The Quicksilver Group
Australia’s Quicksilver Group (Quicksilver) is the largest reef tourism operator for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) . Home to cruises and snorkeling excursions, Quicksilver owns thirteen major vessels, and is one of North Queensland’s largest private employers, with 630 local workers . Perhaps most impressive, however, is Quicksilver’s twenty-year commitment to raising awareness about – and researching – the detrimental effects of climate change on the GBR ecosystem. As an early mover, Quicksilver is poised to further this conversation on an international stage.
The Threat of Warm Water
Climate change has led to an increase in sea temperatures : since 1950, more than 90% of the excess heat trapped by carbon emissions have permeated the ocean. As a result, the surface temperature of the ocean has increased by 1C in the last 35 years — too warm for coral’s polyps to retain the algae that live inside it . Algae provide most of the coral’s energy; without it, the coral falls into starvation, becoming ostensibly bleached. Because the water temperature cannot cool down, the coral is trapped in an endless cycle, ultimately perishing.
GBR’s decline has a detrimental effect on the massive ecosystem it supports. As the largest living structure in the world (2,300 km, and comprised of 2,900 reefs), the GBR supports 1,600 species of fish. Without coral and algae as sustenance, these fish either move away or die. This bubbles up the circle of life, affecting birds, whose droppings fertilize island plants, as well as the half billion humans who consume fish from this region.
Additionally, the GBR brings two million tourists, $6 billion and nearly 70,000 local jobs to Australia every year . Quicksilver, and companies like it, are thus fundamentally dependent on the GBR for revenue.
What Quicksilver is Doing
In 1986, as coral reached “mass bleaching” levels , Quicksilver created Reef Biosearch, a group tasked with tracking and understanding the impact of climate change on the GBR.
Reef Biosearch combines tourism with education and research. Research staff focus on school, community and industry education about the environment; work as crew members aboard Quicksilver vessels during GBR tours; and conduct research with visiting scientists, informing their advisory role to reef management authorities, like the GBRMPA, Department of Environment, and CRC Reef Research Centre.
If Reef Biosearch’s success is measured in terms of data collection and quality local education, then it has done exceedingly well. To date, they have the largest logbook database of marine observations on the GBR (more than two decades). As a first-mover in combining tourism with preservation (predating the term “ecotourism”), and as an early proponent of crowdsourcing, Reef Biosearch has aggregated photographic and survey data, created monthly e-newsletters, and built tools like the interactive “Eye on the Reef” map .
What Else Can Quicksilver Do?
Though Quicksilver’s responsibility to its local community is notable, there is an opportunity to take Reef Biosearch’s work to the next level.
First, Reef Biosearch should make their data publicly, and widely, available. This can be done via university tutorials, open-source software (consider the reputable “survivors of the Titanic” dataset, made popular through its free inclusion with R ), data competitions hosted by Kaggle , and up-to-date blog posts (their most recent one is from 2013). The goal, to tap into the data-savvy public market, can prove beneficial in furthering awareness of GBR’s decline.
Additionally, Quicksilver should replace its vessels with smaller, environmentally friendly ones , up its marketing campaign, and consider innovative research techniques. By emphasizing its early eco-certification, Quicksilver can increase sales from eco-minded tourists more willing to travel with them. Participating in prominent conferences like COP22  can garner earned media and move the conversation to an international forum. Finally, Quicksilver can invest in bleeding-edge technology to precipitate their research, like using virtual reality headsets to study the “digital reef” via “dry diving .”
Of course, these proposals are not without challenges. It is unclear how feasible a high-profile marketing campaign is, since we have no insight into Quicksilver’s financials. Downsizing vessels can hurt employment, a detriment to Quicksilver’s reputation as a leader in the local economy.
The biggest hurdle, however, is perhaps the most surprising: the Australian government. In May 2016, The Guardian discovered that all mentions of Australia were removed from the final version of a Unesco report on climate change . Individuals like Col McKenzie, CEO of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators argue that overzealous media coverage of bleaching is “a bigger risk to the industry than the bleaching itself.”
Quicksilver’s role, however, remains critical – to the climate change conversation and the preservation of a natural wonder.
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