I’ve spent many thousands of hours in the water at Ningaloo Reef. And I’ve seen wonders. Swum with tiger sharks. Stopped a whale shark in its tracks (under strict scientific supervision). I’ve been eye-to-eye with a humpback whale. And I’ve held a 400kg dugong in my arms (again, as part of a scientific study). So I count myself very lucky.
But until recently, there was one thing I’d never witnessed at Ningaloo, and that’s the annual spawning of the coral. In the process of making our documentary series Ningaloo Nyinggulu, I finally got to experience that marvel. But bugger me, did I have to work for it.
Ningaloo Reef is the longest fringing coral reef in the world, and because of its desert maritime geography and unique collision of oceanic currents, it’s one of the few that’s been spared the catastrophic bleaching events that decimate other world heritage treasures like the Great Barrier Reef on the opposite coast of Australia.
It’s a 12-hour drive from Perth. The landscape is rugged, it’s nearly always hot and windy. So, logistically, not an easy place in which to shoot natural history. Working at night, and underwater, that just adds to the degree of difficulty.
Originally, our coral spawn shoot was slated for early April 2021. We had to be in the water just after the full moon, which is when this phenomenon kicks off. But of course, we were shooting during a pandemic, so few things went exactly to plan. Thanks to a fresh outbreak on the east coast, our director of photography, Chris Williams, was facing two weeks in quarantine, so he was out. Then a cyclone loomed off the coast, and that was that. Scrubbed.
A year later, we tried again. But once more, nature really made us work for it. We assembled at tiny Coral Bay (population 207) with two small boats, a film crew of four, with two skippers and three safety divers. Initially the plan was to stay out at sea all night. Every night. Until we got it. We didn’t want to be tucked up in our swags when things kicked off. But local expert, tourism operator and manta ray scientist Frazer McGregor told us that if nothing happened by 10pm, then we’d may as well head back to shore and save our energy. What a week it might have been if he hadn’t told us that!
I was nervous. I hadn’t been underwater at night since the Greek Islands in the 1980s, and the Aegean after dark is a very different place to Ningaloo. Mostly because the only things moving in the water column are plastic bags or condoms. But day or night, Ningaloo Reef is fizzing with life.
The first night out was mostly a recce and a rehearsal. We chose a spot inside the lagoon a kilometre from shore and got in the water while there was still some daylight, so we could orient ourselves before working in the dark. It was windy and the chop was ugly.
To get the shots required, we had to rehearse my movements meticulously. My only job was to find the camera in the darkness and get myself right up close to it within the coral garden. Locating a lighting rig in the darkness is easy enough. Finding a camera in all that blinding glare is not. One camera was operating with a long probe lens. The end of it, the bit I was expected to find and stay in front of, was about the size of a 10c piece. Easy enough in daylight. After dark? Don’t ask.
It was nearly a disaster.
The camera operators, Chris Miller and Jake Parker, were diving on scuba. So were their safety divers. But I was freediving. Working at eight metres was no big deal. But to get to the bottom quickly and remain steady for the camera in the current, I needed to bear more lead than Mount Isa. Sure enough, I went down like a weighted corpse. Getting back to the surface, however, was another matter. As was staying afloat long enough to breathe up for the next dive. It was like treading warm treacle.
So by 8.30pm, after scores of breath-hold dives, I was feeling decidedly ordinary. I felt an ominous build-up of lactic acid in my legs. I was queasy and lightheaded. Something wasn’t right.
I floundered back to the boat and hung off the ladder for a bit. And soon figured out the source of the problem. To keep power up to the boat’s batteries, the skipper had left one of the 150 horsepower outboards idling. I’d been sucking in exhaust fumes all night, doing all my dives on tainted air.
One lesson learned. Needless to say, no spawn seen.
The next night was windier. And the southerly persisted for most of the week. We went out, night after night, the divers and cameramen waiting on the bottom while I bounced up and down like a hungry pup without a clue.
