Beauty and pride collide on the Great Barrier Reef

HOMES and structures of every shape and form cascade down steep slopes.

Space is at a premium here and thoroughfares bustle with activity.

There's the occasional traffic jam or barney, but everything mostly ticks along smoothly in this busy, noisy metropolis.

Neighbours interact as they go about their daily business; parents care for their children; fastidious gardeners tend their plants.

At the end of the day there's the shift change of those settling in for the night, and those coming out to play.

This is the living skin of the Great Barrier Reef.

More than just a hard or uniform structure, the reef is a vast collection of varied ecosystems.

From seemingly barren sand islands to coral reefs, lagoons and mangroves, the Great Barrier Reef's biological diversity is unmatched by any other World Heritage Area.

More than 10% of the world's total fish species, 1500, can be found on the reef, which is more than the UK, Switzerland and Holland combined.

One man who can identify many of those species is dive instructor Paddy Colwell.

The Irish expat moved to Australia 25 years ago with "the full intention of opening a pub" in Adelaide.

But when the deal went sour, Paddy bought 14 dive tanks and a van and drove around Australia.

He eventually settled in far north Queensland, where the warm tropical waters were a welcome sea change to the chilly UK conditions in which he learned to dive in 1977.

"I actually got my residency in Australia and Canada," he says.

"I had a look at the weather forecast and Canada didn't look as good as here, so here I came."

Paddy worked as a dive instructor before founding Reef Teach, an educational program teaching visitors about the Great Barrier Reef.

He retired from Reef Teach in 2007, but continues to work for Education Queensland as a senior biology and marine studies teacher in Cairns.

"The more you know the more you see," he said.

"You have to be blind not to enjoy it… the diversity is totally mind-boggling."

Paddy features in the ABC's new three-part documentary series Life on the Reef.

Produced by the same team behind the documentary Kokoda, the series focuses on our modern interactions with the reef as well as its natural history.

Russell Butler, a Bandjin traditional owner from Hinchinbrook Island, in a scene from the documentary TV series Life on the Reef. RIGHT: A turtle comes ashore to lay its eggs on Raine Island.
Russell Butler, a Bandjin traditional owner from Hinchinbrook Island, in a scene from the documentary TV series Life on the Reef. RIGHT: A turtle comes ashore to lay its eggs on Raine Island. Jeremy Simons And ABC TV

"I was amazed they were using me as a model," Paddy said.

The quarter of a century living in tropical Queensland has done little to diminish his Irish lilt.

He tells me he received a phone call from the documentary's producers "out of the blue" and I wonder if he means to make the pun.

In the big wide blue is exactly where he feels at home.

Paddy estimates he has done at least 6000 dives on the northern half of the reef.

The first episode of Life on the Reef shows Paddy tucking his fins under his arm to go for a "walk" on the seabed.

"That was my idea, one of my ingenious think-ups," he said.

"Every dive I do I enjoy. I just love getting in the water and chilling.

"It's always got a buzz to it, but it's not an adrenaline rush. It's the opposite kind of rush."

Filmed over one year, Life on the Reef takes in all four seasons, which dictate the rhythms of the reef.

From coral spawning to giant turtles hauling their bodies onto the land to lay their precious eggs, natural phenomena take place on a grand scale.

The reef still has her secrets, though.

The documentary reveals ground-breaking research into the acoustics of the reef system.

Fish use sound to communicate and it is thought juvenile fish also rely on sound to find the safety of reefs after spending days or weeks adrift in the open ocean developing from larvae.

"Fish sing to each other outside of our hearing range," Paddy said.

"People think it's all competition but many animals help each other out."

Other examples of this co-operation, sometimes referred to as symbiosis, include shrimps that warn blind, burrowing gobies of any approaching danger and the photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae) living inside the tissues of corals.

It is these miniscule algae which give the reef-building corals nutrients and their wide array of vivid and sometimes fluorescent colours.

Those colours have been dazzling visitors for years. More than one million tourists visit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park each year and the World Heritage Area is estimated to be worth more than $5 billion to the economy.

But the reef's World Heritage status is under threat.

As well as industrial expansion along the Queensland coast, the reef is threatened by rising sea temperatures, shipping traffic, pollution from run-off and outbreaks of the coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

Since 1985, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its coral cover because of the combined effects of storm damage, crown of thorns outbreaks and coral bleaching.

In June this year, the World Heritage Committee will meet in Germany and decide whether or not to list the Great Barrier Reef as a World Heritage Area "in danger".

"It (losing World Heritage status) would be a huge slap in the face and Australia would deserve to be hugely embarrassed by it," Paddy said. "But it is just a piece of paper; it sounds nice. We should save it for its own sake."

Life on the Reef premieres tonight at 7.40pm on ABC1.

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