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Murder on the Reef

Murder on the Reef

Written by Allen Dobrovolsky & Alex Fitzwater | Review by Helen Wheels

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Great Barrier Reef is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Located on the coast of Australia, it spans from Queensland, stretching past the southern coastal town of Bundaberg and moving up along the northern tip of Cape York. A total of 3000km, or 1800 miles. Its vast expanse is home to hundreds of different types of coral, species of fish, rays, and dolphins, to name a few. The Great Barrier Reef is also home to the endangered Green Sea Turtle and is a mating ground for humpback whales. Considering the enormity of life within its waters is mind-blowing.

“Murder on the Reef” sounds like a crime drama, not a way to describe the effects of human interference and climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. It turns out, murder may be the most appropriate description, because it implies a choice was made. Tourists have been leaving their mark on the Great Barrier Reef’s fragile ecosystem for over a hundred years. We used to think it was impenetrable, unchangeable; however, the time has proven otherwise. As the documentary points out, the Australian government released an outlook report that blames climate change for putting the world’s reefs at risk. Truthfully though, any interference changes the ecosystem. While we snorkel through its pristine waters, we are changing the Great Barrier Reef in ways we can’t imagine.

Australia is also one of the leading providers of coal in the world, and the income it brings creates a conflict between doing what’s right for the environment and what will bring money into the economy. The concern is that management of the reef’s resources lacks because of a clash of agendas. Scientists and politicians argue over the threat of harm to the reef, with big money alleging that environmentalists are blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Ultimately, politicians argue that climate change is a natural occurrence that we have no power to affect. If we believe that we can’t do anything about it, then environmentalists are obviously trying to push their own agenda.

Dobrovolsky is an environmental scientist who got his Ph.D. studying the effects of Chernobyl, a human-made disaster resulting from a nuclear reactor being pushed beyond its capacity. His documentary, “Murder on the Reef” runs close to an hour and sheds light on the clash between money and nature; a clash resulting in decisions from which there may be no turning back, environmentally speaking. Dobrovolsky interviews Australian activists, indigenous leaders, and research scientists who are greatly concerned with the continued development along the fragile coastline. According to the documentary, as much as 50 percent of the coral making up the Great Barrier Reef has already died due to a variety of environmental and human-made factors.

One example of human-made issues for the Great Barrier Reef cited in the documentary is the Gladstone port expansion project. It ended in an environmental disaster, which contaminated the harbor. The dredge that spilled into the waters killed hundreds of fish, turtles, and dolphins, disturbing the fragile environment within the reef. The U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say, “When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white” (NOAA, 10/05/17). As the documentary points out, one such massive bleaching event took place in 2016 and killed much of the coral in the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. The substantial loss of living coral is indeed a sad observation when we consider how much life depends on this vibrant living structure.

The documentary makes it clear that many politicians don’t take the impact of coal mining and tourism on the Great Barrier Reef seriously. Dobrovolsky makes his point by contrasting a classroom of university students who are deeply moved while watching aerial footage of the devastation caused by bleaching, with politicians who laugh at the fledgling scientist’s emotional outburst, politicians whose campaigns are supported by the coal industry. In a case where time is of the essence, the time wasted debating whether or not scientists are simply trying to get funding could be the last straw.

Australia is torn between the need for an affordable energy source, money generated by coal mining as well as tourism, and the matter of the “degradation in water quality” in the Great Barrier Reef. While government officials debate the truth behind environmental science, global warming, dredge from industry, and tourism continues to deplete the once vibrant reef. One must wonder if it’s already too late, and if it is, what’s next?


Helen Wheels is an independent filmmaker, freelance writer, and visual artist. She has produced, directed, worked as a set designer and scenic painter, and has been an assistant director on dozens of films. Wheels graduated from Shoreline College with an AAAS in Digital Film Production and is continuing toward her MFA in New Media Communications.  Known for her eye to detail and advanced research skills, Wheels is currently researching historical events for her latest script and is in the process of developing her online writing business.

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