As I leap into the warm, subtropical waters off Heron Island, on the southern Great Barrier Reef, I’m instantly immersed in a visual riot of triggerfish, fusiliers, coral trout and sea perch, swimming against a colourful backdrop of coral.
Turning to spot a couple of endangered green turtles grazing on iridescent jellyfish, I figure it’s easy to see why underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau rated Heron Bommie among his top 10 dive sites.
A tiny speck in the Coral Sea located 80 kilometres off the coast of Gladstone, this 16.8-hectare coral cay surrounded by a lagoon and healthy fringing reef is a seasonal resting spot for hundreds of thousands of migratory seabirds, as well as maternity ward for nesting turtles.
It’s also home to the Heron Island Research Station, the largest island-based facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
A couple of the researchers have brought me out to this favourite spot at the reef crest called Blue Pools.
From the Heron Island jetty, it’s a ten-minute, white-knuckle ride by rigid inflatable research vessel, and a tangible reminder of what’s at stake as the planet’s temperature nudges ever higher.
Station manager Dr Stuart Kininmonth says that proximity to the reef, alongside facilities including wet and dry laboratories, aquarium decks, a vibration-reduced microscope room and even a shark pool, means the University of Queensland-owned station often hosts up to 140 live-in researchers at any one time.
For the most part, they get about with deep suntans, sand between their toes and the general air of contentment that comes from working in what must be the most idyllic research station on Earth.
Researchers and educational groups have been coming to the island since the 1930s, when a turtle soup cannery built on the site of the current Heron Island Resort closed.
The research station itself wasn’t formally established until 1951. Since then, it has become an important training ground for marine scientists.
However, the taxonomical questions of the early days of the research station’s operation have since given way to more pressing concerns.
“Years ago, researchers would come here to collect their samples and then rush back to Brisbane or Sydney, trying desperately to do something meaningful with their dead and decaying species,” says Kininmonth. “These days we have no interest in that at all. Rather, we’re asking big complex questions about how things grow, given climate change.”
While the reefs surrounding Heron Island have not escaped coral bleaching entirely, they have been less affected than those further north and, as such, are prime candidates for research into resilience.
“You’ve really got to do things where corals are happy, growing and successful,” says Kininmonth, who has more than 20 years of field experience in marine and coral reef ecology.
Cosmos was given unprecedented access inside the Heron Island Research Station as part of a three-day UQ alumni event last month.
Guests at the neighbouring Heron Island Resort can also take shorter tours of the facility.
Our 60-strong group arrived on the single high-speed catamaran that services the island each day.
Surrounding the island are turquoise waters so clear and shallow that reef sharks, turtles and stingrays were clearly visible from the vessel, while the incessant calls of black noddy terns nesting in Pisonia trees (which grow only on coral cays) lent a Jurassic air.
From the jetty’s weathered wooden boardwalk, the research station is a short stroll across the sand.
On hot, high-humidity days, it’s tempting to head straight for one of the air-conditioned classrooms, but the “touch tank”, filled with starfish, sea hares, clams, sea cucumbers and assorted other underwater curiosities, often wins out.
The tank was installed in support of the station’s education mission, given that up to 5000 university and high school students, many from outside Australia, visit the research station each year.
Being able to get up close and personal with marine life without having to contend with the venomous critters found out on the reef, like stone fish and cone snails, can engage educational groups right from the start and pave the way towards later hands-on project work, Kininmonth says.
“The fact that they can engage with real environment, real animals, and do real science that is actually meaningful is a really great thing.
“As a consequence, even though I’m kind of the headmaster here, I don’t have to deal with students misbehaving – they’ll be working from five in the morning until ten at night.
“It’s one lesson we can give to the rest of the world – that education doesn’t have to be locked into a classroom paradigm.”
The remote off-grid station generates its own power through 1040 roof-mounted solar cells, which provide about 400 kilowatts of electricity per day.
(By comparison, the average solar panel-equipped house puts out about 6.6 kilowatts per day.)
This allows the research station to run pumps, chillers and heated pools at no cost.
A year ago, a sophisticated piping system was also installed so the aquariums and touch tank are constantly flushed with fresh saltwater flowing in directly from nearby Wistari Channel and then back out onto the reef.
“We don’t treat our water, we don’t touch it, it’s alive, it’s healthy, it’s nice and cool – it has every single quality that every other research station around the world is desperately trying to achieve and often failing,” Kininmonth says.
“It’s very hard to do proper salt water, the only way we can really do it is exactly like this, where we handle it fast.”
The Heron Island Research Station is recognised internationally for its ground-breaking coral reef research and education.
For instance, it was the birthplace of an ambitious plan to map the world’s estimated 231,000 coral reefs from space.
Associate Professor Chris Roelfsema had been coming annually to Heron Island Research Station, and mapping and monitoring its reefs via a survey technique called photoquadrats, since 1998.
Heron thus has the longest time series and most detailed field data set of any reef in the world.
Since 2001, Roelfsema and his team have been integrating this field data with remote sensing satellite imagery and developed algorithms designed to automatically map reef features (slope, crest, flat and lagoon) and composition (hard and soft coral, algae, rock and sand).
“These maps allow researchers to track changes over time, including the impact of cyclones, coral bleaching and Crown-of-thorns starfish predation,” he says.
His field methods have since been adopted as standard practice in several resource management agencies and research institutes around the world.
He has also parlayed them to a more expansive project mapping the 3000 individual reefs which make up the Great Barrier Reef and to the Allen Coral Atlas project.
Completed in 2021, the Allen Coral Atlas mapped all coral reefs globally, through a combination of two million satellite images, detailed field data and Roelfsema’s mapping techniques.
All maps and satellite imagery can be viewed online.
Other research projects currently in progress include exploring the factors that impact sea turtle nesting and hatching and investigating predators of crown-of-thorns starfish during their juvenile phase.
“The research is addressing virtually every part of the cycle, from the restoration of the coral reef, to invertebrates, to the chemistry of the water, to birds, turtles and even the geomorphology of the cay,” says Kininmonth.