During Week 10 of Term 2, a group of 26 students from the HSC Geography and Biology classes travelled to Hook Island to participate in an excursion designed to enhance their understanding of the Great Barrier Reef, its functioning, and the tourism operations being undertaken in this unique part of the world.
We began our journey early on Monday morning, travelling by coach from the school to Brisbane airport, where we caught our flight for Proserpine and the Whitsundays. This was followed by a bus trip from Proserpine to Airlie Beach, where we went to the marina to meet our transport for the rest of the week: a 119 year old ‘tall ship’ called the Solway Lass. For the remainder of the week, this vessel was our home base as we sailed to different bays, beaches, islands and reefs to look at different aspects of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.
Accompanying the students on this excursion was marine scientist Nathan Cook and his son Kailash. Nathan works in partnership with a number of groups in his role with Reef Ecologic, a company that “collaborates, researches and assists the recovery of marine systems” around the world. Through a series of talks, guided snorkels and hands-on activities, Nathan introduced the students to the intricate linkages operating within the GBR ecosystem, the foundation species that are key to monitoring reef health, and the scientific methods used to collect data on the current status of different reefs within the marine park. Students had the opportunity to collect data on coral health and biodiversity as part of the Eye on the Reef and Coral Watch data collection programs during their snorkelling expeditions.
On top of this, Nathan also introduced the students to his pioneering method of coral propagation and planting, where branches or small segments of living but detached coral are ‘pruned’ and planted into a concrete disc with putty before being attached to purpose-built frames beneath the water. This allows the coral time to recover and regrow, before being relocated back onto sections of the reef to aid its recovery from the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Debbie and other natural stresses. Students were given the opportunity to propagate their own pieces of coral, and to join Nathan in securing them to the frames in Manta Ray Bay on Hook Island. An experience like this allowed the students to experience first-hand the conservation methods being undertaken on the reef, and the practical problems associated with managing an ecosystem that spans 346,000 square kilometres.
When the students weren’t engaging in the reef conservation efforts, they were investigating the nature of tourism operations on the reef, seeing how sites like Whitehaven Beach, Hayman Island, Border Island and Langford Reef are set up for tourism, and some of the impacts these activities have on the reef ecosystem. Students were able to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having large numbers of tourists visit the reef, and how important education is to ensuring that tourists conduct themselves appropriately and with minimal impact on the reef. Seeing this from a vessel that served as ‘home’ was a unique way of viewing this aspect of the reef.
Although there was plenty of valuable learning attached to this excursion, there was also opportunities for students to relax a bit and enjoy the unique experience of being in this spectacular location on a ‘tall ship’. When the Solway Lass was moored or anchored, a rope swing and SUP’s were brought out for the students to enjoy, while many sunrises and sunsets were watched from the roof of the vessel. Students were also able to learn about the intricacies of sailing from the fantastic captain and crew, while they got a deeper appreciation for the vessel itself during the ‘happy hour’ cleaning sessions. The atmosphere created by a vessel that was built in 1902, served in both world wars (on opposite sides), had a lost captain, washed ashore in Ireland, was sunk twice, served in the 1988 bicentennial celebrations, and still has working sails was something that is hard to describe.
Although we did have some unfortunate experiences with motion sickness – especially early in the trip – the students were a credit to themselves and to the school throughout the week. When things weren’t quite going according to plan, they were resilient and mature, and when things were going well they were willing to engage and participate in all activities, and to appreciate the value of the whole experience. Every adult we encountered – from drivers to crew to marine scientists – complimented the students on their conduct, and as a supervisor of this excursion it was fantastic to have a group of students who were so trustworthy in all situations.
From the students’ perspective, I’m sure they will never forget things like Jack’s encyclopaedic knowledge, Cale’s pirate rope-swing, Auric’s lemon shark, the ‘wet-wipes incident’, trivia night, Sydney to Hobart, night squid, the cheesecake/yoghurt incident, Happy Hour, Alex’s cooking, Alahna and Alyce’s driving, the ‘GT’s’ at Manta Ray Bay, ‘Zoomies’, the absolute debacle that was the boys’ cabin, Pinkie’s coral, travelling business class, the ghost of Captain Anderson, sitting on the roof watching the sun set while the moon rose with ‘Magnolia’ playing, and Captain Dan’s ‘next-level/off-chops’ docking of the Solway Lass in the marina.
I would like to thank TravelEd, Explore Whitsundays and Reef Ecologic for their contributions to the organisation and implementation of this excursion. I would also like to thank Mrs Borthwick for her work in supervising this trip, and for giving Lola and Piper a nice experience in Airlie Beach after the Solway Lass was unkind to them. I would also like to thank all the parents, family and friends who supported the students to make this trip a financial possibility, and for trusting me with the care of their children for a week. Lastly, I would like to thank all 26 of the students for letting me be a part of their excursion.
Head Teacher HSIE