Some 45 years ago, just a few years after Professor Frank Talbot AM established the Lizard Island Research Station in 1973, we — two young students — began our PhD projects there. Jan Aldenhoven studying a blue and gold, sex-changing angel fish, Centropyge bicolor; Zena Dinesen studying corals, in particular the low-light-loving Leptoseris group found on the outer Barrier Reef at depth (now known as the mesophotic zone) and in the dimness of shallow-water overhangs.
Student accommodation in the 1970s was simple: canvas tents pitched on the beach, with the centipedes. Each day we headed out in small tinnies, often on our own.
Now the tents are gone, replaced by well-designed, environmentally-sensitive living quarters and research facilities nestled among vegetation. The improvements are a testament to the years of good planning, steadfast support and hard work of donors, the Australian Museum and staff at the Research Station. These comfortable, resilient facilities mean greater capacity at a time when the Reef needs our focus more than ever.
In July 2023 we were invited to return to Lizard Island with a group of supporters from the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation.
It was wonderful to be back on the island. The sounds are the same: wind in the she-oaks along the beach, waves lapping on a coralline sand beach, calls of the Bar-shouldered Doves and Pheasant Coucals. The gorgeous shades of turquoise water beckon.
There are differences too: those warning signs about crocodiles, that’s new.
New also was a better appreciation of Lizard’s exquisite and diverse plant communities and freshwater systems including an aquifer. On top of Cook’s Look, soaks allow stunted paperbarks (Melaleuca) and Blue Tongue to survive. Cushiony hummocks of Jacksonia and wind-pruned Thrytomene stretch down the granite slopes.
The biggest question in our minds was the state of the reef at Lizard Island following the cyclones of 2014 and 2015 then big bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. In our student years, coral bleaching wasn’t even talked about. Stories of rotting, stinking corals was a horror never imagined. While some reefs around Lizard are struggling, it was a relief and joy to see good recovery of corals and associated life at North Point and Big Vicki’s Reef, and schools of large fish including the Bumphead Parrotfish, Bolbometapon muricatum.
We learned that given half a chance the Reef can come back, or at least be on the right path*. But each summer is a game of Russian roulette: will the clouds and rain roll in at just the right time to cool the overheated corals and save them from death? This year is likely to be a knife-edge for corals, with El Nino looming. A lethal bleaching event could wipe out seven years of recovery.
After our days spent on Lizard, Jan pursued a career in wildlife filmmaking, working with her partner Glen Carruthers on many David Attenborough series around the world. They are best-known for the landmark documentary, ‘Kangaroos. Faces in the mob’. Now living on another island, Minjerribah/North Stradbroke Is, Jan continues film work, teaches about the natural world and helps the local traditional owners document the island’s plants.
After completing her PhD at James Cook University, Zena continued with postdoctoral studies of soft corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. Then followed over 15 years in management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park with the Queensland and Australian governments. Next, Zena worked as a principal policy officer in fisheries and agriculture until her retirement in 2022. Zena is now an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at The University of Queensland, and is still involved in research on mesophotic corals.
Our recent visit was too brief but we hope to return soon.
By Dr Jan Aldenhoven and Dr Zena Dinesen
*See abstract of a paper about corals at Lizard Island over time: Richards, Z.T., D.A. Juszkiewicz and A. Hoggett, 2021. Spatio-temporal persistence of scleractinian coral species at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs, 40: 1369-1378.