Dugongs and corals and bombs…Oh my! The Australian Navy and Great Barrier Reef collide

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Author: Jill Goatcher

Armed with SPF 50 sunscreen and a fear of giant spiders, I hopped on a plane to Australia in January. Supported by the Anderson Grant and Richter Grant of Occidental College, I was on my way to continue research for my politics senior thesis – exploring how militaries interact with marine protected areas (MPAs).

MPAs are sections of the ocean that are designated and managed by legislation for the purpose of limiting ecologically destructive practices such as polluting, taking or killing of critical marine animals and extraction of natural resources. Each country with coastal territory approaches MPAs in a different way – Australia has the world’s largest MPA network protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

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A section of the Great Barrier Reef, in all its glory, from above (CC)

The Royal Australian Navy has its biggest training site on the Great Barrier Reef in Shoalwater Bay. Protected by many areas, the bay led me to wonder if the Australian Navy had a difficult time conducting training exercises with the protection restrictions, or if the Navy actually played a large role in protecting the sensitive area.

Harkening back to the days of militaries blowing up coral reefs while testing bombs, there seems to be a shift in military culture away from destroying marine ecosystems in the name of national security towards becoming stewards for the ocean, and the Australian Navy is a prime example.


Dropping a bomb on sea critters, the U.S. tests a nuclear weapon in 1958. (Atom Central)

The Navy has a set of guidelines that they must adhere to. Detonation guidelines, for instance, include a single site designated for explosive detonation and a requirement to check for whales passing by that could be disturbed by a detonation. If a whale decides to cruise on by an hour before the explosive is scheduled to set off, the entire operation is delayed until the whale gets out of harm’s way.

The Navy also has to inform the regulating authority of the Great Barrier Reef marine park of any environmental incidents that have, or are likely to have, a significant impact on the protected environment. This culture stems from the view that training on the Great Barrier Reef is critical to the country’s national security, and the Navy wants to make sure they continue to enjoy the privilege of training in a sensitive ecosystem.

The military’s presence alone can protect the marine environment of Shoalwater Bay. Called “defacto MPAs,” the restricted access to and typically undeveloped land surrounding Navy training waters prevents commercial and tourist use of areas. When unused by the military or used responsibly, these sections the ocean become MPAs without any legislation officially establishing them. For example, Shoalwater became a sanctuary for dugongs, a relative of manatees, during extreme flooding.

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Dugongs chillin’ out on in the seagrass. (CC)

Flooding in developed areas can divert chemicals and excess sediment into the ocean, making it incredibly difficult for dugongs to survive in their shallow habitats. The undeveloped land surrounding Shoalwater Bay used to hold more water, serving as a sanctuary for hundreds of dugongs throughout the flood. The Royal Navy had to halt boat activity for some time due to the massive influx of the rotund creatures.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Royal Navy are working to make sure the precious native ecosystem of the reef continues to be protected. However, the reef is in trouble, largely due to environmental pressures and the corporate focus of the current Australian Prime Minister and parliament. To save the reef, it is critical that the stakeholders, including the military, push for a global shift toward valuing and conserving the incredibly unique ecosystems that so many native Australian animals call home.

On a final note of protected Australian wildlife – koalas will defecate on you when you hold one for an adorable tourist photo.
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Charles caught in the act. (Jill Goatcher)

Jill Goatcher is a senior politics major and marine biology minor. She can be reached at goatcher@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyJGoatcher.

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