Gary McKenna

“Dad it’s dead.” When electrician Gary McKenna wonders why he’s still up at 1am in the morning applying for permits to help restore the Great Barrier Reef, it’s those words uttered by his then six-year-old son that keep him going.

Irish-born Gary was snorkelling with Khai, now aged eight, over coral that had been damaged by the bleaching event of 2016. His son’s despair and his love of the Great Barrier Reef made him want to do something to help the underwater paradise that he had chosen to live beside.

Bleached Coral on the Great Barrier Reef 2017  Bleached Coral Great Barrier Reef 2017

“I came to Cairns as a backpacker in 2006 and worked on Fitzroy Island for one and a half years. That was where I met Khai’s mother and when he was little I used to snorkel there with him on my back. I love the place,” he says.

“I have an aquarium and I used to buy coral for $100 a piece and discovered I could cut it up with scissors and grow my own. I was doing this one day and listening to news about the bleaching on TV and wondered whether the same thing could be done on the Reef to help it.

“I did some research and discovered coral propagation was being done overseas to help restore reefs so I started approaching people to do the same here. They laughed at me and asked if I had a board of directors.”

Gary doing Coral Prep

Gary joined a social enterprise program to identify how his idea could be turned into a tangible solution and was mentored by Stewart Christie, who had lead Advance Cairns. As CEO of the region’s peak economic development organisation, Stewart understood how valuable the Great Barrier Reef was to the community and the economy.

Together they worked on the idea and recruited people with different skillsets including Rob Giason, with more than 40 years’ tourism experience across Australia, Adam Smith, a marine scientist and previous director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and Elmarie Gebler, a highly experienced finance director and passionate diver.

As the second wave of bleaching hit the Great Barrier Reef between November 2016 and April 2017, the Reef Restoration Foundation was born with Stewart appointed full-time CEO to develop the not-for-profit social enterprise.

Reef Restoration Crew planing

International coral restoration expert Ken Nedimyer from the Florida Keys helped refine the concept and stakeholder consultation was undertaken. This work was still underway when Tropical Cyclone Debbie crossed the coast at Airlie Beach in March 2017 damaging coral reefs in the Whitsundays.

The Great Barrier Reef was now scarred in three different sections by extreme weather events. Headlines around the world led many to believe that the Great Barrier Reef was in its dying throes, while some thought it was already dead.

In October 2017 the Reef Restoration Foundation received Australia’s first permit for an offshore coral nursery. Seed funding was secured the following month from Fitzroy Island Resort, Gem Pearl, the Australian Marine Park Tourism Operators Association (AMPTO) and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.

Volunteers were recruited and worked during December 2017 to install the first pilot coral nursery on the Great Barrier Reef at Fitzroy Island which consisted of six coral tree frames and 246 coral cuttings taking from a nearby reef that had survived the recent bleaching event.

Reef Restoration Volunteers Tree Planting

Expansion to 10 coral tree frames with 650 corals was made possible by securing the National Australia Bank Foundation’s Sustainable Regions Grant providing $400,000 over three years. Sponsorship was also received from JTB, Japan’s largest travel company, and Small World Journeys which provides educational tours for student groups in Australia.

The first five months of coral growth exceeded expectations with some corals increasing in size by 2.5 times during adverse conditions created by the biggest wet season in many years. Nine out of 10 corals survived, growing into 246 new coral colonies from the 24 pieces of coral initially harvested from the fringing reef at Fitzroy Island.

Coral Growth

In August 2018 scientists and volunteers planted 222 of these colonies on damaged coral reefs at Fitzroy Island, while 24 mother colonies were retained as a sustainable resource to repeat the process on the coral tree frames.

No-one is more excited than Gary, the electrician whose bright spark of an idea made it happen. “I’ve had many happy years snorkelling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef and I’m confident my son Khai will too.”

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