23 Mar 2016


Pristine coral reefs recently filmed for David Attenborough’s new documentary are now bleached and dying.

The three-part series entitled Great Barrier Reef premiered on the BBC last December to rave reviews and will air on Australian screens next month on the ABC.

Viewers will see beautiful coral but it looks nothing like that now because of bleaching. 

Professor Justin Marshall, from the University of Queensland, showed Sir David around Lizard Island.

“I am very unhappy about the prospect of contacting Sir David Attenborough,” Professor Marshall said.

“I am totally saddened to have to communicate with him after what I have seen here."

“Quite literally the reefs he saw when on Lizard Island and the ones we took him to on the outer barrier are in serious distress. Many of the corals he saw are already dying."

“Global warming and coral bleaching is an unfolding disaster caused by burning fossil fuels,” he said.

Coral can recolonise sections of reef that suffer bleaching mortality but it can take years to decades.

The Attenborough documentary also features clownfish - the species made famous by the movie Finding Nemo – but they too are now suffering because of the underwater heat wave impacting the far northern section of the Reef.

Last week Professor Marshall and a team from the citizen science project CoralWatch took sad images around Lizard Island showing clownfish trying to hide in anemones bleached a ghostly white.

The little fish in the photographs face an uncertain future.

Dr Anna Scott, from Southern Cross University, has been studying sea anemones for the past 10 years and said heat stress can kill anemones in the same way it can kill coral.

“Just like corals, anemones have single-celled algae called zooxanthellae living within their tissue and it’s the zooxanthellae that give both corals and anemones their colour,” Dr Scott said.

“When the water gets too warm for too long the zooxanthellae produce toxic levels of oxygen and the corals and anemones expel the algae and turn white."

“If the water temperature returns to normal the algae can recolonise but if the heat stress persists the anemones and the coral can die."

“Anemonefish simply can’t survive in the wild without their anemone homes. Normally they hide among the anemones’ stinging tentacles which predators avoid. Without that protection they are easily picked off,” she said.

Dr Scott called for more research into how anemones and their dependent anemonefish are impacted by bleaching.

“We don’t know a lot about anemone mortality and recovery rates so it would be good to get out there on the Great Barrier Reef and document the impacts and hopefully their recovery,” she said.

WWF Great Barrier Reef campaigner Louise Matthiesson said the bleaching event is a wakeup call.

“The Reef can recover but we must speed up the shift to clean, renewable energy and we must build reef resilience by reducing runoff pollution from farms and land clearing,” she said.

Images are available upon request.

WWF-Australia Media Contact: Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571