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Keeping the drill at bay


  • Published by Oceanographic Magazine March 2023 


  • Words by Wendy Mitchell


  • Photographs by Wendy Mitchell on assignment with Greenpeace

250 nautical miles off the coast of Western Australia lies the untouched Scott Reef. But as large natural gas and oil deposits can be found directly below this ecosystem, fossil fuel giant Woodside currently seeks approval for extensive seismic testing and long term extraction from directly below the reef, a practice that might throw this paradise off balance forever. 

With supplies to last us a month offshore loaded, charts plotted, and sails hoisted, we were ready to lift anchor from Broome, Western Australia and begin our 500 nautical mile return journey to Australia's largest standalone offshore coral reef, Scott Reef. The Reef lies in the Timor Sea, a remote part of Australian waters 425km northwest of Broome and 270km to the closest Western Australia land formation. To the west, is the seemingly endless Indian Ocean – thousands of miles of emptiness stretching to the Africa coasts. To the north and northeast lie Indonesia and Australia’s rugged Kimberly Coast.  

We sailed without stopping for four days and nights watching the sun rise and set over the rolling seas as we edged ever closer to Scott Reef. Riding a steady easterly wind blowing from mainland Australia, our sails were full, and we relished the warm Kimberly air, the horizon stained with a red tinged dust that blows from the sunburnt land. Scott Reef is uniquely positioned on the edge of Australia’s continental shelf. The Reef is made up of three separate atolls covering about 650km2, a mere pinhead in the vast expanse of the surrounding seas. If we sailed only a few degrees off course we would miss it entirely, not even knowing it was there.

Seemingly inconsequential above the water, below is a stunning, teeming world. Rising from depths of about 800m, the Reef’s sloping walls jut up to the surface and are almost fully exposed at low tide. Cold, nutrient-rich deep-water currents hit the reef walls and are pushed to the surface displacing the warm nutrient-poor surface water. The upwellings are primarily created by the reef's topography which causes vertical mixing throughout the water column. This creates a food banquet to sustain a city of hungry mouths across the reef.

The dramatic upwellings reefs attract large aggregations of marine life. Huge pods of resident spinner dolphins, traveling in pods of up to 50 strong, leap out of the water to greet us as we navigate the intricate reef system, often riding the bow of our boat, curious about the new visitors. Short-finned pilot whales pass around the reef’s outside walls traveling to their feeding grounds, often diving to hundreds of meters to hunt for squid on the slopes of the continental shelf. These pods are the area’s residents frequently sighted around the atolls. The reefs lie in the migratory path of endangered pygmy blue whales and are sometimes seen passing between the channels of Seringapatam and Scott Reef’s northern atoll. In winter months, mother humpback whales nurse newborn calves in the warm tropical water. Juveniles embrace their playful nature, leaping up out of the water mimicking their mothers’ actions.

Only one small sand spit sits above the high tide mark in the vast Scott Reef. This small spit is only meters above sea level and consists only of white sand. This small Sandy Islet is critical for endangered, nesting green and hawksbill turtles. Up to 1,000 green sea turtles nest on the shores of this tiny island each year, making it an incredibly significant location for the reproduction of this endangered species. Charles Darwin University researchers track the turtles’ annual migration thousands of kilometres, as they choose to return to this same beach to lay their eggs and mate in the shallow lagoons surrounding the Islet. The adult females haul themselves out of the water and navigate the matrix of nests laid by other turtles before them.

For us, the best way to experience these reefs was to strap on a scuba tank and descend into the depths and down, down we go. The reef feels electric and alive! Since it is on the side of the continental shelf there are exceptional walls to where we lose ourselves dropping into the unknown. Barrel Sponges with life spans well over 100 years and the size of a front door are scattered across the reef scape. Gorgonian sea fans extend as far as the eye can see, a rainbow of colors. Vibrant blue water is speckled with hundreds upon thousands of tiny brightly coloured anthias, damsel and surgeon fish. Large predatory fish like dogtooth tuna, spanish mackerel and wahoo pass by in the blue. Sailfish leap high up out of the water as we move around the reef’s edge. Eagle rays and manta rays feed in the strong tidal flow exiting the lagoon, twisting and turning graciously to hold their position in the exceptionally fast-flowing water.

Scott Reef is an exceptional and remote wilderness teeming with biodiversity in a microcosm whose unique delicate ecological balance was finely tuned over millennia. Will it be left alone to continue to function as an intact functioning system? The reefs harbour the Torosa oil and gas deposits which are a part of the larger Browse Basin. The deposits lie directly between the northern atoll and the southern barrier reef at depths of four kilometres below the seabed. Fossil fuel company Woodside is in the process of seeking further approvals to extract these deposits. They currently propose to drill over 50 wells around Scott Reef to extract gas from directly beneath the reef system.






































