Words by Rosie Wang


People from all over the globe come to Port Douglas each year to visit the iconic Great Barrier Reef. The world’s biggest living structure, it is so large it can be seen from space.  Amazingly, this gigantic structure that stretches for 2000 km is ‘built’ by miniscule organisms that are less than 3mm in diameter, 

Port Douglas is the nearest town to the Great Barrier Reef (50 nautical miles), so it is not surprising that it is proving to be a centre of excellence for preserving and researching corals.

People tend to think of corals as plants or rock but know little about what coral actually is

Port Douglas tour operators treat the stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef as a high priority (it is their living after all) and through this are becoming world leaders in innovation and coral restoration techniques.

People tend to think of corals as plants or rock but know little about what coral actually is and its effects on the environment as an important part of the world’s delicate eco structure.

So, what exactly are corals?

Corals are made up of single coral polyps that have tiny, tentacle-like stinging arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep into their inscrutable mouths, which is then digested in their stomach. 

To protect themselves they secrete a limestone outer skeleton that attaches to rocks or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

In the case of stony or hard corals, these polyp conglomerates grow, die, and endlessly repeat the cycle over time, slowly laying the limestone foundation for coral reefs.

Why are coral reefs important?

Coral reefs only occupy 0.1% of the total ocean surface area – but a quarter of known marine life is dependent on them for survival.  They produce 50% of the earth’s oxygen and absorb nearly a third of the carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels.

This is why coral reefs are often referred to as the 'rainforests of the sea'. 

A healthy, well-managed reef can provide people with 15 tonnes of seafood per square kilometre per year. Tourism resulting from people wishing to experience these areas of natural beauty supports a series of industries thought to be worth roughly $36 billion per year. Certainly, in Port Douglas the community depends on it.

What do coral eat?

Most corals are reliant on photosynthesis (the same process used by plants to make energy from sunlight) for their energy.

However, the corals are not able to photosynthesise themselves. Instead, microscopic algae known as zooxanthellae live within the coral’s protective exoskeleton. In return for protection from grazing marine species, the algae share the products of their photosynthesis with the coral, providing it with the energy it needs to survive. It’s these algae in the coral that gives it their vibrant colours -  without the algae coral is white.

What’s the difference between soft and hard corals.

 Hard corals are literally ‘hard’ and have a rigid calcium carbonate skeleton and resemble rocks and boulders (there is even a coral called ‘boulder coral’).  Soft corals look more like blancmange, or trees and bushes, and tend to wave around in the currents. It’s hard to believe that both these structures, whether hard or soft are all made up of colonies of tiny polyps.

How does coral contribute to sandy white beaches?

As parrotfish poo! Highly prized white tropical sand (which is ground down skeletons of the hard coral) is actually made by parrotfish.

These colourful fish have some of the strongest teeth in the world which they use to great effectiveness as they chomp their way through the reefs eating coral to dine on the polyps.  It is estimated that one large parrotfish can produce 450 kg of sand per year - that’s a lot of bi-product.

What is coral Bleaching?

How local companies in Port Douglas are spearheading the research and innovation in coral research, restoration and innovation:

Innovation to lead the world

The saying goes “Necessity is the mother of invention” and the most effective designs are the simplest.  The Coralclip ticks both these.

John Edmondson, who operates Port Douglas-based snorkelling tour company, Wavelength Reef Cruises with his wife Jenny, developed the Coralclip that has changed the face of coral planting - worldwide.

Wavelength worked closely with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) along with other tour operators to plant healthy corals on reefs in Cairns and Port Douglas.

Traditionally, coral fragments were attached to the rock/coral substrate using pre-mixed cement/epoxy. This was then squeezed from the waterproof bag like an icing bag to make a dollop on the reef where the coral could then be affixed.  One person applied the cement (the bag required two hands) and another person then planted.

John saw the need to develop a device that was quick, cheap, easy to use and could facilitate planting by only one person.

His first inspiration to start with was the idea of the U-shaped cable clips that keep cables neat in houses.

