14 Saving Ningaloo and economic dividend, especially in Exmouth, the community closest to these World Heritage assets. The town’s sustainable ecotourism industry was booming. People came from all over the world to see what all the fuss was about. Suddenly everyone wanted to swim with a whale shark. In the wake of these turning points, most decisionmakers responsible for the region’s future seemed to understand the link between the health of the reef and the fortunes of the local community. From the premier’s office down to the local shire, there was a clear consensus on the matter. As a result, Ningaloo looked like being that rare thing, an enduring good news story. Since those days, the reef’s global prestige has continued to grow, and Exmouth’s tourism reputation has risen with it. Compared with the Great Barrier Reef, the Ningaloo Reef is tiny, a mere 260 kilometres long. But because it’s so remote and in an arid zone where agricultural run-off isn’t an issue, it’s in far better shape than its beleaguered eastern cousin. It’s also much closer to shore. At many points you can snorkel at Ningaloo without needing a boat. You just wade out, put your face in the water and marvel. Wow, a turtle. Far out, a dugong. Visitors continue to come from all over the world to swim in the reef’s clear waters, and to see its vivid corals, sponges and fish. The opportunity to swim with whale sharks, manta rays, turtles – and, for the past three years, humpback whales – in a single excursion is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Hundreds of people have told me they found the experience “life changing”, and I know how they feel because I’ve done it many times myself over the past 30 years, and I can honestly say the sense of awe and privilege never wanes. Comment by Tim Winton north-western edge, Ningaloo Reef is Australia’s lesser-known coral treasure. Home to the gentle, photogenic whale shark, and more than 400 species of fish, it’s our largest fringing reef. And it’s not bleaching. But if you thought it was safe, think again. In July 2003, the then Western Australian premier, Geoff Gallop, famously drew a “line in the sand” on gung-ho development along the Ningaloo coast. After years of vacillation by several state governments, he vetoed the construction of a white-shoe resort and marina near Coral Bay. This signified a massive reprieve for the remote reef and its pristine shores, because it didn’t just stop one misbegotten project; it forestalled the stampede of opportunistic developments that would have followed in its wake. So, it was a momentous announcement. And a very rare decision for a Western Australian premier to make. Forced to choose between a privatebusiness venture and an obscure stretch of coral, he ruled in favour of the ecosystem. And given the quarry mentality that still lingers here on the western frontier, it remains a decision as historic as it was unlikely. HOW THE REEF WAS WON. The story ran nationwide, trumpeting the news that Ningaloo was safe. To some degree the headline reflected the story we told ourselves, even those of us who knew better, those who understood that the price of victory is eternal vigilance. But that’s how it felt. Ningaloo was safer. Saved, even. Gallop wasn’t punished for sparing the reef. In fact, his Labor government rode a surge of popular support into a second term. In 2004 the boundaries of the Ningaloo Marine Park were amended to include the entire reef. Sanctuary protection was increased from 10 to 34 per cent, and overdue planning controls secured the reef coast for nature-based tourism. Then, in 2011, when the Ningaloo Marine Park and adjacent Cape Range National Park were added to the World Heritage register, it looked as if one of the planet’s last healthy coral reefs was finally being given the status it deserved. And it wasn’t only an environmental gain. All this happy news and intense focus produced a major social Out on the continent’s Like all resource booms, it will pass. Its benefits are temporary, and they come at a very high cost. But here’s the thing: Ningaloo isn’t saved. Worse than that, its future is now in jeopardy. Because during all those years of celebration and consolidation, despite the success of ecotourism and the research attention and the prestige that came with World Heritage listing, the fossil-fuel industry was moving in. And by moving in, I mean culturally, not just territorially. While the reef still has passionate local defenders and hardworking government agencies looking after its welfare, the sense of stewardship once evident among local decision-makers has faded to little more than lip service. Civic leaders still talk about “World Heritage values” and “sustainable tourism”, but it sounds pretty hollow while they court the oil-and-gas giants and seek to foster industrial projects incompatible with those values. Some Australians will be surprised to learn how influential Woodside, Rio Tinto and Chevron have the nation reviewed
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