Our coast is a crucible that forges many of our most indelible memories.
Beach and ocean photos are disproportionately represented in many a cherished, yellowing family album and the contemporary digital equivalents.
So deeply intrinsic to our lives and identity is the coast and the sea that it’s impossible, bordering on absurd, to imagine life in Western Australia without it.
But despite the ocean’s importance to many of us, it feels like we’re failing to read its cues.
What does it mean to us, to our sense of identity and purpose, when essential parts of our coast and marine environment are changing, deteriorating, before our very eyes?
WA has been bestowed a glittering kaleidoscope of world-class coral reefs, stretching mind-boggling distances from the Kimberley to distant, exquisite places like the Rowley Shoals, to the Pilbara islands, and Ningaloo-Exmouth Gulf, south to Shark Bay and the Abrolhos.
There are beautiful corals even off Perth and Rottnest.
It’s not only about coral reefs, of course. We’re a spoiled lot in WA with our abundance and diversity of seagrasses, mangroves, kelp forests, distinctive ocean wildlife, and on it goes.
Only a handful of nations have anything like the treasures we have here in our state.
Swimming through a healthy coral lagoon is to be exorcised of the worries and cares of everyday life and to be taken somewhere else; a place of psychedelic, sensory overload.
To be in awe of nature beyond the reach of any cliché.
It is a genuine privilege to introduce people to coral reefs for the first time, hearing the comic squeal of delight through a snorkel from young and old alike, and the excited chatter on the beach or boat afterwards.
The human-coastal connection runs deep here, measured in millennial timeframes that most of us are likely ill-equipped to adequately process.
Coral reefs support a quarter of known life in our ocean. As a spectacle and a magnet for wildlife like whale sharks and manta rays which people are willing to pay to see, they support countless jobs and put food on the table of many families in our north.
So it is distressing that our reefs are now under the highest levels of alert as satellites track overheated water with maps all burning angry red like the adjacent Pilbara landscape.
It’s advancing southwards like a stain the size of some countries. But scientists aren’t surprised, they’ve been warning us of this for years.
Most of our heat pollution goes into the ocean. Over the weeks ahead, water hot like a bath will be stressing corals so much that some begin to expel the algae that provide most of their food, and colour, turning ghostly white: “bleaching”.
Part of Ningaloo’s marine park in Exmouth Gulf is bleaching now.
If hot water stays around for long enough, corals die, sometimes en masse.
That’s what’s happened repeatedly at the Great Barrier Reef, and has already changed large parts of it beyond recognition.
Whatever happens over the next few weeks to our West Australian corals, surely we can’t ignore the warnings any longer. This should be a moment of reckoning.
What may have seemed hypothetical and far away is here, now, in our backyard. You can literally wade into the water near Exmouth or off the Pilbara and see what hot water is doing to our reefs.
The damage from climate change to coral reefs is migrating from the pages of specialist journal articles to raw images and news reports. The strange, stark white equivalent of the scorched, blackened aftermath of a bushfire is a symptom of the same malady.
Whether we identify as being from the right, left, centre or something else, it means not a jot to a reef being cooked in our sea.
What matters is the release of each additional molecule of carbon and methane. What these stressed ecosystems need desperately is genuine, rapid transition away from fossil fuels and relief from local pressures that kick them when they’re down.
So it falls to us, those who identify with these rare and remarkable places and who feel some responsibility, to act. Whether our preferred habitat is the boardroom, the party room, the lunchroom, the banter in the stands or at the boat ramp, let’s agree to reject images of bleached white corals as being acceptable to us in WA.
Let us not allow ourselves to become fatigued by what we see but galvanised and spurred to be ambitious in showing the country, the world and each other that we are up for this challenge.
That we know a measure of our time in this place will be how much we authentically wielded the influence we have in our own lives, privately and publicly, to give our coral reefs every chance of surviving this era. The alternative in unthinkable.
Paul Gamblin is director of the Protect Ningaloo campaign. First published in WA Today, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, 2 April 2022.