You may have about the "death" of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most staggeringly beautiful features of the natural world: "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old," wrote Rowan Jacobson for Outside magazine in October, in an "obituary" that was shared thousands of times on social media. Fact: The reef is under incredible strain, due to myriad environmental stressors, from elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to warmer, more acidic ocean water. Also fact: Many environmentalists — and lovers of the reef — are working harder than ever to protect what remains and safeguard our shared legacy.

Three of them are friends: Malia Rouillon, of Siren of the Seas; activist Alice Forrest; and Chrystal Dawn, a free surfer, writer, and yoga teacher. Here, we talked to them about what the reef means to them — and what they're doing to save it. 

First up, Malia. 

When asked to explain her relationship to the sea, Malia Rouillion has a rather profound response. “The ocean is engrained into my soul,” she says. For many people, such a statement might smack of hyperbole, but from Malia – the co-creator of grassroots ocean preservation organization Sirens for the Sea – it’s an utterly appropriate statement. Growing up in Australia’s Coffs Harbour and a native of the Seychelles, she has spent her entire life not just living on the ocean, but loving it, too. Fittingly, her entire life’s work has been dedicated towards marine-related conservation efforts, most recently focusing on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

It’s no small task. An international treasure and critically important ecological system – the largest of its kind – the Great Barrier Reef is under increasing threat of extinction due to the effects of climate change and global industrialization. The fundamental issue is coral bleaching; it happens when coral experiences high stress (usually from rising temperatures) and can be precursor to coral death. In a recent survey, scientists found that ninety-three percent of coral in the Great Barrier Reef is now bleached – a situation so ominous that two-thirds of Australians believe that the reef should be declared a “national emergency.”

It’s easy to feel gloomy about the prospects of the Great Barrier Reef — but with people like Malia leading a vigorous charge for awareness and activation, hope remains. Ahead, she charts for us her course to reef protection and explains her relationship to what she calls “The Coral Sea Beauty.”

You grew up in Australia’s Coffs Harbour, a famously beautiful beachside location. What was that like and how did it influence your relationship to the ocean?

Over the years so much has contributed towards my overall relationship with the ocean. I was so fortunate to have grown up in such an amazing area full of bio-diversity; to this day, the Split Solitary Marine Park in Coffs Harbour is an endless playground full of awe-inspiring landscapes.

Growing up, my relationship with the sea was initially pure fascination – things like counting the timing of wave intervals, layman meteorology, discovering rock pool wonderlands, or the feeling of paddling through your first set. Today, it’s deeper. Recently, my family did extensive research into our Seychelles heritage and ancestors and learned that the Roullions originated as pirates and were actually part of some of the first fleets of merchant traders between our home islands and India. I guess you could say the ocean is part of who I am.

 

You’re a lifelong environmentalist. How did you get started?

 

I have been involved in what I like to call “the enviro bubble” for over a decade. It began at a young age, starting with “show-and-tell” presentations of sea creatures I found on the weekend; my parents had to accept the fact that most of my time was spent on a creative level within nature. I was always doing things like mastering different tree house builds in our mango tree orchard or reading the latest National Geographic releases.

After graduating from high school, I immediately made my way to Northern Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. I was studying and working within the Whitsundays region as an eco tour guide, educating tourists on the ecology above and under water. While studying for a dual bachelor in environmental and marine science, I realized biology wasn’t my path; I was more interested by how the ocean actually works: the physical components of meteorology, climate, the chemical attributes… so I re-focused on oceanography. I just wanted to know everything.

Let’s discuss conserving the Great Barrier Reef, which is now the focus of your life’s work. Why is it such a magnificent – and critical – element of our planet?

Being situated on the largest single living organism to ever exist is nothing short of amazing and breathtaking; it’s like observing a textbook that continuously writes itself on a daily basis. The reef itself holds a multitude of history in all aspects of evolution; it’s 500,000 years old and it’s the only living thing on Earth visible from outer space. It’s also massive, encompassing 344,400 square kilometers and 900 islands. And it’s home to one quarter of all marine species.

We know rainforests are important for the planet, but the health of the oceans is even more important: Think of coral reefs like the rainforests of the sea. They are some of the most bio-diverse and productive ecosystems on earth.

Explain to us what exactly is happening in the Great Barrier Reef.

Earlier this year, the Northern Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst bleaching event in its history. Coral bleaching occurs when the symbiosis algae – which lives in the tissue of the coral – is ejected, which causes the coral to turn white. This algae ejection happens because of distress, usually due to a dramatic change, such as temperature. The bad news is that those living algae that it expels encompass ninety percent of its needed energy to grow and survive. As a result, an estimated 67 percent of the shallow-water corals have died in the last eight to nine months.

Already, ten percent of coral reefs have been damaged beyond repair; if we continue with business as usual – overfishing, supporting fossil fuels and climate change, emitting harmful chemicals, industrializing the natural world… the list literally goes on – scientists predict that 90 percent of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030.

The Great Barrier Reef is an aquatic wonderland. It has survived ice ages. But it won’t survive the pressure of climate change and the rapid expansion of the fossil fuel industries.

 

How did your ocean protection organization, Sirens of the Sea, come to be?

 

I had been part of the environmental sector of mining, and over those years, I witnessed firsthand extensive destruction and loss of life via industrialization, system loopholes, toxic contamination, and falsified, misleading information. After a long battle with personal morals, ethics, and compassion followed by whistle blowing, I resigned. I couldn’t be a part of what was destroying everything I ever knew.

Sirens of the Sea is a grassroots movement born out of that experience; we’re a small team of scientists and salty folk specializing in different areas of marine and environmental conservation. For example, the Save the Kimberely campaign [a successful movement which stopped mining at in James Price Point, in Western Australia] originated thanks to my co-founder, Jess Fissenden. We decided to create Protect the Reef as a sister campaign, with Sirens For The Sea as the overarching organization. I was still working in the environmental sector of mining and Jess was based out of the Kimberley, with access to on-the-ground information. This was three years ago; today, we’re a small, tight-knit team that contributes research and industry knowledge wherever and whenever we can. We believe everyone has the right to know the truth.

What specifically are you doing to help protect the reef?

In terms of the reef, we have a group of volunteers gathering research throughout our hub of the southern Great Barrier Reef; here we are collaborating and assisting in a citizen science program which is in association with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

We’re also in the midst of protesting the Carmicheal mega-mine. This will be the largest coalmine to ever exist in Australia. It is located 500 kilometers inland from the reef, with its port sectioned into actual marine park waters. Operating the mine will require 12 billion liters of water each year from local rivers and underground aquifers – which is enough drinking water for every Queenslander for three years. And, worst of all, the burning of coal from Carmichael would produce four times the fossil fuel emissions of New Zealand. It is a catastrophe for the climate and for the Great Barrier Reef.

Our next step is direct action. There isn’t a lot of time left until Carmicheal mega-mine is underway. What we have planned is under wraps, so you’ll have to stay tuned!

What you’re doing feels so daunting – but so important. What can we learn from your work?

Most people think that the ocean is a vast and unlimited resource; what happens to the ocean doesn't affect "my life." But did you know that over seventy percent of the air we breathe comes from the ocean and is produced by plankton? Or that reefs die without sharks – and then without reefs we lose ocean life?

I think the question you must ask is this: How important is survival to us and what will our future generations have? We need to keep fighting the good fight because soon enough we will come to realize that there is no Planet B.