The Battle Of Ningaloo Reef

In 2020, areas close to the Ningaloo Reef were added to the Federal Government of Australia’s oil and gas exploration map, leaving fishers and tourism operators speechless. But Paul Gamblin of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, alongside several other environmental groups and thousands of concerned citizens, fought back—and won.

WORDS BY PAUL GAMBLIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS GURNEY

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We, the brainiest of creatures, are still mostly oblivious to the ways of natural systems; more complicated than the most intricate Swiss watches, the biotic versions of cogs, whirring wheels and springs honed and evolved through spans of time only the best thinkers amongst us can truly grasp.

 

Coral reefs are surely among the most wondrous of all our planet’s internal worlds. If there were a league table of ecosystems, reefs would be top-tier, even just by the measure of the sheer multiplicity of life forms they host. And you don’t need a PhD in marine biology to grasp that; you only have to ogle at one for a moment. They’re heaving riots of creatures; some conventional, the way an adult might self-consciously draw a fish, but so many are childlike and impossible, flailing and wild-armed with convention-busting shapes like they’re auditioning for Dr. Seuss.

 

Somehow, as I drift in a lagoon at desert-fringed Ningaloo in a remote part of faraway Western Australia, the coral gardens are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect, and more than any other place; where I go, even if just figuratively, when I need respite from the ‘real’ world. (And enough’s been said about the impulse for hiatus from the all-too-human existential reality, this year of all years.) The value of reef dreaming as tonic for these times is not to be underestimated.

Exmouth is home to at least 63 species of sharks and rays, 15 species of sea snakes, and five species of turtles.

But with coral reefs, it’s so much more than cosmetics. Despite occupying a minuscule proportion of the sea–you might say they’re but a drop in the ocean–they support about a quarter of ocean life (and surprisingly large numbers of people). And when you’re floating through Ningaloo, that statistic can only make sense: one minute, you’re fixated on the filigree of branching coral as fragile as blown glass, marveling at how it survives the nibbling beaks of flocks of parrot fish, the next, you’re hauling in air faster than the snorkel can supply to calm yourself because an animal vastly bigger than you, like a 40-ton humpback whale—a sign of hope for conservation—is sweeping past.

 

It packs an emotional punch all the more potent because it stands among a tragically shrinking proportion of the world’s reefs that haven’t yet succumbed to mass bleaching and widespread death, or been subjected to the compounding trauma from pollution or smothering by adjacent agriculture or mining. Rampant over-development has not overtaken Ningaloo, but that’s not to say it isn’t starting to show warning signs of contemporary, human-induced wear and tear. Ningaloo’s cool, clean water, relative good health, and breathtaking diversity and abundance make it worthy of its World Heritage crown, bestowed to it on the back of community campaigning only a decade ago.

 

It’s against all this mind-bending wonder and deep-soul immersion that the prospect of heavy industry’s incursion here at Ningaloo, of all places, that is so confounding and distressing. The role of fossil fuels in super-heating the oceans causing coral bleaching is uncontested by anyone with even a mild exposure to ocean science. But reef environments themselves, in places like Western Australia, are also under direct threat from oil and gas—as are adjacent wildlife hotspots like Exmouth Gulf, known as Ningaloo’s nursery. Think: animals on the brink of extinction like the bizarre sawfish, and those with trend lines heading that way, too, like dugongs, whale sharks, and turtles; whales nurse their newborn calves; dolphins cruise the shallows chasing feed. It pulses with life, and unsurprisingly, it’s the lifeblood of the local tourism industry, which provides most of the region’s jobs.

The Exmouth Gulf faces ongoing proposals for salt mining and major port developments. But the chief underlying threat to the region is the offshore fossil fuel industry.

However, where many see this place as a last refuge for animals we’re extinguishing from the planet, others in the big end of town and government see its calm waters and beaches as the ideal places for gargantuan industrial development. So, this place, Ningaloo-Exmouth Gulf, is where battle lines are being drawn and people who have a deep affection for the place, including conservation groups, have come together to put forth an alternative view (and not for the last time). The global juggernauts of the oil and gas industry hunker at their industrial beachhead in an ancient place called the Pilbara just north of Ningaloo from where the world draws not a small portion of its fossil fuels. Regularly now, their intentions to expand into Ningaloo and Exmouth Gulf become all too clear. Norwegian engineering company Subsea 7 seeks to drag pipelines through the Exmouth Gulf and Ningaloo Marine Park for use at offshore oil and gas rigs, some which could essentially be on the reef’s doorstep. It would impact an area of Gulf seafloor equivalent to 1,000 football fields, located around humpback whale nursery areas and biodiversity hotspots. It’s since been deferred until a wider impact study by the Environmental Protection Authority can be completed.

 

But this world-weary tale reverberates everywhere. From a time not so long ago when many human settlements were islands surrounded by nature, now the tables are turned and we encircle the last dissolving wafers of the wild. Looking on incredulously are tens of thousands of Australians, and likeminded people around the world who may never be able to visit the place, but know quality when they learn of it. In Perth, the closest city to Ningaloo–if a 15-hour drive can ever be close–there is a strong conservation ethic, despite it still being a mining town in many ways. It’s also because some clichés about Australia do ring true here: so many Western Australian locals are adventurous, outdoorsy types who toil all year so they can head to the coast to play. The turquoise lagoons, waves, fishing grounds, adventure tourism and endless beaches at Ningaloo-Exmouth Gulf are somewhere near the top of their list. And with the state and international borders closed because of COVID-19, the place is heaving.

The name Ningaloo comes from the Aboriginal Wajarri language, meaning promontory, deep water, or high land jutting into the sea.
It’s one of only two coral reefs in the world that have formed along the western side of a continent.

Campaigning in a time of pandemic to resist this industrial surge has certainly thrown up challenges, not the least of which from the coronavirus understandably rendering nigh every other concern trivial by comparison. We didn’t know whether our campaign would even be noticed, but it has been, and we’ve been humbled beyond measure by the enduring and emphatic response across the community to our calls to action. Hordes of people took the time to read the news articles, share our ads, read our emails, sign our letters, and much more. Most recently, it was the deep and reverberating reaction to the nomination of huge areas for new oil and gas exploration off Ningaloo, and another World Heritage area, the evocatively and accurately named, Shark Bay. The community put the government on notice: it will stand up to oil and gas off these precious places.

 

In late-breaking news, the tens of thousands of supporters have reason to smile, at least for a time. The Australian Government recently withdrew its oil and gas nominations of both areas. Then, days later, the Western Australian State Government pressed pause on the huge oil and gas pipeline fabrication facility earmarked for Exmouth Gulf that we’ve been campaigning to stop, and that record numbers of people had reacted to. The project would be adjacent to the Bay of Rest, a description which would, if this churning, cacophonic thing ever went ahead, forever lend itself to the Australian laconic sense of humor.

 

So, it’s a reprieve of sorts for Ningaloo with scientists being given a fleeting chance to describe what might be lost to Exmouth Gulf, and its place in the world if big industry gets its way. In that space, there’s a glimmer of hope that something wondrous and rare like this other world with its creatures great and small will inspire in us a deeper sense of care, and a thought for the future. And that even during these most difficult of times, people from all walks of life will step up and work together for something bigger, and sometimes smaller, than any of us—just because it’s the right thing to do.

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