After various design improvements and a collaboration with Unitec Institute of Technology in Sydney, where they managed to secure grant money, the final model was developed in 2018 (though tweaks are continually being made now).

The patented product consists of a nail type body with a spring-loaded arm.  To plant the coral, one just hammers the nail into place in the substrate and then places the coral under the spring loaded arm.  The arm will gently bear down on the coral fragment holding it in place until the coral is able to grow and fuse with the surface. 

This makes it so much more accessible for tour operators to help maintain and secure the future of their sites by giving them simple tools for reef custodianship. If a diver has some time whilst on a tour, they can grab some clips and replant any broken corals they find at the dive sites or on their local reefs.

This little invention has made planting times ten to 20 times faster and so much more accessible.

The Coral Clip is run as a not for profit business and they are manufactured in Australia.  To keep costs viable, they are producing 200,000 per production run.

The Coral Clip is now used by 19 different countries and is becoming the ‘go to’ method of coral fragment planting.

Leaving a 'Legacy' - A World’s First

The Great Barrier Reef Legacy was formed in Port Douglas and is going from strength to strength in spearheading research, science and projects on the Great Barrier Reef. Certainly, their Mission Statement “To be a global leader in marine expeditions, delivering innovative science, education and public engagement to accelerate actions vital to the future survival of coral reefs” is proving true.

In 2017 they organised a ground-breaking expedition taking scientists on board an expedition vessel to the Great Barrier Reef’s furthest corners. The aim was to study the effects of ocean warming and to study corals that might be able to withstand rising temperatures. Subsequent trips throughout the following years to study coral bleaching and biodiversity have proved highly successful.

They even discovered the most diverse branching coral site ever found on the Great Barrier Reef

Not only did they discover a new coral species (first one in 30 years,) but they found a ‘super coral’ that was surviving well despite living on a site suffering the impacts of coral bleaching and biodiversity. 

They even discovered the most diverse branching coral site ever found on the Great Barrier Reef.

The need to preserve the biodiversity of the world’s hard corals has started the massive “Living Coral Biobank Project” - a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of coral. With each bleaching event more vulnerable corals are disappearing.  The aim is to safeguard the biodiversity of corals by collecting, housing, and maintaining live fragments in the world’s first Coral Biosphere.

The plan is to house all 800 hard coral species from around the world for their ultimate conservation and to make live samples, tissue and genetic material available for reef research and restoration efforts.

Progress is well underway. The project now boasts three dedicated holding facilities, one of which is at Cairns Aquarium, with a combined capacity of 24,000 live fragments. It has already collected 181 of the 400 Great Barrier Reef species, with the aim of collecting all 400 by the end of 2024.

In 2022 the Living Coral Biobank Project won the prestigious Xtreme Tech Challenge for Australia, and the Energy Global Award for sustainability.

Growth by electrolysis - a first in Australia

Electrical currents might very well make people’s hair stand on end, but for marine life low-voltage direct current trickle charges have been found to stimulate corals.  Even under conditions of severe stress corals can grow 3-5 times. The first results of tests in 1976 in Louisiana were initially targeted at oysters, with great results.

As testing was expanded to other marine organisms it was found that coral responded well. 

Local tour company Quicksilver (and Reef Ecologic) with approval from GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority) spearheaded the exciting Coral Restoration Project at their Agincourt Reef 3 Platform.

Steel meshes of 1.5 x 3 metres grow the coral ‘recruits’ and these meshes are connected to the power source.  The meshes are also ideal to grow coral on as they provide a sturdy substrate. This allows corals to be grown on unstable substrate, which they would be unable to do naturally, so more coral cover can be achieved.

Started in 2018 this is the first time that this technology has been used in Australia and has proved a great success in increasing coral coverage and helping the survival of relocated colonies.
A final note

The Great Barrier Reef – A spectacular underwater world ... visit it, appreciate it and the work of those who live and breathe this natural wonder of the world every day.  After all it is these scientists and marine biologists coupled with their innovation and dedication that help ensure the living coral and this world icon remains alive and vibrant, well into to the future, for generations to appreciate over and over again.

We salute you!