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Reef Guardians

Matthew Radburnd admits his teaching career was initially borne from necessity. But, after pioneering one of Australia’s leading marine education programs, and inspiring hundreds future Reef guardians in the process, he wouldn’t have it any other way!

Like any classic love story, Matthew Radburnd’s affection for Australia’s greatest natural wonder started from afar; 4260km away in fact, on the other side of the country. 

Growing up in Perth on Australia’s West Coast his formative years were spent on the water, fishing and diving, often with his grandfather, and often for days on end. 

“My grandparents lived at Mindarie, a coastal suburb north of Perth which, at the time, was little more than a caravan park and few houses,” Matthew recalls fondly.

“They lived right on the water, and I was always asking my parents if I could go and stay with them. “So, most weekends and school holidays I would be there, and my grandad would take me out on the boat almost every day from when I was about six years old where we would swim and snorkel, and the diving was always great.

“It (diving) has always been one of my favourite things to do since I was very young.”

Thus, it was only a matter of time before the world's largest coral reef ecosystem, and arguably the most spectacular dive destination on earth, was on Matthew’s underwater radar. 

 Matthew Radburnd conducting a water testing activity outdoors  

However, it would be more than two decades before he experienced the iconic colours and stunning natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from below the surface.

“I initially wanted to be a marine biologist but, at that point in time, I was living in Western Australia and the jobs in that field were really scarce,” Matthew says.

“So, essentially to keep my options open, I studied biological sciences and teaching as a double degree.

“While I was studying, I worked as a scuba instructor and did some work on boats travelling to Rottnest Island and so on, and that just reaffirmed my love of the ocean that I’ve had since I was a little kid.”

Upon graduating, Matthew had heard rumours that several schools in the state capital were looking to develop marine science-focused curricula, and he was soon plying his trade in the classroom and teaching students about the weird and wonderful worlds found below the surface.

And it was only fitting that one of Matthew’s first postings was at the aptly named Ocean Reef State School in Perth’s northern suburbs.

 Students in a classroom examining a coral specimen, guided by Matthew Radburnd

“It was a really good grounding, even though we didn’t have anything like the resources that we have access to now through the Reef Authority,” he says.

“We did some work with the Western Australian Department of Fisheries but initially, we were building our curriculum from scratch and utilising our personal connections and experiences to develop our programs.”

Fast forward a few years to 2019, hundreds of inspired students and iconic dive destinations notwithstanding, and Matthew finally ticked the Great Barrier Reef off his bucket list during a family holiday to Cairns. And like so many before him, the experience would prove a pivotal turning point in his career.

“I just knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he recalls.

“The opportunities, as a schoolteacher in particular, to be able to teach students about the marine environment with the Reef on our doorstep were just too good so in 2020 we packed up and moved to North Queensland – simple as that.”

Today Matthew leads the marine science program at Newman Catholic College in Cairns, having almost single-handedly pioneered the program as one of the school’s inaugural teachers when it opened in 2022.

Student in a classroom examining a coral specimen

“We’re a proud Reef Guardian school so we utilise the fantastic resources on offer from the Reef Authority and we also work with scientists from James Cook University,” he says.

“Students gain an understanding of how important the Reef is, and it’s incredibly hands on; we’ve been involved in seagrass rehabilitation projects, in-water surveys during field trips, and even building and installing the Reef stars to help rehabilitate coral which makes the students so excited to learn.

“Most of them live around the beach and as they get older, they really start to link it all together that we can all do our bit to protect the Reef… it’s just awesome!”

So awesome in fact, that Matthew now has former students-turned-teachers themselves seeking his advice to set up their own marine science programs at schools all over the country.

“One of my students from a long time ago participated in one of our school camps to Vanuatu. He’s long since left school obviously but he actually went on to buy the dive shop in Vanuatu that we visited on camp all those years ago,”

Matthew says proudly. “It’s just incredibly pleasing to know that we’re making a difference.

“We’re working at the moment to get some of our students dive certified because their passion to protect the Reef extends beyond their science lessons.

“We’re helping to shape and inspire the leaders of tomorrow and to do that, there’s no classroom on earth like the Great Barrier Reef!”

Updated 12 Jun 2024
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