The balance of the shark and the cassowary

The Great Barrier Reef is amazing in its size, but I was a little disappointed as well.

For all its immensity, it really does display a startling realization at the shape of the ocean. Perhaps it was just where we dove, but Sara and I both felt it appeared to be dead or dying in many parts. There wasn’t the bright reds, yellows and blues that we saw in Bali or Thailand, rather white and grey with dust and debris floating along. While the aquatic life was amazing, the overall impression was disconcerting.

I’ve always been sympathetic to the environmental movement, but it wasn’t until my travels in Australia that I really appreciated the important balance of ecosystems. It really is sad what’s going on with the oceans. At the bottom, you have the slow death of the reef due to several factors (pollution, overfishing, climate change) that can make one feel awkward about his own lifestyle. The death of the reef kills a food source for countless fish whose lives revolve around this immense living organism.

At the top, due to the merciless desire for shark fin soup, we’re seeing the decimation of the largest  predator in the sea, which causes smaller predators (groupers etc.) to flourish and eat more plant-grazing fish such as the parrotfish, which eat algae and prevent it from smothering/killing the coral.

Don’t care about coral? Apparently, killing off sharks means more smaller predators that eat popular foods such as scallops and shellfish. It’s all connected.

After our two days on the reef, we took a seven-kilometre gondola ride over tropical rainforest to the small touristy town of Kuranda. Halfway along this trip, we stopped and took a guided tour with a park ranger on a boardwalk through the forest. Wearing a crisp, clean uniform and sharp, wide-brimmed hat, one could tell this man was passionate about his job, more specifically about trees. Given their sheer size and complexity in the rainforest, its easy to understand such a passion – especially with their relationship with the cassowary.

Never met or heard of a cassowary before? Neither had I. These flightless birds are the second heaviest and third largest in the world. They are recognized for a distinctive bill on the top of their head and bright colours along their neck. A rather stupid bird, they can be quite aggressive and locals are warned to steer clear. Our ranger guide told us an anecdote where a guy recently gave his bright red sportscar a shiny polish. A cassowary wandered along, noticed its reflection and went into attack mode, putting its immense claw through the metal of the car door.

These endangered birds usually stick to the depths of the forest where they play a pretty important role. They eat and digest the thick poisonous defences of the fruit of various trees, thereby scattering the seeds and helping replenish the forest. As highlighted in Wikipedia, “Germination rates for seeds of the rare Australian rainforest tree Ryparosa were found to be much higher after passing through a cassowary’s gut (92% versus 4%).”

Kill off the cassowary and who knows what may happen to the rainforest. It’s all connected.