|Gareth Phillips ,Reef Teach|
- “Live in the sunshine. Swim in the sea. Drink the wild air.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND: “Gareth, step away from that fish bowl!”
Some little boys like skateboards, others collect action figures and others like their science kits or BMX bikes. Five-year-old Gareth Phillips' childhood fascination with fish developed into a lifelong obsession with the ocean and it's one that's landed him an enviable job as reef warrior and eco-guru on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.
“Ever since I was little, mum always said if there was a fish tank in the room I'd gravitate towards it,” says grown-up Gareth, now an accomplished marine scientist. “I've never really known anything other than marine biology – it was something deep inside me.”
“No one ever said you'll be good at this; it was just something I always told people I'd do.”
Fast forward thirty or so years and, for a lad that describes himself as “not the best scholar”, South African-born Gareth has smashed all expectations - including his own - boasting three degrees in Marine Science and a doctorate on the horizon.
“It wasn't easy. There wasn't an automatic entry into South African universities back then – you had to apply and if schools didn't like you, you didn't get in,” he said.
Hard work, a supportive family, a move half-way around the world to Australia's tropical north and his unwavering devotion to the ocean paid off and these days Gareth is living his childhood dream – working in the world's biggest fish bowl, Queensland's Great Barrier Reef.
A tiny job ad in the Cairns Post seeking skilled marine biologists, kicked off the 22-month process to relocate from Africa to Queensland.
“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 or anywhere else. Nothing is comparable… from the tiny interactions between gobies and shrimp to the fact that six out of seven marine turtles live in these waters.”
On arrival, Gareth worked as a galley guy and deck hand on an old Chinese junk that ran tours to the Low Isles, a protected coral cay off Port Douglas in Queensland's tropical north. Jobs followed on luxury charter boats, before Gareth bought Reef Teach – a land-based show designed to enhance reef trips – in 2010, a business he runs with his wife, Natalie.
There is no doubt that Reef Teach is a passion project that allows Gareth to combine his childhood dream with his beloved marine science and still keep his day job as a Skipper on dive and snorkel boats, visiting some of the most beautiful reef and dive sites in Queensland.
But Reef Teach isn't your ordinary classroom and Gareth cringes at the word.
It's an experience born out of the need and desire for tourists on the Great Barrier Reef to know more about what they have seen or are about to see if they haven't been out. In the 'classroom', Gareth points out creatures that visitors may have snorkelled past and not noticed and he helps put one of the world's greatest natural wonders into perspective.
“Essentially, we present an unscripted, interactive live documentary to guests.”
A three-and-a-half metre screen blows weird and wonderful reef creatures up to WOW size as the interactive show takes visitors on a wild and fun ride exploring the tiniest creatures to the biggest – anything from a pearlfish that lives inside the anus of a cucumber to the colourful and mystical Christmas tree worm that provided inspiration for the movie Avatar.
“This is where it gets exciting for me,” Gareth says. “Most people think the reef is a nutrient rich environment, but it's actually nutrient poor and so many animals have evolved in their own special and unique way to get their own slice of the pie.”
“Rainforest ecosystems have the highest primary production on the planet – essentially they synthesize organic compounds, primarily through photosynthesis, producing around 700-8000g of carbon per square metre per year. By comparison, coral reefs as a whole average reasonably modest primary production, sitting around 100g. Coral on its own, however, is awesome – its primary production of carbon produced per square metre is around 2000g.”
“No other animal on the planet can do that,” he says. “No other animal can enrich a habitat that nearly rivals all of the plants in a rainforest.”
Reef Teach is science made interesting and, according to Gareth, helps visitors get excited about the reef and gives them a greater appreciation for its pivotal role in the eco-system - both vital steps towards saving it.
“What I love most about the Great Barrier Reef is the connectivity of the eco-systems – from tiny corals to the biggest of whales,” he says. “It's a dramatic and dynamic system and we know so little about it.”
“We only started studying coral back in 1925 and the first research project was here in Queensland in the Low Isles,” he said. “It's a baby of a science.”
Practising what they preach, Gareth and his super enthusiastic Reef Teach team spend a lot of time monitoring reef health, assisting with Eye on the Reef – a powerful monitoring program that enables anyone who visits the Great Barrier Reef to collect valuable information on its health. They're also hoping to expand their research arm to study how marine mammals use the World Heritage-listed marine park.
In late 2016, Reef Teach kicked things up a notch with the launch of their Marine Discovery program, a citizen-science-cum-conservation-volunteer-program designed to literally immerse visitors in their reef experience.
“My main goal through Marine Discovery is to facilitate the good work that researchers are already doing and to enhance it whilst giving visitors to Queensland a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the world's biggest living organism.”
Forget armour, this reef warrior is firmly clad in a thick wad of neoprene bonded sponge and is incredibly passionate about protecting one of Australia's greatest natural resources. He also loves his fish every bit as much as he did when he was five.
“People are tired of being told they are killing the world,” he said. “We help them see the reef in a new light and, if they see how important it is, they just might help us look after it.”
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