One of the world's last pristine marine environments is in danger

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are fighting to save the Great Australian Bight.

Image: © Michaela Skovranova/Greenpeace

Image: © Michaela Skovranova/Greenpeace

While the Great Barrier Reef is often regarded as Australia’s great ecological wonder, the country has a marine environment teeming with even more wildlife to the south — and it’s facing a potentially existential threat.

The Great Australian Bight is a vast open bay off the southern coast of Australia that encompasses vast underwater forests and reefs, thousands of species, massive schools of fish, breeding grounds for rare whales and mammals, and much more.

By the end of the year, however, it could be dotted with oil rigs. The Australian government has approved oil drilling permits for the region, and the Norwegian company Equinor (formerly Statoil) plans to begin the drilling process by October.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are fighting to save the Great Australian Bight. They’re urging the Australian government to rescind their oil drilling permits and enact strong environmental regulations to guard the bay against extraction efforts.

Recently, Greenpeace deployed the Rainbow Warrior III to document the bight’s ecological beauty. A team of conservationists, scientists, and photographers set out to capture underwater scenes of coral reefs, sea weeds, sea lions, mollusks, coral, sea urchins, and various fish — 85% of the species found in the area are not found anywhere else in the world.

The bight supplies around a quarter of Australia’s fish, supports a vibrant eco-tourism industry, and acts as a key buffer against climate change.

The Greenpeace team highlighted the fact that the bight is one of the last remaining breeding grounds for the endangered southern right whale, and around 37 dolphin and whale species rely on the region's unique conditions to thrive. Because of its proximity to Antarctica, the bay receives currents of cold water from the south and warm water from other directions, which allow rare coral reef systems to flourish.

Greenpeace has also been mounting a digital campaign to generate support for the protection of the area and has garnered hundreds of thousands of petition signatures.

The goal, according to Pelle, is to get the government to change course and champion the region's protection, an outcome that could become more possible after the upcoming elections if candidates who support climate action become elected.

First, the Great Australian Bight has never been drilled before and drilling operations are likely to face a range of challenges, such as rough waters, storms, and a lack of support infrastructure.

Protecting the Great Australian Bight also fits within the larger framework of climate action revolving around the Paris climate agreement. Rather than searching for new oil fields that would contribute greenhouse gases to the environment, Pelle argues, countries should be aggressively investing in clean energy alternatives to prevent terrible environmental consequences from occurring.

The campaign to halt the drilling could gain a key ally in the surfing community, which travels to the bight’s coastline each year for the area’s famed waves.