It is not often that human beings get to stand on dry land anywhere on planet Earth and know they are the first to leave a footprint.
Stepping off her inflatable tender on to a sand and coral rubble outcrop at Holmes Reef, 200km offshore from Cairns, photographer Julia Sumerling said: “Welcome to the newest islands in the Coral Sea.”
The island on which we had stood a little over a week ago at dusk had been forged out of the fury of tropical cyclone Nathan. We were on the first boat to travel to the area after the slow-moving storm passed on, leaving at least six new Australian islands in its wake.
Holmes Reef is a tiny dot in an immense rump of ocean that is widely regarded as one of the world’s most pristine marine wilderness areas.
The dive vessel we were on, Spoil Sport, had arrived there earlier in the day, three days after cyclone Nathan passed, and anchored about a kilometre from the new coral cays.
Since mooring at the reef, Sumerling and the boat’s skipper, Trevor Jackson, had trained their binoculars on the new outcrops of dry ground and scratched their heads, trying to remember if the islands had been there when they last visited in January. Back then they recalled there was only one very small cay that was so low above sea level that it was almost submerged by the high tide.
The new islands there now, however, had stayed high and dry all day.
Jackson said: “There’s definitely more islands there. The cyclone would have driven a massive north-west swell that lifted the sand and coral rubble up above the surface. There must have been massive weather to throw those islands up and there will be massive weather needed to take them away.”
He also observed that another coral cay usually nearby seemed to have disappeared after Nathan.
The Coral Sea is exactly the kind of place that can throw up new Australian territory (and take it away) without humans knowing.
“These coral cays come and go a fair bit out here,” Jackson said.
It would take until late in the evening before Sumerling was able to properly solve the mystery of the new islands.
The Coral Sea commonwealth marine reserve is still mostly beyond the reach of the 21st century, a wild place that starts where the Great Barrier Reef ends and stretches from near Bundaberg to the south and to the tip of Cape York in the north. Its eastern boundary is almost halfway to Vanuatu and on maps it is so enormous that the marine park looks like the shadow cast by the entire state of Queensland.
In spite of being at sea for most of last week, the Spoil Sport did not see a single other vessel.
It is perhaps most well known to many Australians as the place where the weather goes to breed cyclones, whales travel to calve and sharks gather in numbers that are rarely seen anywhere else.
It is the kind of environment where one morning we dived at Osprey Reef and witnessed a feeding frenzy of nearly 50 sharks, and in the afternoon a small group of us had a stunning, close and casual encounter with the largest species of hammerhead shark – a great hammerhead.
Scientists and environmentalists say that Australians are going to be learning a lot more about the Coral Sea in coming months because it is the centrepiece of a national network of marine parks that were declared by the previous federal Labor government. That network of more than 2.3m square kilometres of marine reserves around the continent is being reviewed.
This means that the future of the entire 989,842 square kilometre Coral Sea commonwealth marine reserve is in doubt. The Abbott government suspended the operation of the park’s zoning and on 31 March public submissions to the national review will close.
Eminent scientists such as the director of the ARC centre of excellence for coral reef studies, Professor Terry Hughes, say the reserve is being derided by the acronym POOP – a Park Only On Paper.
Many of Hughes’s colleagues have argued that the federal government needs to go back to the drawing board with the management of the reserve. They say the situation, where there is a government-mandated free-for-all inside a supposed marine reserve, is a disaster.
“We now have the ridiculous situation where we have one of the world’s largest marine parks without any no-take areas or protected marine reserves,” says Hughes.
“The Coral Sea is one of the last few pristine places in the world. We used to talk about the Great Barrier Reef [GBR] as the jewel in the crown but now we talk about the Coral Sea as the jewel because, by the government’s own assessment, the GBR is degraded.”
At the time that the Coral Sea marine park was being created in 2012, Hughes and 300 fellow scientists from Australia and around the world wrote to the federal government appealing for stronger protections for the Coral Sea. But, says Hughes, if anything the situation is now far worse.
“Based on a scientific appraisal of the plan, we conclude that the reserve proposal has significant shortcomings,” said the 2012 letter. “In particular, the representativeness of the no-take reserve is poor, with inadequate protection for key habitats in the west and south, contrary to the Australian government’s own principles for marine conservation.
“The draft plan also makes significant concessions to pelagic fishing activities and to future recreational fishing that are inconsistent with achieving the conservation of species and ecosystems affected by these activities. The proposed marine national park is therefore not effective at representing the diversity of important habitats, environmental gradients, dispersal potential and highly sensitive species.”
While mining and mineral exploration were excluded from the Coral Sea commonwealth marine reserve by the previous government, recreational, commercial and tourism operations are still permitted. Dive operators such as Mike Ball say that when it comes to the management of the Coral Sea marine park, his organisation is aghast that the new government looks intent on destroying the Coral Sea management plan of the Labor government.
“We took great pride in the fact that Australian governments lead the world in reef management,” says Ball. “Other nations learned from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and set up marine parks to minimise the impact of extractive fishing and collection activities while supporting their tourism industries.
“While Australia previously led the way we are very concerned and embarrassed that the fish and shark populations at our best Coral Sea dive sites are receiving no protection from fishing and other extractive endeavours.”
But the president of the Queensland Gamefishing Association, Graeme Devin, says the two industries can co-exist.
“We understand the need for a marine park but the issue is how they zone it,” Devin says. “Generally speaking game fishers are practising tag and release. Realistically, diving tourism and gamefishing are both minimal impact and I am more of the opinion that we would have less impact.”
He also denies that there is a problem with less ethical boats travelling to the Coral Sea and causing carnage.
It is not just the big and the charismatic creatures that make the Coral Sea so profoundly wondrous. It is a place where the small things are as stunning as the large.
After nightfall, a few hours after walking on the new cays, we dived into the dark waters off Holmes Reef, leaping into the ocean from the back of the ship under a sliver of a crescent moon. Once we submerged, we headed towards a cave in the reef wall, 20 metres below the surface. Before entering the cave we turned off our torches.
All around us danced pinpricks of light that looked like they were being made by laser pointers. The show was produced by flashlight fish and if we weren’t constrained by the amount of air in our scuba tanks I could have floated and stared into the cave and watched all night.
But this is an underwater wilderness and it was time to return to the surface. After ascending from the cave, we floated at a depth of five metres for a safety stop, between the reef and the boat. In the distance I could see a big shimmering ball of light on the surface of the ocean indicating where the ship was. I turned my back on that light and looked off into the ocean’s night, enjoying the warm weightlessness and the infinite black of the Coral Sea without a burning sun.
I swore aloud into my scuba regulator with wonder at what an astonishing place I was in at that very moment.
Back on board and after we had dried, Sumerling approached me with her computer and was almost beside herself with excitement. She opened her laptop and said, pointing at a picture: “The key is the Holmes Reef weather station. There it is in January and you can see there is just one sand cay. Here it is today and now there’s six.”
She joked: “I think we should call it the jewel archipelago.”
No matter how ephemeral those new islands may be, Sumerling’s face said it all.
As far as she was concerned the case was closed, not only on the mystery of the islands, but also on the bigger issue: the Coral Sea is officially amazing.