If all the marine animals on the Great Barrier Reef got together and had a barbecue, they'd try not to invite the flatworm, says Reef Teach Marine Biologist, Gareth Phillips. Flatworms are like the weird uncle at a wedding… they're an absolute oddity.
Sometimes too much of a good thing just isn't enough and when that 'good thing' is larger than the Great Wall of China and easily spotted from space, then drastic measures are called for. Enter Gareth Phillips and the Cairns-based Reef Teach team who are taking the Great Barrier Reef outta the water and into the 'classroom' and demystifying it, one weird uncle at a time.
Forget chalkboards and boring lectures, here you'll most likely cuddle some coral or stroke a stingray's barb.
“I hate the word classroom… people don't want to go to a lecture on their holidays - boring!”, says Gareth Phillips of his Reef Teach business. “Our speakers are hand-picked not to be clichéd scientists – despite the fact that they all have their Honours or Masters in marine biology – but to be entertainers in a live documentary that enhances any Great Barrier Reef Experience.”
“We have a huge three-and-a-half-metre screen that beams images and video into the room,” he said. “Yeah, gets pretty interesting when we start talking about 'sex on the reef' or about the hermaphrodite flatworms who use their gigantic double-daggered penises – they're 30% of their body size – as duelling wands in a fight to see who will be the lady,” he laughs wickedly.
Gareth's enthusiasm for the reef is catching… especially when he launches into weirder and wonderful biology that was cleverly omitted from the movie Nemo, but is just part of everyday life on the Great Barrier Reef.
“Most people are familiar with Nemo the clownfish,” he says. “In real life all clownfish are born male and the dominant of the two males in a pair becomes the female. So Coral, Nemo's Mum, would've actually have started life as Carl. Carl was bigger and stronger than Marlin, so he became Coral – believe it or not, it's the dominance of the female that keeps the males subservient.”
“It's also likely that Marlin would've eventually become Marilyn, Nemo's wife, so you can see why he swam so far to find him.”
“It'll be interesting to see how they treat the sequel,” he laughs.
Sometimes sexy... in a very PG way; sometimes funny; sometimes outrageous; always interesting, Reef Teach was born out of the realisation that people wanted more than the 15 minutes of commentary provided on day tours and for reef lovers who were loathe to leave the ocean without knowing more about what's below the surface.
“Travellers visit Queensland to see the beautiful reef but there's so much to it that they miss 90 per cent of what it is,” Gareth said. “But we find they often have a desire to know more and we facilitate that and make them more conscientious travellers.”
Like the travellers he entertains, inspires and educates on a daily basis, the lure of the Great Barrier Reef was just as strong for South African-born Gareth. So strong in fact, that it inspired him to move half way around the world, sight unseen.
“Being in my field, I just had to visit it – it's the only one of its kind,” he said. “There's nothing like it on land or ocean anywhere else. Nothing is comparable. The Amazon is big, but only has a fraction of the reef's diversity.”
“To get here and then learn the neighbouring Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world and supersedes every other really blew my mind.” he said. “The whole area is beautiful. I like the weather. I like the humidity. I like the lifestyle. I love looking from sea to land land and being reminded of home.”
The compliment is a huge one for his adopted state as 'home' for Gareth was once Plettenburg Bay, a seaside town on South Africa's famous Garden Route and the comparisons he draws are to the Tsitsikamma National Park known for its indigenous forests and dramatic coastlines and the stunning Outeniqua Mountain Pass that separates the country's Klein Karoo (or outback) from the Indian Ocean.
Home really is where the heart is, and home for Gareth and his young family is now most definitely Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.
“I skipper dive and snorkel boats to places like Michaelmas Cay, Hastings Reef, Paradise Reef and Pretty Patches two days a week and work at Reef Teach the rest of the time,” he said.
“I love meeting the people that visit – often it's a once-in-a-lifetime trip for them and I love chatting about the reef. When you look at coral it looks like a rock, but if you know what it really is, it means so much more.”
And, according to Gareth, no two days are the same on the Great Barrier Reef.
“For those people that tell me they don't want to go to the same site two days in a row, I tell them you won't know.”
“I see it every day, and it's still a privilege and an honour.”
Like Gareth, all five of his Reef Teach biologists are conservation crusaders, have a Masters Degree or higher and have worked out on the reef giving them the insider knowledge to tell tourists what is currently happening in the marine park.
“We point out the main types of corals to spend more time at, and on occasion we share where the iconic animals, like turtles, can be found. Naturally sightings aren't guaranteed, but we give our guests the best chance.”
Recognising the thought of going back to the schoolroom – even a pseudo, fun one – can strike terror into the hearts of many, Gareth and his team introduced their Marine Discovery – part citizen scientist, part marine conservation – program in late 2016. The program gives visitors to Tropical North Queensland the chance to slip beneath the waves and gain an unbeatable life experience on their holiday.
“The aim of the program is to assist other research programs that are already running and to speed up their results,” he said. “We've had a great response, with hundreds of names already on our waiting list.”
Marine Discovery guests work with actual Marine Biologists on a range of programs that significantly help the reef and reef health.
“The reef is having a tough time at the moment, but it is not dead,” Gareth says with absolute fervour.
“Come and visit the Tropical North and, weird uncles aside, we'll make your holiday dreams come true.”
“We'll also show you it's not too late for the reef. Let's remain positive, let's be excited and most importantly, let's keep looking after this amazing natural resource, together.”
Reef Teach runs two-hour sessions from Tuesday to Saturday, beginning at 6.30pm. For more information on Reef Teach or Marine Discovery visit http://www.reefteach.com.au.
Contact: Gareth Phillips, Reef Teach
Break Out Box: Gareth's Top Tips To Help The Reef
Our main aim is for visitors to our shores to truly experience the beauty of the reef and for them to make small changes to their lifestyle to help with its protection.
Simple little changes can make a difference.
1/ Wash your car on the lawn, not on the driveway.
2/ Use less plastic. Recycle and reduce your litter.
3/ If you like eating fish, educate yourself with what you are eating because you could be inadvertently eating an endangered species or eating shark without realising that we need to protect them. Better yet, buy the whole fish then you absolutely know what you're eating.
Author: Jodi Clark (March 2017)
Word Count: 1149
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