AFP deploys underwater RESOURCES

to remote lizard island

In this underwater photo taken on April 5, 2024, marine biologist Anne Hoggett inspects bleached and dead coral around Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, located 270 kilometres (167 miles) north of the city of Cairns. Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef is teetering on the brink, suffering one of the most severe coral bleaching events on record -- the fifth in eight years -- and leaving scientists unsure about its survival. DAVID GRAY / AFP

On a mission to the Great Barrier Reef this month, an AFP photographer, a reporter and a video journalist witnessed Australia's most widespread bleaching event first-hand. AFP's Sydney bureau has wanted to do a deep dive into the Great Barrier Reef - literally and figuratively - for a while. When the opportunity arose this April, it made sense.

We knew that at this time of year, Australian authorities publish their annual report on the reef's health. Unfortunately, it's become all too predictable that they would report yet another year of bleaching.

This austral summer was again among the warmest on record, and by 2023 the reef had seen bleaching in four of the last seven years.

Before we set off, writer Laura Chung was hearing from reef sources that things were not looking great this year either.

We didn't know just how bad the report would be – it documented the most widespread bleaching event on record -- or that our mission would coincide with a separate, equally stark report from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By the time we were ready to file, NOAA as they are better known would report that the last year saw bleaching in every major ocean basin, from Florida to the Red Sea.


If the decision to go to the reef was easy, deciding where to go was a little harder.

The Great Barrier Reef is vast, and very difficult to access without a lot of time or a lot of money. After kicking around a few options, we eventually settled on Lizard Island. It was remote but reachable via a small charter plane.

Aside from some very wealthy guests in a five-star resort, the island's only human residents are a coterie of scientists who know the reef and its corals better than almost anyone on the planet.

Among their ranks was once a very young David Attenborough - now a venerable British broadcaster. 

Best of all, Laura already knew some of the scientists from a previous visit, so there would be less time needed to build a rapport and more time to dig deeper into the story.

The scientists proved to be our greatest source and in particular marine biologist Anne Hoggett, who had lived and worked on Lizard Island for 33 years. Her love for and knowledge of the reef shone through. 

Here, again, the timing was significant. When the team arrived Hoggett was getting ready to leave the island for good. She was closing a pivotal chapter in her life, with great sadness about what the reef had become. The reef – a shadow of its vibrant and vivacious self -- also seemed to be closing a chapter.

"As we flew over the island, it was impossible to ignore the whiteness of the coral that stood out against the turquoise water," Laura remembers. "It looked so different to the last time I'd visited. It was then that the severity of this year's event hit us. The scale of damaged reefs stretched on for kilometres.


But with the help of a little storyboard sketched on the flight and a bit of perseverance, it worked out beautifully.

"It was a really impressive piece of kit," says Andrew. "It allowed you to compose shots in a way that we wouldn't normally be able to do."

"I think it's going to get used more and more in different productions all over the world. It's like the aerial drone, it opens up a whole world of possibilities.

There is already a long list of other bureaus around the Asia-Pacific region waiting to get their hands on the drone (provisionally christened 'Droney McDroneface'). But not before Andrew brings it back from the Solomon Islands.

Hopefully, some of the stories they can tell will be more uplifting than the vital, but dispiriting work of documenting a slowly dying reef.