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Devotion to the ocean

Jordan ivy in scuba gear underwater on the great barrier reef


25 May 2023

There was a time when Jordan Ivey's life was treading water. Today, thanks to Southern Cross University, he is pursuing a rewarding and important career in marine science and hopes his experience can inspire other Indigenous students.

Jordan Ivy looking at a piece of coral in a lab

Devotion to the ocean

Diving deep, Jordan Ivey is in his element. To one side, across the Pacific, lies Vanuatu, land of his ancestors. On the other side is Australia, land of his Bundjalung paternal heritage. Yet it is under the water, with the ocean as a bridge between cultures, where Jordan feels most at home.

"No matter where you live on our planet, we are all connected to the sea," says the Southern Cross University marine researcher. "For me that means the Pacific, from the NSW Northern Rivers to the Great Barrier Reef and across the South Seas. My cultural heritage gives me a unique perspective on this area. I am part of it and it is part of me."

Jordan was just eight years old when he discovered his element. He remembers diving beneath the clear blue waters off Vanuatu, with colourful and curious fish swimming all around and the coral like a living Impressionist painting. All was in harmony, which was also in stark contrast to what was happening in his life on the land.

“My parents separated after that trip. It was tough. I was eight. Eight was hard. So, I went swimming. Under the water, everything made sense. I felt safe. I felt alive and hopeful. I felt at home.”

Move forward a couple of decades and, as Jordan speaks, it is easy to envisage a seamless transition from a young boy seeking solace under the water to a young man practising marine science. Glance through Jordan's credentials – including several scholarships, awards and projects – and the assumption becomes even more compelling.

Except Jordan’s journey has been far from seamless. One of the reasons his scientific dedication is so pronounced, and his environmental passion so real, is because the life he now leads almost never happened at all.

A troubled start

Thinking back to school days, Jordan recalls trouble in class, anger, trips to the counsellor and difficulty with learning. The lowest point came when a careers advisor told him he was not smart enough to achieve his dream of working with animals. Already struggling with everyday life, this was a telling blow: "Yeah, knocked me around, that one," he says. "Knocked me back a fair bit."

Jordan barely graduated from high school and his options were limited. At home in Lismore, he worked as a pizza cook, supermarket employee and mechanic, paying the bills and making his way, though without the fulfilment he craved or any real idea of how to change things.

Then came the impetus he needed, via entry to Southern Cross University through a new education pathway program called Preparing for Success. Scholastically inspired for the first time, Jordan leapt at the opportunity and was accepted into a Bachelor of Marine Science and Management.

A scholarship enabled him to study full-time and more opportunities arrived when he was awarded a prestigious New Colombo Plan scholarship in 2018. This took Jordan to the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, where he implemented his own research program to help Indigenous communities protect against the decline of coral reef ecosystems. He also completed an internship with the educational research centre, Reef Explorer Fiji Inc, working on coral restoration, temperature studies and other marine research.

“Reef Explorer taught me a lot about setting up marine protection areas. I spoke with village elders about coral restoration, about fish stocks, about the need for species richness to ensure the health of the food chain.”

Indigenous inspiration

This engagement with local Indigenous groups continues. In November 2021, Jordan mentored and learned from the traditional owners of Lizard Island, opening communications and receiving their input into reef care, island history, fishing and ecological knowledge. He is also heavily involved with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) as a member of its Indigenous Partnerships Team and as an Indigenous Training and Capacity Officer.

"We are looking at things like consent to research on Country, engaging traditional owners' involvement, fostering a coming together of culture, history and science for the betterment of the marine environment," he says. "It includes enabling training and personal/career development opportunities in marine science and the marine sector."

Reef care is one of the biggest priorities, driven by the increasing vulnerability of the Great Barrier Reef via factors such as rising water temperatures and coral bleaching. Southern Cross University is a leader in reef research thanks to its Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) at Lismore and the Coffs Harbour-based National Marine Science Centre (NMSC).

Recently, Jordan was back on the Reef as part of the Coral Larval Restoration Project team led by the Director of MERC, Professor Peter Harrison. The project aims to enhance the rate of recovery of depleted coral populations by culturing and supplying millions of coral larvae and then settling them on damaged coral reefs.

"We need so many things to make a better world, but nothing else will matter if we fail to protect our oceans," says Jordan. "They drive our climate, provide our oxygen and shape our Earth's chemistry."

He wants others to join him, particularly Indigenous students, using his example as proof that doors that once seemed closed can open to reveal a new future. He wants to help others pursue their passions, just as he was helped to pursue his own.

Much has changed from that eight-year-old boy discovering the ocean to a marine scientist striving to protect it. Jordan agrees, noting in his quiet way that it is something to think about.

And he will, although not right now. There is a dive trip planned for the afternoon and he is leading it.

Soon he will be in element again – under the water, between cultures, and right at home.