Plumes of small white particles fall like underwater snow over the remains of this reef.
It is the first sign of new coral life here for years.
This site on the Great Barrier Reef, once a vibrant area of underwater colors, was wiped out during a severe tropical cyclone nearly five years ago.
Now a team of scientists and tour guides is hovering on the surface above the reef.
Armed with a few boats, special pontoon structures and a little patience, they are convinced that it can be revived.
IVF for corals
The process began a week ago, during a spectacular spawning event in which trillions of coral eggs and sperm bundles were released into the water.
The annual phenomenon was recorded off the coast of centers including Cairns and Airlie Beach.
Whitsunday tourism operators and scientists from groups including the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and Southern Cross University were there for the occasion.
“What we’re trying to do is collect the eggs from parts of Pentecost that have significant coral spawning events, and then bring the eggs to parts … where there are not many corals,” said marine biologist with Reef Catchments, Johnny Gaskell.
Dr. Mark Gibbs, chief engineer at AIMS, said the alley was transferred to floating children’s basins stationed miles away to develop into larvae.
“We prevent them from being washed to the sea and deposit them right on the reef,” said Dr. Gibbs.
After about six days, the larvae are led into reef systems damaged by bleaching or cyclones, such as the reef off Black Island during the days of Pentecost.
This is known as coral IVF, a process that is groundbreaking by Queensland professor Peter Harrison.
“A few people around the world are trying this now, but much of the development has come from Australia,” said Dr. Gibbs.
“They have all, as far as I know, been performed by scientists.
The program, funded by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, has been tested in a few locations off the coast of Queensland since 2016 and has been scaled up with the help of locals.
In addition to sites off Black Island, the larvae are also widespread off Lizard Island north of Cairns.
All hands on deck
It is hoped that the local tourism sector will play a key role in this type of reef recovery in the coming years – to provide companies with alternative income streams and to upgrade the skills of reef generation.
“One of the problems with this method is that corals spawn once or twice a year. When that happens, we need people and vessels to do it,” said Dr. Gibbs.
“There is an existing pool of people and vessels in the tourism industry.
“This project is about developing the equipment and testing the methods together with participants who are traditional owners and the tourism industry.
“It’s all very cheap, accessible equipment.”
Michela Veltri works as a deckhand for an adventure tourism company.
She, like many other local employees, volunteered to get involved.
“There are still some great places to snorkel and dive during the days of Pentecost,” she said.
“But if you look at some of the other areas that were exposed in the northern parts of the islands, they are not doing very well.”
How viable is this restoration?
Few have spent as much time underwater during the days of Pentecost as marine biologist Johnny Gaskell.
He has seen the effects of bleaching and cyclone damage on his own, but said many parts of the reef were still teeming with life and hope.
“Ever since Cyclone Debbie, the Whitsundays have had less coral coverage than they did … but there are plenty of places to take a look,” Mr Gaskell said.
“In order to combat the major impacts of climate change, small-scale restoration has no chance.
“But to try to increase the restoration of local tourist sites, this is where restoration really becomes an important part of the restoration process.”
It can take about three to four years for proper corals to form after the larvae are released.
The first microscopic larvae inserted using this technique on Heron Island in 2016 have grown to plate size.
Four different tourism companies struck with this latest project on the days of Pentecost.
While it was usually competitors, it was a rare chance to work together.
And Dr. Mark Gibbs said it was a huge success.