When Tourism Queensland launched an international campaign to fill the position of caretaker on the tiny coral atoll, Hamilton Island, two years ago, no-one realised quite how much interest it would generate. Beating off competition from 34,000 other candidates, the role was eventually given to Brit, Ben Southall. Eighteen months on, he’s about to embark on a three month kayaking trip around the Great Barrier Reef to raise awareness for eco charity, Reef Check. So what’s turned him into a passionate advocate for the reef? And is the thought of getting up close and personal with some of the reef’s less-than-friendly inhabitants keeping him awake at night? Of course not, says Ben. It’s a whole new adventure and he can’t wait for it to start.
Ruth Styles: Before you won the Best Job in the World competition, you were a fundraiser: moving to a coral island must have been a bit of a change?
Ben Southall: ‘It was a bit, although not as much as you might think. I worked for the Royal Star and Garter [a charity which works with retired servicemen] but I used to travel throughout Southern Africa, hiring four wheel drives and going on overland journeys.
Because I enjoyed the adventure, I put together a five year plan to circumnavigate the continent and see as much of it as I could.
Originally, I was going to do it with a friend and to raise funds for charity, so arranged to do five marathons and climb the five highest mountains in Africa within the year on the road. Unfortunately, my friend dropped out at the last minute, so it was a case of do I stay or do I go? I decided to go and had a year of pure adventure. About 10 days after I got back, I saw the ad for 'Best Job in the World' and just decided to go for it.'
RS: What did you think of the island – it must have been amazing to be in such an ecologically diverse place?
BS: ‘Hamilton Island isn't completely wild - there are 1,500 people who live there and a resort - so it wasn't really an 'existence' in the Robinson Crusoe sense. Only about 25 per cent of it is inhabited, so there are lots of little deer and wallabies there. The best bit is under the water though on the Great Barrier Reef; it's another world down there. There's something like 1,500 species of fish, 300 different corals, whales, dolphins, sharks, so it's impossible to see it all in a single trip there. Even a scuba dive only gives you an hour under water.'
RS: What was the best part of the Best Job in the World?
BS: 'The diving was amazing and I did it around 50 to 60 times. The Great Barrier Reef is 1,500 miles long, so I guess I've seen about one per cent of it. If you only go once, you¹ve hardly seen anything! Once I was diving off Lady Elliot Island and I went through this blowhole in the rock and this wall of coral, then spotted this turtle around 25 to 30 metres away. Green turtles are pretty shy but this one turned and swam towards me. It got to five metres and I couldn't believe it, then it swam right up to me and the camera - so close I could run my hand over the back of its shell - and I got the whole thing on film. It just made my day.'
RS: You’re now doing a kayaking trip – the ‘Best Expedition in the World’. What made you want to do it?
BS: 'One of the reasons I'm doing it is to raise awareness for a charity called Reef Check, who look at what's going on with the reef. They work with volunteers to record things like the numbers of an individual species of fish in a particular area and what's happening to the coral in different areas. Their information is then used by scientists to work out things like how climate change and global warming are affecting the Great Barrier Reef.'
RS: You were stung by a jellyfish while diving in 2009, are you at all worried about how the local marine life might react to you?
BS: 'Luckily, I'm doing the trip outside of the jellyfish season so they shouldn't be a problem this time. It is humpback whale season but they're usually more aware of you than you are of them, so I'm not expecting any problems with them. I'm much more worried about sharks bumping up against the boat. It would make an amazing story to tell though.'
RS: How are you preparing for it? Three months in a kayak sounds pretty tough...
BS: 'I'm going in May so I still have some time left but I haven¹t done half as much as I should have! I'm training as much as possible now by kayaking on the Brisbane River but because of the floods [in Queensland] I haven't been able to do as much as I'd have liked. In the meantime, I'm doing the logistical and mental preparation lots of sports psychology to get me ready for three and a half months in a kayak. It's going to be a bit of an adventure and it's also going to be really tough.'
RS: Reef Check aims to help preserve the Great Barrier Reef. What are the environmental problems people should be aware of?
BS: 'The problems that other reefs around the world suffer from are things like ignorant tourism and over-fishing; as they say, reefs take thousands of years to grow and seconds to destroy. One of the biggest things is fish tanks. People love warm water fish tanks and they like to have a bit of coral in there to make it realistic, but that's led to lots of coral being blasted for them, which ruins the ecosystem. That's one of the reasons why I'll be blogging during the trip. I want to encourage people to get out there and see the reef for themselves rather than having a little bit in a tank.‘
RS: So for you, eco-tourism is important for ensuring the health of the reef? What about the environmental impact of flying all the way to Australia to see it?
BS: 'Australia is always a difficult one in that respect because going to Heathrow to get on a plane is a necessity for getting there. That said, Queenslanders now know that a lot of the tourists who go there do so because of the Great Barrier Reef which means its health directly affects their business. If operators don't care for it, they'll lose the reef and their business, so they've started doing things like banning plastic bags in town, so they don't get into the water, and setting down rules for anchoring boats so the coral doesn't get damaged. People who visit then go home as mini-ambassadors for the reef environment, knowing that they need to do all the little things to help the planet because it all adds up and helps to protect the planet, and the reef. Ultimately, it's an educational thing that helps to protect our future on this planet.'
The ‘Best Expedition in the World’ runs from May 21st until September 14th. Follow Ben’s progress on his blog at www.islandreefjob.com. To find out more about the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland's other natural wonders, visit www.queenslandholidays.com.au
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