I love being in the water. And I’m addicted to the sense of anticipation you get when you’re in a wild, richly diverse ecosystem where a marvel can appear at any moment. And being underwater at Ningaloo at night is a special treat. Large spangled emperors, all druggy with sleep, were bumping into me. I saw a parrotfish spin her own sleeping bag of snot as she bedded down for the night. In the beam of my torch, thousands of tiny shrimp went nuts, and rolling mauls of striped catfish were mobbing me to get at the shrimp. The water was balmy and there was plenty to see.
But honestly, come night number six, I’m over it. I’ve had enough of cooking dinner at 11pm and going to bed with sea lice in my hair and shrimp in my ears.
After we moor the boats and witness yet another glorious sunset, I tell the director I’m not getting in the water until there’s some sign this damned coral spawn caper is actually kicking off. The previous evening, the corals had been ripe and oozing. Frazer had seen some preliminary spawning activity inshore, so hopes were high, and we dashed about like oversized shrimps, but down on the reef nothing happened.
We’re all tired, and with the shoot window closing rapidly, things are beginning to look desperate. On the upside, the wind has finally backed off. The lagoon is mercifully calm – total glass. But I couldn’t care less.
“What would you rather be doing?” asks our chirpy Irish divemaster.
“Home in bed, reading a novel,” I tell her.
Laughter from the shipboard crew. They think I’m joking.
Finally, at 7.55pm, cameraman Jake surfaces, shouting that he’s seen an outcrop of acropora kicking off. Five minutes later, after all the waiting and rehearsals, we’re doing it for real.
And like every wonder – and every cataclysm – this phenomenon begins slowly before it erupts everywhere and all at once. One isolated clump lets off little orange-pink balls, then a minute later, another follows. It’s like watching a huge metropolis as an idea takes hold. It goes venereal. And very quickly, the reef is raining new life – upwards. It’s a remarkable thing to witness. More remarkable, enchanting, I imagine, if you’re not pretending to be Flipper for a camera crew all the while, but I guess that was the price of admission.
For two hours, the sea is filled with spawn. The water is hectic. And then, after all this frenzied activity, everything stops. The reef goes still. The city sleeps. And I’m left swimming through what it got up to before closing time. The sea’s gone cloudy. It’s too murky to keep shooting. At the surface, a dense, soupy slick has formed. I swim back to the boat, trying to decide whether I’m thrilled or relieved.
On the dive ladder, I sit for a while to take it all in. Around my legs, shrimp riot in the light. I’m starving. So I scoop up a few handfuls and munch away, to the horror of those onboard.
I don’t know it yet, but this miracle of life is about to take a turn.
2022 is a La Niña year. The strong winds that usually help the tide disperse this spawn to all corners of the reef do not arrive. Next morning, the pink slick intensifies. It’s trapped in the lagoon. Soon, there’s more spawn than oxygen available to keep it alive. And the whole bay begins to experience a massacre. In the next week, 15,000 fish will die from asphyxiation. And corals in parts of the reef will begin to show signs of stress.
After such a spectacle of reproductive splendour, I’m reminded of how vulnerable the reef is. This is an adverse event, but a natural one. Ningaloo is a global outlier among clear-water coral reefs. It’s remote and resilient. But it’s not immune to the climate emergency. Without urgent action to reduce carbon pollution, it will soon be bleaching regularly. By that time that happens, many of the world’s coral reefs will be dead already. In our lifetime. On our watch.
So I head home waterlogged. Sensing the privilege of what I’ve seen. But also shellshocked. And filled with the urgency of the moment. But I guess that’s Ningaloo for you. Full of surprises. Always on a knife edge. Ready to blow your mind. Or break your heart.
Ningaloo Nyinggulu is screening on ABC TV + iView in Australia and as Ningaloo Nyinggulu: Australia’s Ocean Wonder on Now TV for Sky Nature in the UK, and on Love Nature in Canada