Great Barrier Reef: Scientists set sail on 'pivotal' research mission to save coral

Great Barrier Reef: Scientists set sail on 'pivotal' research mission to save coral

Great Barrier Reef: Scientists set sail on 'pivotal' research mission to save coral

Updated 15 November 2017, 9:35 AEDT

Reef scientists, including the man dubbed the "Godfather of Coral", begin a major research mission that aims to save the Great Barrier Reef from further damage.

A "crack team" of reef scientists — including the man dubbed the "Godfather of Coral" — is beginning a major research mission that aims to save the Great Barrier Reef from further damage.

Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Legacy is taking eight teams of leading scientists on a voyage from today, mapping remote parts of the reef and testing the health of corals.

Among other research projects, they are searching for the "super corals" that survived the past two years of devastating coral bleaching events.

It is hoped the corals that were resilient enough to survive may help protect the reef from further damage.

"This is a very important trip," said Charlie Veron, dubbed the "Godfather of Coral" after discovering 20 per cent of the world's known species.

"We're actually seeing for ourselves what corals are vulnerable to mass bleaching and what corals are surviving mass bleaching.

"So, once we know that, we'll be able to make smart decisions about corals. It's pivotal."

Dr Veron has seen the Great Barrier Reef degrade over the past decades.

"It's gut wrenching … the predictions that scientists made well over a decade ago have all turned out to be spot on," he said.

"So that's a horrible thing for us, because we wished we were wrong — but so far, we haven't been."

Two consecutive years of unusually warm weather have seen large parts of the reef devastated by mass coral bleaching.

Research voyage 'unprecedented'

GBR Legacy has funded the research mission with support from a collective of tourism operators based around the Great Barrier Reef — and environmentalist rock band Midnight Oil.

Today, the ship, MY Flying Fish, will travel from Port Douglas, north of Cairns, to Horn Island in the Torres Strait, where it is due to arrive on the November 27, before returning by December 7.

At times, the ship will be as far as 200 kilometres off shore, charting the outermost reaches of the world's largest coral reef.

GBR Legacy's director of science Dean Miller said the research voyage was unprecedented.

"We will be the first team to go up there and do a really detailed assessment since 2014, so pre those two bleaching events," Dr Miller said.

He said the work would involve the latest technology available, including drones and remote-controlled submarines.

"We've assembled an absolute crack team of scientists and researchers from all over Australia, so they can work on the same reef on the same day and answer their little part of the question," Dr Miller said.

"And that is completely unique in the way that research is done, so the level of collaboration going on between the research teams from all over Australia and even around the world is phenomenal."

Marine biologist Taylor Simpkins is working with the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, which is joining the voyage to study the algae which lives in corals and gives them their colour.

"This is what gives them most of their energy [and] a lot of their food through photosynthesis," Ms Simpkins said.

"This algae can also end up poisoning the coral and causing it to bleach when the water temperature is really high so we want to look at that algae."

Fears of another bleaching event grow

The fear is this summer could see the third bleaching event in a row.

"There is a prediction for this year to be another bleaching event … which is a real worry and that's a huge stress on the system," Dr Miller said.

GBR Legacy director John Rumney said the reef was worth tens of billions of dollars to the Australian economy.

As a former Great Barrier Reef tour operator, he said the past two years of bleaching events put him and others into depression — but there were signs of hope.

"What we're trying to do is preserve it so that it is as good as it can be into the future," Mr Rumney said.

The research trip also happens to coincide with the Queensland state election, and Dr Veron has a message for voters.

"I hope Queenslanders wake up to the fact the Great Barrier Reef is Queensland's greatest — that's Australia's greatest — national asset," he said.

"It's worth $7 billion a year and we are not doing enough to ensure its future."