Headlines have portrayed Australia’s bucket-list destination as dead, or dying. But that’s an oversimplification of a complex story—and the most dire threat from tourism may be what you least expect.
Page 53 of my dive log from 1992 contains the details of my 26th scuba dive. For location, I wrote: “study site, Davies Reef, GBR.” Under purpose: “Acanthaster fert expt.”
At the time, I was a 25-year-old graduate student in marine science at the University of Southern California. I had a berth on a research cruise organized by the Australian Institute of Marine Science to the Great Barrier Reef near Townsville, about midway along its latitudinal expanse. The project’s aim was to understand the population explosion of the sea star Acanthaster planci. These prickly echinoderms have the common name crown of thorns starfish, often shortened to COTS.
Since the 1960s, swarms of COTS have intermittently infested the Reef, eating coral with the voraciousness of locusts on crops. They were—and still are—among the greatest threats to the coral. Half of the Reef bears scars from COTS outbreaks.
On dive #26, my job was to scan for COTS, collect them with massive barbecue tongs to avoid getting poked, and return them to the research boat for study. We induced spawning and collected the eggs in a modified giant syringe called a COTSucker. A single female, it would turn out, produces 35 million eggs a year. That kind of fertility is why population control has proven difficult.
My search target was about the size of a dinner plate, rust- or purple-colored with 8 to 21 arms arrayed around a central disk like petals of a sunflower. During the day, COTS hide in dark crannies. Peeking into those shadows, I met nervous cardinal fish and spider-like feather stars. Sparkling clouds of blue chromis tucked themselves into the arms of branching corals. The pastel lips of giant clams kissed closed as I kicked past.