22 Mar 2022


In Dyirbal language, ‘nguri’ is a word used to say that an action was done in order to redress a balance. In light of the recent mass coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, WWF-Australia travelled to Saltwater Country in Tropical North Queensland to share stories, memories and passionate calls for action with the Gudjuda and Girringun Rangers.

A long time ago, the Great Barrier Reef was part of Rainforest Country

Looking out across the waters of Hinchinbrook Island, Gudjuda Elder Uncle Eddie Smallwood smiles when he remembers his carefree childhood growing up on the Great Barrier Reef around Townsville.

“At night-time, me and my older brothers and friends used to fish for crayfish,” he says. “We would see all sorts of different fish that lived on the Reef."

“A long time ago, the Reef was part of our land, and our people could fish right on its edge. It’s only through climate change that the water has risen and pushed us back. But at low tide, you can still see the coral growing on the old fishing traps.”

The Great Barrier Reef: more than just a tourist attraction

As a senior ranger with the Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation, Uncle Eddie and his team of dedicated Indigenous land and sea rangers continue a long and proud tradition of caring for Country, their Country.

To them, this magnificent braided landscape of rainforests and rivers, cays and coral is much more than an ancient food source or a popular tourist attraction. The Great Barrier Reef and its catchments are a source of songs and storylines, customs and creatures central to their identity and well-being.

Another mass coral bleaching event is happening on the Reef “right now”

Uncle Eddie is worried about the explosion in crown of thorns starfish, the mass coral bleaching events, the overfishing, and proliferation of rubbish and plastic. For First Nations peoples, all these events are connected as "there's no separation between land and sea" in Indigenous culture, explains WWF-Aus' Indigenous Engagement Manager and proud Wakka Wakka man, Cliff Cobbo.

“First Peoples right across the planet have a deep, rich and meaningful understanding of how land and sea act together in the story of humanity." - WWF-Australia’s Indigenous Engagement Manager, Wakka Wakka man, Cliff Cobbo.

(Pictured L-R) WWF-Australia’s Cliff Cobbo and Uncle Eddie Smallwood ( Gudjuda Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation) overlooking Hinchinbrook Island National Park= part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
© WWF-Australia / Vanessa Barnett

The health of the Reef is once again at stake, as it has just been confirmed that another mass coral bleaching event is happening on the Great Barrier Reef right now. This is the fourth time since 2016. The Reef is now suffering widespread bleaching damage at the rate of more than once every two years. This devastating event comes as new research shows Australia is set to blow its emissions budget by more than double.

It’s time for urgent Indigenous-led collaboration in protecting Sea Country

Uncle Eddie agrees it’s time for urgent collaboration in protecting the Great Barrier Reef’s future.

“The coral is dying from climate change – the heat, the cyclones and other natural disasters,” Uncle Eddie says. “There’s a whole lot of marine animals getting poisoned or eating rubbish that washes out to sea from the mainland."

“We’ve been looking after the Reef for thousands of years. Now it’s about sharing that with other non-Indigenous people so that we can work together and solve some of these issues.”

Our good friends and partners, the Girringun and Gudjuda Rangers, work on the front line of conservation every day. The stakes are high.

“Any part of losing Country is devastating to Aboriginal people,” says Sonya Takau, also from the Girringun Aboriginal Corporation. “It’s who we are and where we come from."

(Pictured L-R) Girringun Aboriginal Corporation’s Sonya Takau and Cindy-Lou Togo at Cardwell Spa Pool
© WWF-Australia / Vanessa Barnett

“But it’s not just our home. The Great Barrier Reef gives life to so much to our beautiful snubfin dolphins and green sea turtles. It’s their home, too, and they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Protecting the Reef as an “inheritance that we are leaving for future generations”

Stories of the brave Indigenous women who would steal eggs from the nests of female crocodiles to control crocodile populations have been handed down generations to Djiru Traditional Owner Uncle Leonard Andy. “On the full moon, the male crocodiles would sing to the moon,” he says. “And we had people who would go and sing with them."

Djiru Traditional Owner Uncle Leonard Andy ( Girringun Aboriginal Corporation) on the beach at Brook Islands National Park= part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
© WWF-Australia / Vanessa Barnett

“I want people in the future to be able to appreciate what we appreciate today. It’s like an inheritance that we are leaving for future generations.”