As a young ANU graduate from Canberra, Alison Rickert found herself living her dream – setting up a marine research station on One Tree Island, an untouched coral cay 100km off the coast near Gladstone. The year was 1971 and there was nothing on the island – no accommodation, no fresh water – just hordes of marauding centipedes and squadrons of fierce mosquitoes.

by Judy Fredriksen 

Surprisingly devoid of ambition but brimming with dreams of adventure, Alison was excited to be invited by the Australian Museum to put her Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biology and Psychology to use by being part of a pioneering team to study marine life on the Great Barrier Reef.

The lifestyle was certainly adventurous, but also harsh. Alison lived in a tent, later graduating to a small hut, and relied on a kerosene stove, Dutch oven, kerosene fridge and hurricane lanterns for two years. Drinking water was scarce and a dip in the ocean replaced baths and showers.

Despite the rough conditions and isolation, Alison developed a deep connection with the Reef and all the life forms that inhabited it, relishing the realisation of her childhood fascination with the Reef.

“I was constantly inspired and overwhelmed by the beauty of the Reef. Nature is extraordinarily inventive in the forms it gives rise to, they are functional but also amazingly beautiful in an aesthetic sense,” she says, beaming her enthusiasm. 

“Entering the underwater world is a magical experience, it is like being in the Garden of Eden; it is mind blowing, literally. From this I came to appreciate that the natural world matters, it sustains and inspires us and has inherent value in its own right.”

As part of the research, the team built artificial reefs from 40 tons of besser blocks to monitor the emerging ecosystems. One of Alison’s duties was to take readings of the water parameters every half an hour. 

“I became like an alley cat. I would just lie down and sleep 10 minutes, then wake up and do the readings. It was really good preparation for having a baby!”

Then in 1972, the island was hit by Cyclone Emily, destroying a year’s worth of research. Alison and her two colleagues survived the maelstrom by huddling under an upturned 14-foot boat. 

Alison continued to carry out marine studies on the Great Barrier Reef at other locations, setting up another research station on Lizard Island. But as often happens, life eventually intervened and she stepped away from these commitments to raise a family.

During this time, she called on her studies in psychology to work as a counsellor for Relationship Australia for ten years, pioneering a relationship course in schools. 

But her love for the Reef never waned and in 2007, she was delighted when she was selected to work on Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. Gore, an internationally renowned environmental activist, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on climate change. 

This gave Alison the opportunity to help raise awareness of climate change across Australia, something she feels strongly about.  

It was around the year 2000 Alison first became aware that coral bleaching was impacting the Reef. 

“When I was on the Reef (in the 1970s) I never saw any bleaching. I thought the Reef was something that couldn’t be destroyed because it was so resilient to the forces of nature – so able to withstand heavy seas and recover from cyclones.

“And then with only one degree of global warming, the Reef started to have these mass bleaching events, three occurring in the last five years.

“In 2019, the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority reported that without additional local, national and global action on the greatest threats, the long-term outlook for the Reef would remain very poor. Climate change was identified as the greatest threat. The UN Heritage Committee is poised to declare it as ‘endangered’. 

“The Reef is like the canary in the coal mine, our alarm bells should be ringing.” 

Never-the-less, Alison remains positive, saying that we as individuals can make a difference.

Reducing our own carbon footprint is important, she says. We can also lobby decision makers to set ambitious carbon reduction targets and support organisations that do conservation and advocacy work.

In this respect, she recommends the Australian Marine Conservation Society (marineconservation.org.au) and the Climate Council (climatecouncil.org.au) as being two reliable organisations. The Climate Council checks the facts to counteract any misinformation in the media. 

 “We have the potential to live better with the earth than we ever have done, through technological advances in renewable energy which will reduce our emissions,” she explains.

However, as a psychologist and trained counsellor, Alison raises an issue that many of us may not have considered. She has concerns around how climate change can affect the mental health of people. 

“It can be really distressing to learn about ecosystem collapses. We know what dangers are in store for us – severe cyclones, flooding, the bushfires. It can be really frightening for people.

“Parents of young children can be worried about bringing up their children to an uncertain future.”

For those who may be suffering anxiety about the future, take heart – there is help: psychologyforasafeclimate.org.

If any readers would like to contact Alison in person, she would welcome the opportunity to   discuss the issues raised in this article.  Her email is: alisonrickert46@gmail.com