Australia volunteer vacations, coral bleaching and coral reefs, Great Barrier Reef Australia volunteers.

During reef walking activities, Heron Island visitors participate in monitoring coral bleaching. Brad Cox

Coral bleaching is already responsible for killing more than 16% of the world's coral reefs. Marine biologists believe that if these bleaching events continue, the spectacular undersea gardens of the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of the world will likely be destroyed within three decades.

To save these natural wonders, scientists must understand why bleaching occurs, a phenomenon believed to be linked to global warming. The Great Barrier Reef alone is more than 2,000 kilometers or 1,250 miles in length, and there are tens of thousands of square kilometers of reef on the planet. To gather essential data over such a vast area, scientists are turning to tourists for help.

Healthy coral attracts ecotourism vacationers to Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef. Coral bleaching is measured by volunteer vacationers to the Great Barrier Reef.
Healthy staghorn coral are brown while a bleached white color indicates coral starvation. Justin Marshall

Australia volunteer vacations, coral bleaching and coral reefs, Great Barrier Reef Australia volunteers.

The hard skeleton of coral is built by a community of animals related to jellyfish, coral polyps. The secret to their huge success in the world's warm oceans comes from small plants or algae that each polyp houses within its own body tissue. While these plants provide food for the coral, almost like a self-contained farm or garden, the coral polyp protects the garden from hungry mouths outside. Coral color variations come largely from the number of algae contained within the body of the polyp. Seemingly triggered by unusually warm sea temperatures, loss of coral color results from a breakdown in the relationship between coral and plant during which the algal tenants are evicted.

The tenants are not rejected forever, gardens are re-grown and new algae taken in, but loss of nutrition for the coral polyps takes its toll. About 16% of the world's reefs died after the 1998 bleach. Some coral fully recovered; however, much was in such an exhausted state that the annual breeding cycle was disrupted. The effect of the 2002 bleach is still being assessed, with monitoring the bleach and recovery of coral on even a small reef presenting a huge time-consuming task. What is needed is a quick, but also scientifically sound method of assessment.

Volunteer vacationers to Australia's Great Barrier Reef help monitor coral bleaching due to global warming.
At times, bleached coral reefs are alarmingly visible on Heron Reef. Justin Marshall

Sunshades and Hoses: A Solution?
Speaking at an Ecotourism Australia Conference in late 2006, Andrew Skeat, executive director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, unveiled a proposal that involves watering the ocean surface at peak heat times to avoid coral bleaching, which is caused by higher than average water temperatures linked with global climate change. Under the proposal, a fine spray of seawater will be pumped onto the reef to break up the ocean water, cooling the corals.

A tourism working group established in 2004 to prepare for climate change on the reef found the proposal is effective in reducing radiation and coral bleaching. It also considered permanently placing sunshades over some areas of the reef. The sunshade, currently being developed in Queensland, would be held in place by floating pontoons, according to marine researchers.

Australia volunteer vacations, coral bleaching and coral reefs, Great Barrier Reef Australia volunteers.

On Queensland's Heron Island, a tropical coral cay at the Great Barrier Reef's southern end, scientists have recorded an increased frequency in bleaching events, with major occurrences in 1998 and 2002 and minor events as recently as July 2003. Compelled by the urgency of these events, Associate Professor Justin Marshall of Queensland University and his research team have developed a color chart that allows coral health to be quickly and easily calculated by comparing the chart to the living organism. This breakthrough has made it possible even for untrained observers to assist in this vital research.

Aerial view of Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Aerial view of Heron Island. Brad Cox

Printed on waterproof plastic, the chart illustrates a scale of shades from the darkest through to white. Each shade represents the number of organisms alive in the coral, thereby indicating its current health. Matching the data to sea temperature fluctuations and other stresses, scientifically validates the cause of bleaching on reef systems worldwide.

To augment the small scientific team, thousands of visitors who go out to the reefs every day to snorkel, dive and walk around have joined the monitoring army, making color matches and recording codes. At the Heron Island research station alone, swarms of tourists take guided tours each day to learn about preservation of the coral cay, with many asking researchers, "What can I do to help?"

The Coral Health Chart has provided a simple, effective answer. Some tourists make only a few recordings, others fill a data sheet and ask for another. All the codes they record are either entered into the database on the web site,, by the tourists themselves or delivered to the research team who plug them into the computer database, constantly enriching the quality of information they now have on coral health.

Coral Health Chart allows volunteer vacationers to Heron Island to  monitor coral bleaching.
Coral Watch's Health Monitoring Chart makes it easy to match and report on coral health around the reef. Brad Cox

Dr. Marshall knows that measuring the health of the coral is not going to immediately stop coral bleaching. The facts indicate that to have a real chance of saving the world's reefs, countries around the world must decide to do something about humankind's acceleration of global warming.

Recognizing that it is only by changing consumption patterns that global warming and coral bleaching can be controlled, Justin Marshall is encouraged that the Coral Watch program is raising awareness and demonstrating that individual contributions to saving the environment can make a difference. The research team is now looking at expanding their program to other islands along the Great Barrier Reef. He will be counting on many more volunteer vacationers to be part of that new initiative.

Coral Watch Program
Visitor enthusiasm has led Voyages Hotels & Resorts, as owners of the Heron Island Resort, to offer a Coral Health Reef Walk to their activities program. As awareness grows, so does visitor interest, with activities officers reporting that the first question asked by 90% of resort guests is about coral bleaching. All guides are trained marine biologists so they are able to field most questions thrown their way!

Heron Island Resort has been supporting the Coral Watch program for several years, raising the project's profile through its popular educational Reef Walks and encouraging guests to donate a little of their holiday time to monitor coral health during their resort stay.

"About 20% of our guests enjoy being formally involved in such a worthwhile project," says Resort General Manager, Alistair Cooray. "Volunteers are usually already environmentally aware, often older guests who seem to bring to the documentation task an equal measure of patience and excellent observational skills when they are out on their reef walks. Heron Island Resort is uniquely positioned to understand and appreciate the special environment we live in, and we are delighted to be involved in important research that will hopefully ensure the reef is still healthy many years from now."

Brad Cox is Communications Manager, Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism, Queensland, Australia, email: The Centre is funding a project to take the research team's valuable coral health findings to international destinations.

Inspired? Explore Some More Related Articles!
To learn about the wildlife and ecology of Heron Island, enjoy a richly illustrated natural history vacation article on this magazine's Travel Article Library.

Volunteer feature articles in our web collection: Visit our richly-illustrated feature on "Volunteer Vacations Worldwide", documenting a variety of well established opportunities involving physical and mental challenges, together with a huge dose of holiday satisfaction. Wild dolphin research in Hawaii, orphanage outreach in Peru and India, archaeological excavation in Mongolia, raptor rehabilitation in Alaska, teaching in the Cook Islands, and natural lands restoration in British Columbia, will surely set the motivational juices flowing! Check out our latest volunteer vacation feature articles profiling an agricultural Global Service Corps assignment in Tanzania and the story of Global Volunteer Network and its visionary founder, Colin Salisbury. Or look in on a Global Citizens Network volunteer vacation lending a hand on native reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.

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