Holbourne Island: a pristine environment in danger

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Feature Story - 29 April, 2013
Holbourne Island is the northernmost island of Australia’s beautiful Whitsunday group. It lies just 30 kilometres from Abbot Point, where a proposed coal terminal is slated to become one of the biggest in the world.

Holbourne Island © Tom Jefferson / Greenpeace

Queensland community campaigner for Greenpeace, Louise Matthiesson, recently visited Holbourne Island National Park and wrote this account.

The first thing I noticed about Holbourne Island were its coral beaches. They slope gently from the dunes, providing an ideal nesting grounds for flat back and green turtles -- both listed as vulnerable species. The layout of these beaches makes it easy for the turtles to dig in and lay their eggs, as well as for baby turtles to make their way to the sea after hatching.

This pristine island is grave danger. There's a real possibility that three million tonnes of dredge spoil from the proposed Abbot Point coal development might get dumped in the ocean just eight kilometres from the island. With the strong current and monsoonal weather, the mud plumes from the dump site could easily flow towards the island and smother its fringing coral reefs.

Back on the mainland I spoke to spoke to locals and tried to find people who’d visited this remote reef island. I couldn’t find anyone who had been there since the cyclones of the last few years. We were worried that the fringing reefs may have been badly damaged.

So when the day finally came to sail to Holbourne Island on the Rainbow Warrior, I was both excited to see the reef firsthand, but nervous about the damage we could be documenting. We were taking seven journalists to show them the beauty of the island and what was at stake. 

What we found on Holbourne Island

On the way in we sailed past Nares Rock, a couple of kilometres from the island, constantly circled by hundreds of seabirds feeding on the rich fish life below. Many of these birds nest on the island itself.

The Rainbow Warrior anchored in deep waters and we boarded smaller inflatable boats with our snorkel gear.

We were very lucky to have Jacquie Shiels, a local marine biologist, as our guide. As the boats drew closer to the island and the water became shallower, we could see darker patches of coral but hard to tell the condition it was in. We pulled up on a white beach, not made of not of sand but of sun bleached coral that crunched under my feet.

As we swam around, Jacquie pointed out enormous purple stag horn corals, giant clams, parrot fish, sea anemones, brain coral, fire branch coral. "Don't touch it, it stings!" she warned.

We searched for the giant manta rays known to frequent the island coast. We soon met up with the Greenpeace dive boat where renowned underwater photographer Darren Jew had been capturing this beauty on camera. Here's a great photo Darren took before the rays moved on:

Swimming out from the beach for the first 20 metres the coral looked like it has sustained some damage. As soon as we got into deeper water, we were taken aback by its beauty. We found a wonderland of colourful fish in their designer outfits! Corals of all shapes, sizes and colours began to appear. While there was evidence of some cyclone damage the reef was still spectacular.

The coal connection

We were joined by Aparna Udupa, a Greenpeace clean energy campaigner from India. Arpana was there to see the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef so she could go back to India and tell people of what was in store for it. Shockingly, the Australian government is planning to allow the development of several new coal terminals on the  Great Barrier Reef coast.

The journalists with us were stunned by its beauty. And they could clearly see just how close the island is to the Abbot Point coal terminal and the dredge dump sites.

The reckless expansion of the coal industry could put all this at risk through increased dredging, global warming and subsequent ocean acidification.Now that I've seen Holbourne Island for myself I am now all the more determined to protect this little-known spot.