The collective Burrup projects, Scarborough and Browse are set to be the most climate-polluting projects in the history of Australia. Up to 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas that causes climate change, will be emitted over the project's 50-year lifetime. This is about 12 times the country of Australia's annual greenhouse gas emissions. Here in Western Australia, we have legislated net zero emissions by 2050 and among the community there is considerable investment into renewables. Little of this gas from the Scott Reef drilling project is proposed for the Australian domestic market, instead this dirty energy will be sold to the highest bidder. Most of the gas extracted from Scott Reef will be loaded onto ships and exported as liquified natural gas for international buyers. What is the benefit to Western Australia and what is the cost to this wildly diverse ecosystem? Much of the profits flowing to Woodside while one of Australia’s last intact coral reefs will be lost forever.

The Torosa deposit was first discovered in the 1960s and 70’s when the area was awarded to Woodside by the Australian Government for exploration. The company conducted seismic testing to determine the location and size of the deposits. Environmental monitoring and research have been ongoing, conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and funded by none other than Woodside and the Australian Government.

What lies ahead for these reefs and their inhabitants, the pods of pilot whales and their young? The endless pods of spinner dolphins seemingly so happy to see you when you arrive in their territory? What about the delicate ecological balance and globally significant biodiversity? With Woodside’s gas wells planned for directly in and across the extensive reef system and a known cetacean migration route the consequences could be catastrophic. Woodside’s risk models predict that an accidental spill of mixed oil and gas could last as long as 77 days, spreading up to 800km from the spill site. The entire Scott and Seringapatam Reefs could be contaminated with devastating impacts on the reef and marine life. The project’s projected 50-year lifespan means sustained noise pollution from seismic blasting, construction, heavy shipping, and day-to-day operation. These man-made, industrial impacts in the ocean are scientifically proven to negatively impact marine life, particularly marine mammals. These industrial and shipping operations reduce the ability of marine life to communicate.

Woodside awaits approval to further seismic test for several weeks in the near future if approved to determine ideal well locations. Towed underwater microphones from a vessel above receive the blasting sounds and are used to map the earth's layers below to identify the oil and gas deposits. Blasts from seismic testing activities can be compared to dynamite exploding underwater with sound waves traveling into the crust of the earth and returning to the surface. Underwater sound travels four times faster than in air so sound is carried hundreds to thousands of kilometres from its source through the ocean.  





Underwater seismic testing is harmful to marine life. It can cause hearing permanent losses in marine species with tragic effects. Whales like pygmy blue whales and humpback whales suffer a loss in their ability to find mates and exchange information. Whales suffering from acute stress and are often forced to leave the seismic testing area.Turtles show a strong stress response when exposed to airgun shots used in seismic testing and will quickly evacuate the area and possibly suffer hearing damage if in close proximity to the testing area. While marine species alter swim directions and speed in response to the seismic testing, this results in behavioural changes such as moving away from feeding grounds and fleeing nesting areas.

When an airgun is fired into the air column during exploration, the change in pressure can harm fish populations, including barotrauma resulting in serious injury and sometimes death. These are known impacts from oil and gas exploration and drilling, and this technology is not new. The difference with the exploration and drilling proposed for Scott Reef is that because the seismic work is proposed so close to the reef it will be almost impossible to avoid significant impacts to its marine life.  

Scott Reef’s geographical remoteness has helped to preserve it as a global biodiversity hotspot. It is a difficult journey to reach the reef, sadly for those wishing to explore it is not a destination to stop at for a few hours to see and sense its wonders. A journey to Scott Reef requires preparation and serious sea time to reach its remote reefs. There are no hotels or resorts on Scott Reef, no restaurants to grab a bite and no airstrip to land a plane. For me, this is what makes this area so special – it is still wild, untamed, an area free from the burden of development. An area where turtles choose to travel thousands of kilometres to reproduce on its shores and where enormous whales choose to rest on their migrations with their young. Scott Reef does not need to be transformed from a paradise to an industrialised sea scape. In my eyes, Scott Reef and oil and gas development cannot co-exist. Woodside’s project does not yet have full approval. There is still a chance these reefs can avoid this development altogether.

This is not a story of a fight that was lost, it's a story of a fight that is happening now and can be stopped before the damage is done! Let’s allow the untamed schools of fish to rush past your mask as you enter their ecosystem, swim alongside thriving pods of dolphins and look into the eye of a mother humpback whale and only hope to understand the incredible wealth of knowledge she holds within. Let's do what we can to protect the Scott Reef ecosystems so that an ever- increasing number of threatened and endangered species can live and thrive in peace, in this not so, sacrificial paradise. 

Mating seasnakes at Scott Reef, Westen Australia, Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, seafans, Western Australia, Seringapatam Reef
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, seafans, Western Australia, Seringapatam Reef, Macro photography
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, seafans, Western Australia, Seringapatam Reef
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, fish, trevallies, Western Australia
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, seafans, Western Australia, Seringapatam Reef
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodside, Western Australia
Clown fish, Scott Reef, Coral Reef, Oil and Gas  Woodsdie, pilot whales, cetaceans, western australia
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