fish tank, David’s voice floats melodiously as if carried by a breeze.
‘Lizard Island is known for its Research Station,’ he explains. ‘Thanks to their research, we now know coral reefs rival rainforests in biodiversity.’
It was true. The natural wonder I was about to witness possessed a sheer beauty that floored me. But I felt a pang through my chest when I saw it under threat.
Of course, this place had a name and a significance far before Captain Cook came along in 1770. The Dingaal Aboriginal people – the Traditional Owners of the land – have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years and regard it as a sacred place. They call the island Jiigurru. The Dingaal people would come here to conduct initiation ceremonies for young men, hold important meetings between Elders of neighbouring clans, and harvest shellfish, turtles, dugongs and fish.
The Dingaal people are still active in the conservation and management of Lizard Island National Park.
Jigurru lies on the Great Barrier Reef – the magnificent collection of islands, reefs, cays, and lagoons stretching over 2300km. The reef itself is so large, that it’s the only living thing on earth that can be seen from the moon. In short – it’s a pretty remarkable place, and I felt incredibly grateful to be visiting it for the next four days.
It’s Getting Hot In Here
My first full day started early. We had to start early because it was already ridiculously hot. While we were hiding under wide brimmed hats and racing to cool off in the sea, North Queensland was in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave.
It was a surreal experience to read the story in the news the following day.
According to The Guardian:
‘Dozens of record November temperatures have been recorded in the region, most this week along the reef coastline. The most remarkable was at Cairns, where consecutive days reached temperatures of 42.6 and 40.9. The maximum temperature on Tuesday broke a November record that has stood since 1900 by 5.4C.’
It certainly felt that hot. Nevertheless, I was only here for a short time – so I covered up and embraced the sweat.
We set off towards Blue Lagoon, a stunning and isolated beach on the South Side of the island.
The water looked clear and inviting, but we kept walking East along the beach and climbed over the bridge to get to our destination: the dreamlike coconut beach.
The long, straight expanse of white sand stretched out in stark contrast to the turquoise water and reddish hues of the surrounding terrain.
The only way to get over the ridge and down to the beach this way is by trusting an old, thin rope to hold you as you rappel down the cliff-face like a fearless adventurer. So that’s what we did.
Plastic In Paradise
When we got to the bottom, we peeled off our sticky clothes and jumped straight into the water. It was paradise.
I grabbed a snorkel from our palm shelter on the beach and set out to do some exploring. But my heart sunk when I quickly realised I was spotting more diversity in discarded plastic than biodiversity under the water.
Due to the currents and location of this particular beach, plastic from across the Pacific gets swept up here. I saw thin plastic, hard plastic, discarded water bottles, bottles of coke, pieces of rope, cleaning fluid containers, bottle caps, and more.
As we floated peacefully in the crystal-clear water, it occurred to me that there were no other humans in sight. But the plastic footprint of our species was visible from miles away.
Exploring The Underwater World
On my third day we jumped on a boat and sped out across turquoise waves to the outer reef. It was my first time going scuba diving and I felt both nervous and excited.
Eventually the boat stopped adjacent to an exposed section of reef in the middle of the ocean. The dark blues gave way to light turquoise sections where the water got shallower over the coral bommies. We suited up and jumped in.
The descent into the watery depths was surreal but oddly relaxing. I felt like an astronaut, whose suit and air-tank temporarily allowed me the ability to breathe on another planet; the underwater world. I saw a ray hiding out under some coral jet off suddenly in pursuit of something to eat. A beautiful black and white speckled fish swam gently past me. A giant clam opened and closed, revealing bright blue tendrils inside.
Our instructor beckoned me over and gestured at the coral. He pointed to a brown, algae-covered section of coral and drew his finger across his throat. That’s dead coral, I understood. He then pointed to another section, where spindly bone-white pieces were just starting to stick out. He moved his hand to and fro. These coral were in trouble – but they could recover.
According to scientists, the heatwave currently sweeping through North Queensland was increasing the already-above average water temperatures too. This would increase the risk of another serious coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in the new year.
I felt incredibly lucky to be diving that day, witnessing one of the great wonders of the world. Would I be one of the last generations to see it in its full glory? The thought was too much to bear.
Trekking And Turtles
On my last morning we trekked at sunrise to the highest peak on the island, where Captain Cook is said to have climbed in 1770 to scout out the best route for navigating safely through the vast reef.
The weather was so hot that the small mountain was creating its own clouds – and at the very top we could see nothing through the grey fog. The cool mist was refreshing.
On the way down, the clouds cleared and I had one last glimpse at this side of the island from above.
After a short rest we continued our walk around the coastline to Casuarina beach – also home to the esteemed Lizard Island Research Station.
We came here to swim with turtles – and there were tons of them. They seemed to glide effortlessly through the water, poking their heads up every few minutes for a breath of fresh air.
We popped our snorkels on and got in the water with them. I had to keep pinching myself – it really felt like a dream.
I tried not to think of what would happen to these beautiful creatures if they got tangled up in any of the plastic I saw yesterday, washed up on coconut beach.
Out Of The Frying Pan And Into…A Flood
After four jam packed days, it was time to go home. And gosh was it hard to leave this slice of paradise.
I was glued to the window as we took off on the tiny plane, trying to memorise every centimetre of this breathtaking view. I couldn’t believe this was my Tuesday.
The following day my flight back to Sydney was delayed 6 hours for an entirely opposite weather event…While I sat roasting in Cairns, Sydney airport was again in disarray due to unprecedented wind and rains causing flash flooding and massive delays across the board.
It seemed that extreme weather of every kind was really becoming the norm.
I eventually landed in Sydney and was greeted by a wholly different kind of headline.
While I’d been away swimming on the Great Barrier Reef and pondering a future of rising temperatures, plastic pollution, and another coral bleaching event – kids across Australia had actually been doing something about it.
Inspired by a 15-year old student in Sweden who had been skipping school every Friday for months to sit outside Parliament with a sign calling for climate action – now thousands of students across Australia had started organising a massive climate strike of their own.
Two days after I arrived, tens of thousands of school kids in more than 20 different cities across the country marched out of school to call for stronger climate action from our parliamentarians.
Before they’d even gone on strike – the kids had made international news.
People on my Facebook feed were saying it was one of the most inspiring things they’d ever witnessed.
The next generation are rightly concerned about climate change. They’re already stepping up the pressure on our elected officials to care about it too. And we have plenty of opportunity to join them.
What Can You Do?
There are so many things you can do to help protect the environment and preserve this beautiful planet we all love to explore.
To wage war against plastics – you can start by minimising plastics in your own life. Use reusable shopping bags and coffee cups, and avoid buying any produce that’s wrapped in plastic. Sign-up to support campaigns that are targeting big corporations to reduce their plastic packaging, and pressuring governments to enforce that with a policy like the single-use plastic ban just passed by the EU.
Help step up the pressure on our politicians to make the big changes we need to make urgently to save our planet. Write to your MP about a place in nature that’s inspired you, and tell them why you’re concerned about the environmental impacts of climate change and plastic pollution. Personal stories always have more impact. Request to meet with them to discuss their party’s policy on climate change. It is their job to listen to and represent their constituents.
Next time there is a protest to block the opening of a new coal mine, or to call for stronger climate action, be there. Donate, sign petitions, help make climate action a number-one issue in the next election.
Sometimes the problem can seem too large and overwhelming. But there is so much every individual can do to make a big difference. And together, we are even more powerful.
Now imagine those words being narrated by David Attenborough for an extra dose of inspiration.
What can you do?