The Abrolhos Islands: Coral Refuge
5 May 2023
Often described as the Galapagos Islands of the Indian Ocean, there are few places in Australia wilder than the remote Houtman Abrolhos Islands, a marine archipelago of 210 islands off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.
© HARRIET SPARK GRUMPY TURTLE F
The Abrolhos Islands are a biodiversity hotspot, and a designated Mission Blue Hope Spot, a place identified as critical to ocean health. They are one of the world’s most important breeding grounds for seabirds, home to colourful fish, dolphins, sharks and a plethora of wild and beautiful marine life.
The Abrolhos Islands have a dark past. They were the site of one of Australia’s most gruesome historical incidents, the shipwreck and bloody mutiny of the Dutch ship Batavia. A band of mutineers carried out a brief, savage reign of terror, murdering 125 men, women and children over a few short months.
But this site of historical mayhem has now become a crucial place of refuge for coral. These islands are home to some of Australia’s most unique corals. The fringing reefs surrounding the Abrolhos are the southernmost tropical corals found in the Indian Ocean. This is one of the few places in the world where you can find sea lions and coral reefs in the same place.
We have docked at the Abrolhos to document the coral here and to assess its health, with our on-board marine biologists Franzi, an oceans campaigner from Greenpeace Germany, and Dr Olaf Meynecke. The cooler southern waters mean that the Abrolhos coral hasn’t suffered the same catastrophic climate change-driven bleaching that we’ve seen in many parts of the Great Barrier Reef.
Branching corals, which are fast disappearing from tropical waters on the Australian east coast, are in abundance here, threaded with flickering, colourful fish. Sea lions watch us lazily from the beach while seabirds glide silently overhead, occasionally diving to snatch at the turquoise water.
But this ocean paradise is vulnerable to climate damage. Cooler waters have protected the coral of the Abrolhos Islands until now but with oceans warming at an alarming rate the threat is escalating. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned in its most recent report that if global warming exceeds the critical threshold of 1.5 degrees, our last coral refuges, like the Abrolhos, will disappear.
Fossil fuel company Woodside’s plans for its vast Burrup Hub gas project put these fragile, beautiful corals at risk. The Burrup Hub is set to release over six billion tonnes of climate pollution if it goes ahead, and will keep on pumping out toxic emissions all the way through to 2070. That’s well beyond the timeline that we need to cut emissions by if we want to protect coral.
The coral refuge of the Abrolhos Islands is too important to lose. We must act now to protect this wild and special place.
By Fiona Ivits