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Watch out reef pirates - here's OUCH! Order of the Underwater Coral Heroes

Tony Fontes has been training dive instructors since becoming a PADI Course Director in 1981. He runs probably the most popular and successful PADI Instructor Development Course in Australia and has won many awards including the prestigious Outstanding Course Director award. Tony has trained over 1500 instructor candidates to date, including DiVo’s Elaine Kwee in “the craziest ever IDC I have ever run” that saw two cyclones (including the big bad Yasi) blow through town and delaying exams. Nonetheless, kudos to Tony, all candidates sailed through.

Tony is a well-known figure in the Australian dive industry as his involvement goes well beyond instructor training. For 15 years he was owner/director of a PADI 5-Star Instructor Development Centre on the Great Barrier Reef. He has also been involved in setting up numerous dive operations in the South Pacific.

Tony is also very active when it comes to protecting the marine environment. For nine years he was a member of the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee, which oversees the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Currently, Tony is chairman of the Whitsunday Local Marine Advisory Committee. But his most fulfilling reef work is with the OUCH Volunteers (Order of Underwater Coral Heroes) of which he is a co-founder. OUCH is the most active volunteer group in Queensland when it comes to working to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

DiVo asked Tony about OUCH and how he involves lay divers in OUCH’s activities.

Question: When did you establish OUCH and why?

Answer: To understand the history of OUCH, you have to go back to the late 1980’s.  At this point, it was becoming apparent to local reef operators that anchor damage was becoming a significant problem, particularly around the more popular dive sites in the Whitsundays.  We lobbied the government to do something for the better part of 4 years but to no avail.  Then one day in 1994, a video tape found its way onto the ABC 7:30 Report that showed anchor damage in the Whitsundays.  Within two weeks of the program, the government found some money to support what has become known as the Reef Protection Program and a loose group of volunteers formed OUCH to support the program.  Much of the early funding for the Reef Protection Program came from government grants which were available under the National Heritage Trust (NHT).  However, as we all know, governments and government agencies come and go.  I am not sure what happened to NHT but for the past decade, OUCH has worked directly with Coastcare.  As a registered Coastcare group, we are eligible for liability insurance at no cost.  We also receive support and recognition through Coastcare which helps when it is time to apply for grants. 

Question: What does OUCH do?

Answer: OUCH is primarily a hands on organisation that prefers to work at the coal face that sit in conference rooms and talk about what should be done.  We always have a number of projects going; reef protection program, mangrove watch, seagrass watch, coral reef monitoring, and numerous education programs for visitors and reef operators.  The Reef Protection Program is popular with our divers.  The work involves the maintenance of the reef protection marker buoys.  Much of our time is spent looking for missing marker buoys that go walk-about in stormy weather.  For non-divers, the mangrove watch and seagrass watch programs are popular as you only get your feet wet (and muddy).  Most recently, we received a significant grant to map the habitat of all marine endangered species in the Whitsunday region.

OUCH doesn’t shy away from a role of advocacy.  We work closely with GBRMPA and QPWS in regards to their planning policies in the Whitsundays.  We have members on the Whitsunday Local Marine Advisory Committee which advises GBRMPA and QPWS on local issues in the Marine Park. 


Question: tell us a little more about what you have volunteers do in the mooring maintenance, seagrass monitoring and other activities.

Answer:   The Reef Protection Program is popular with our divers.  The work involves the maintenance of the reef protection marker buoys.  Much of our time is spent looking for missing marker buoys that go walk-about in stormy weather.  Search and recovery skills come in very handy with this kind of work.  Also, divers need to be comfortable working with ropes (knots) and lift bags.  Part of seagrass watch program requires diving or snorkelling as some of the sites never dry at low tide.  For non-divers, the mangrove watch is popular as you only get your feet wet (and muddy).  Mangrove Watch and Seagrass Watch teach participants a great deal about the intertidal.


Question: Apart from volunteer activities, are there community education activities that OUCH conduct?

Answer: Education is a big part of OUCH.  We conduct regular “Reef Discovery Programs” for school kids from around Australia and overseas.  These are short 1 hour slide presentations aimed at kids that are about to visit the Great Barrier Reef.  We teach the kids a little about the reef and a lot about protecting the reef.  On average, we would see about 1000 school kids each year.  Most of our contacts int his area are through travel agents. 


Question: How often do OUCH activities occur?

Answer:  OUCH activities have no set schedule.  As many of our programs depends on outside funding, when we get money, we run a trip.  With the Reef Protection Program, when enough marker buoys go missing, the Marine Parks will give us a call, and off we go.  The Mangrove Watch and Seagrass Watch programs are run on a quarterly basis and the schedule is tidal dependent.  Our educational programs are run on demand basis.  June and July are the most popular months for overseas school groups.

Question: Who are the volunteers who get involved in OUCH? What are the reasons you find that they join OUCH?

Answer: The majority of our volunteers are locals and most of them are part of the dive industry (Divemaster and Instructors).  Very few are looking for free diving as they dive every day for a living.  Most just want to help protect the environment.  A very few are involved in advocacy work, i.e. sit on committees, attend conferences. 

Question: How has OUCH made a difference to the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef?

Answer: There is no doubt that OUCH has achieved much in the Whitsunday region.  We were instrumental in setting up the Reef Protection Program which has virtually stopped anchor damage at the popular dives sites.  This program has now been successfully extended to other parts of the Great Barrier Reef.  It has even been picked up overseas.  Our programs have gone a long way to raise community awareness as to the fragility of the Great Barrier Reef and how an individual can protect it.  The Marine Park management agencies take OUCH very seriously and look for our input.  Over the years, the OUCH Volunteers have been honoured with numerous awards, including; Reader’s Digest Environmental Award for Australia, Prime Ministers Environmental Award, National Bank Community Link High Commendation, IYV North Queensland Award and the Queensland Coastcare Award.  These awards reflect the dedication of the volunteers and the quality of their work.

Question: Does OUCH depend on government grant funding for its projects? How long are your funding cycles usually for?

Answer: The majority of our projects require funding, particularly where diving is involved as boat hire is expensive.  Most of our funding comes in the form of government grants or donations.  We don’t ask the volunteers for contributions.  We also work for our money.  We sell a line of OUCH t-shirts with all proceeds going to OUCH. 

Question: Tell us about the impact of the recent Cyclone Yasi on the Great Barrier Reef. Was there widespread destruction to the coral and fishlife? And how has it affected the diving industry around Northern Queensland?

Answer:  Locally, the effect of Cyclone Yasi has been minimal, some coral damage and the rains have dumped quite a bit of sediment into the water.  Of course, further north, the damage has been significant and it is still being assessed by the Marine Park management agencies.

Question: Do you think that there is a potential to develop a new form of dive tourism in “eco-diving”, ie., dive activities that also involve marine conservation and research in some way? What activities might be possible? 

Answer: I believe that there is huge potential for eco-diving, particularly on the Great Barrier Reef.  There could be a wide range of activities, for divers, snorkellors and non-divers/snorkellors.  To name just a few…coral reef surveys, mangrove/seagrass monitoring, crown-of-thorns eradication, beach and dive site cleanups, dugong and turtles monitoring…and the list goes on.


Thank you Tony for your time, and we wish you the best for OUCH! Here’s hoping that new volunteers will come forward and join the worthy cause.

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