The Underwater Art Trail Helping Reefs Recover in the Whitsundays

In early 2017, the Whitsunday Islands were hit with a severe tropical cyclone that devastated many of the local townships and natural environments. The category four storm made landfall near Airlie Beach, with wind gusts recorded over 250km/h and more than $2.73 billion in damages incurred by local communities.

The damage to the natural environment was not fully realised until several weeks after the storm passed, with many of the coral reefs and coastal environments destroyed or heavily devastated by the rough seas and powerful winds of the cyclone. Popular snorkelling spots at Blue Pearl Bay, near Hayman Island, and Manta Ray Bay, off Hook Island, sustained extensive damage, along with several other nearby pristine coral reef environments.

Reef Ecologic, a Townsville based company founded by marine biologist Adam Smith, has played a large role in assisting in the recovery of the affected underwater sites through their Whitsunday Reef Recovery and Public Art project. The project has been a collaboration between Reef Ecologic, the local governments, tourism bodies and Australian artists, to create six underwater sculptures available for divers to visit around the islands, along with two reef restoration coral nurseries. It is a project with major environmental and social benefits that hopes to promote tourism and aid in the recovery of many of the threatened underwater ecosystems.  

“The underwater art and reef restoration projects have been small scale but extremely positive for environmental, social and economic changes in the Whitsundays since Cyclone Debbie.”

Reef Ecologic are currently working on twelve projects that range from large multi-year research projects to small community events, all inline with their mission ‘for a better planet’. This month they are planning on planting over 1000 corals from the Whitsundays nurseries to the reefs that were damaged by Cyclone Debbie, which will be a small environmental benefit as well as a great example of how we can all make a difference.

Adam admits that there have been many challenges in planning, designing and delivering innovative projects such as the Whitsunday Reef Recovery and Public Art project. These have included limited time, limited funding, extensive research and consultation, complex permit requirements and working with artists and engineers who had never created or installed an underwater sculpture. The underwater artists who contributed are Brian Robinson, Col Henry, Adriaan Vanderlugt, Jessa Lloyd with assistance from Nicky Bidu Prior.

Despite the odds seemingly stacked against Adam and his team at Reef Ecologic, six sculptures crafted by globally renowned artists have been installed at sites around the Whitsunday Islands and are open to the public for underwater exploration. Collectively titled the Whitsundays Ngaro Underwater Marine Sculpture Trail, the artworks range in size between 2-6 metres and are submerged at depths of 2-9 metres, making them accessible to both divers and snorkellers. The sculptures are now partially encrusted in marine life including algae, seaweed, barnacles and sponges. A recent scientific survey recorded 21 species of fish and 319 individuals including damselfish, angelfish, cardinalfish, surgeonfish and coral trout.

Adam supervised the installation of the sculptures underwater and was one of the first to see them in their new domain. He has since visited the completed sculptures regularly over the past 11 months and seen them transform with the environment as they are covered in algae and attract fish and invertebrates.

“The experience of diving with underwater sculptures on the Great Barrier Reef is different for everyone. My personal experience is that the sculptures are thought provoking, empowering and educational. I particularly love seeing them as new homes for fish.”

He encourages tourists to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands, after seeing the recovery to full health in many areas, and the encouraging recovery in several of the cyclone-devastated areas. Despite parts of the reef struggling due to natural and human impacts, including the death of some corals, other areas of coral are very healthy.

The Great Barrier Reef is vast, diverse and amazing. It is one of the best known and most complex natural systems on Earth and is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. While it’s known mostly for its large maze of colourful reefs, its intricate architecture also provides a home for a huge number of animals and plants.

"I encourage tourists to visit the Great Barrier Reef and see the beautiful reefs, islands, corals, fish and perhaps even a turtle, shark or whale."

Ecologically committed travellers should investigate participation in citizen science, reef recovery or other programs. Be a considerate traveller, offset flights and aim to make a positive difference for the reef and communities.

Photography by Riptide Creative


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