Keeping the drills at bay

250 nautical miles off the coast of Western Australia lies the pristine Scott Reef. Fossil fuel giant Woodside is currently seeking approval for extensive seismic testing and long term extraction of natural gas and oil deposits from directly below the reef, a practice that might throw this paradise off balance forever.

Words by Wendy Mitchell
Photographs by Wendy Mitchell and Alex Westover, on assignment with Greenpeace

With supplies to last us a month offshore loaded, charts plotted, and sails hoisted, we were ready to lift anchor from Broome, Western  Australia and begin our 500 nautical mile return journey to Australia’s largest standalone offshore coral reef, Scott Reef. The reef lies in the Timor Sea, a remote part of Australian waters 425km northwest of Broome and 270km to the closest Western Australia land formation. To the west, is the seemingly endless Indian Ocean – thousands of miles of water stretching to the Africa coasts. To the north and northeast lie Indonesia and Australia’s rugged Kimberly Coast.

We sailed without stopping for four days and nights watching the sun rise and set over the rolling seas as we edged ever closer to Scott Reef. Riding a steady easterly wind blowing from mainland Australia, our sails were full, and we relished the warm Kimberly air, the horizon stained with a red tinged dust that blows from the sunburnt land. Scott Reef is uniquely positioned on the edge of Australia’s continental shelf. The Reef is made up of three separate atolls covering about 650km2, a mere pinhead in the vast expanse of the surrounding seas. If we sailed only a few degrees off course we would miss it entirely, not even knowing it was there.

Seemingly inconsequential above the water, below is a stunning, teeming world. Rising from depths of approximately 800m, the reef ’s sloping walls jut up to the surface and are almost fully exposed at low tide. Cold, nutrient-rich deep-water currents hit the reef walls and are pushed to the surface displacing the warm nutrient-poor surface water. The upwellings are primarily created by the reef ‘s topography which causes vertical mixing throughout the water column. This creates a food banquet to sustain a city of hungry mouths across the reef. The dramatic reefs and upwellings attract large aggregations of marine life. Huge pods of resident spinner dolphins, travelling in pods of up to 50, leap out of the water to greet us as we navigate the intricate reef system, often riding the bow of our boat, curious about the new visitors. Short-finned pilot whales pass around the reef ’s outside walls travelling to their feeding grounds, often diving to hundreds of metres to hunt for squid on the slopes of the continental shelf. These pods are frequently sighted around the atolls. The reefs lie in the migratory path of endangered pygmy blue whales which are sometimes seen passing between the channels of Seringapatam and Scott Reef ’s northern atoll. In winter months, mother humpback whales nurse newborn calves in the warm tropical water. Juveniles embrace their playful nature, leaping up out of the water mimicking their mothers’ actions.

Only one small sand spit sits above the high tide mark in the vast Scott Reef. This small spit is only metres above sea level and consists only of white sand. This small Sandy Islet is critical for endangered, nesting green and hawksbill turtles. Up to 1,000 green sea turtles nest on the shores of this tiny island each year, making it a significant location for the reproduction of the species. Charles Darwin University researchers track the turtles’ annual migration thousands of kilometres, as they choose to return to this same beach to lay their eggs and mate in the shallow lagoons surrounding the islet. The adult females haul themselves out of the water and navigate the matrix of nests laid by other turtles before them.

For us, the best way to experience these reefs was to strap on a scuba tank and descend into the depths. The reef feels electric and alive. We lose ourselves, dropping down exceptional reef walls into the unknown. Barrel sponges, with life spans well over 100 years and the size of a front door, are scattered across the reef. Gorgonian sea fans extend as far as the eye can see, a rainbow of colours. Vibrant blue water is speckled with thousands of tiny brightly coloured anthias, damsel and surgeon fishes. Large predatory fish like dogtooth tuna, Spanish mackerel and wahoo pass by in the blue. Sailfish leap high up out of the water as we move around the reef ’s edge. Eagle rays and manta rays feed in the strong tidal flow exiting the lagoon, twisting and turning graciously to hold their position in the fast-flowing water.

Scott Reef is an exceptional and remote wilderness teeming with biodiversity in a microcosm whose unique and delicate ecological balance has been finely tuned over millennia. But what does its future hold? The reef harbours the Torosa oil and gas deposits which are a part of the larger Browse Basin. The deposits lie directly between the northern atoll and the southern barrier reef at depths of four kilometres below the seabed. Fossil fuel company Woodside is in the process of seeking further approvals to extract these deposits. They currently propose to drill more than 50 wells around Scott Reef to extract gas from directly beneath the reef system.

Photographs by Wendy Mitchell and Alex Westover, on assignment with Greenpeace

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Issue 29
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This feature appears in ISSUE 29: MOVING SAND of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 29
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