December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

Human encounters with the Great Barrier Reef

By Robyn Annear
Iain McCalman’s ‘The Reef: A passionate history’

“Nothing could be more slothful or slow, more given up to a life of ease and degeneracy, than the ‘reef-building polypifer’.” You’d have thought the name “polypifer” insult enough, without heaping on further obloquy. But Henry De Vere Stacpoole, in his 1908 tropic sensation novel The Blue Lagoon, inveighed against the “sluggish and gelatinous worm” – actually a tiny, tentacled creature embedded in a limestone shell – whose reputation as a paragon of industry he declared to be misplaced.

EJ Banfield’s The Confessions of a Beachcomber, published that same year, cast reef-dwelling organisms not as slackers but as warriors: “A coral reef is gorged with a population of varied elements viciously disposed towards each other. It is one of Nature’s most cruel battlegrounds … strewn with the relics of perpetual conflict.”

A coral reef, it seems, is an environment ripe for anthropomorphism. In The Reef: A passionate history (Viking Penguin, $45), Iain McCalman avoids the kind of racy analogies confected by Stacpoole and Banfield. Instead, he draws on the human history of the Great Barrier Reef for stories of reciprocity and conflict, of diversity, of hosts and hosted, of cultures in and out of balance – stories that reflect the vivid and complex biology of the Reef itself.

The subtitle, “A passionate history”, is the key to the book. McCalman’s telling of the Reef’s human history is indeed moved by passion, making it a joyous read and a genuine revelation.


The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef: actually a “constellation” of interlinked reefs and islands that hugs the Queensland coast for more than 2000 kilometres. Its World Heritage listing calls the Reef “the most impressive marine area in the world”.

Recorded human encounters with the Reef date back to 1770, when Captain James Cook made its jarring acquaintance through a gash in the hull of the HMS Endeavour. Starting with Cook’s entrapment in the coral “labyrinth”, McCalman, a historian, presents “12 extraordinary tales” of people who have shaped the way we think about the Reef.

McCalman has a fine feel for character and motive and a gift for discerning the lilt of relationships, both within and across cultures. He draws out figures from the undergrowth – clan members, shipmates, rivals – and with a few keystrokes makes them live. Although it begins with Captain Cook, The Reef dispels the usual sense of white culture as the default foreground and indigenous cultures as marginal, unknowable. More than half the book’s tales are based on accounts of Europeans who washed up on shoals and shores not their own, but McCalman’s impulse is always to seek points of connection rather than of conflict. A generosity of spirit characterises both the choice of tales and his telling of them.

To get a sense of how The Reef links human and natural history, it helps to know something of a coral reef’s biology. Coral flourishes in the light and agitation of the shallows. Despite first impressions, corals are neither lacy rocks nor plants with blooming heads and waving fronds, but living colonies of polyps (formerly polypifers) housed in the complex exoskeletons that they secrete. No longer ciphers for diligence or belligerence, coral reefs are nowadays extolled as models of co-operation. The corals harbour microscopic algae called zooxanthellae, providing them with shelter and the elements necessary for photosynthesis. In exchange, the algae supply the coral polyps with energy, as well as colour from their pigments. Only this reciprocity makes it possible for coral reefs to grow and thrive in tropical waters, whose transparency – a boon to the glass-bottomed boat trade – signals a dearth of nutrients. When a reef environment comes under stress, zooxanthellae may be evicted, leaving coral bleached of colour and polyps to die.

The tales bracketed by The Reef’s first two parts (‘Terror’ and ‘Nurture’) relate encounters between the coastal and island peoples of the Great Barrier Reef and some of the more amiable, sensitive, and even grateful of the landfallen. Early Victorians like Joseph Beete Jukes, naturalist on the survey vessel HMS Fly, and Oswald Brierly, ship’s artist aboard the Rattlesnake, brought open minds and even affection to dealings with their indigenous hosts. They were alert to cultural missteps and weren’t afraid to try humour or show contrition to defuse hostility or remedy offence. Brierly advised the Rattlesnake’s young naturalist, Thomas Huxley (later renowned, in the debates over the theory of evolution, as “Darwin’s bulldog”), “To record what actually passes under your observation … in doing this you will be constantly surprised to find the savage so utterly different from what your preconceived ideas would make him.”

Shipwreck survivors Barbara Thompson, James Morrill and Narcisse Pelletier, who in the mid 19th century lived for years as honoured “ghosts” with indigenous clans, observed how society and environment were kept in balance by means of seasonal harvests and taboos, and protocols for sharing out portions of a catch or kill. With the loss of territory and influence by the Reef’s indigenous stewards came destabilisation, both cultural and ecological.

Joseph Jukes was impressed by Torres Strait Islanders’ sophisticated knowledge of the Reef environment. Mamoos, an elder, could tell Jukes “many more names for distinct shells than we have in common English”. Jukes was the first European to consider the term “barrier reef” to mean anything other than an obstacle to shipping. From the vantage point of the coastal clans, he saw the barrier instead as a protective shield against the ocean’s force. His writings pioneered new traditions of thought about the Great Barrier Reef, particularly of its sublime and mysterious beauty. Jukes’ “epiphanies” made the Reef a site not of terror but wonder.

As a lay reader, I have struggled to grasp the basics of reef structure and biology. (Does “coral” refer to the polyp or its exoskeleton, or both?) But that struggle is consistent with the sense of bafflement and wonder that is common even to scientists today in their encounters with the Reef. Coral reefs, wrote Charles Darwin, “surely rank high amongst the wonderful objects of the world”. In 1834, Darwin had observed coral fossils high in the Chilean Andes and deduced that the volcanic forces of thrust and subsidence which had raised the ancient seabed to such elevations must also have plunged shorelines and islands below the sea to form (some of them) the footings for future coral reefs. For more than a century, scientists vied to prove Darwin’s theory – or, better still, disprove it and cast doubt on Darwinism in its entirety – until a drill penetrated 1400 metres through a Pacific atoll reef. The drill-core documented 30 million years of reef growth, successive layers of coral growing upwards to the sunlight as the basalt base subsided.

But the Reef still has its mysteries. Coral has continued to defy taxonomy. Just ask Dr JEN (“Charlie”) Veron, the former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. A lifetime’s work in the field has led him to conclude that coral may owe its seemingly promiscuous variety to “reticulate evolution”, a theory that (as McCalman explains) posits “the formation of a net-like skein of evolutionary threads, determined by environment, rather than the famous branching tree of natural selection sketched by Darwin”. Not that Charlie Veron set out to rattle Darwin; his own nickname honours the man Veron calls “a wonderful, wonderful thinker”.

‘Wonder’ is the title of The Reef’s third and final part, which concludes with the tale of Charlie Veron. Presenting a lecture titled ‘Is the Great Barrier Reef on Death Row?’ at the Royal Society in London in 2009, he began: “I will not be telling a happy story.”

Corals, says Veron, are “the canaries of climate change”. Since 1986, the depredations of bleaching, cyclones, pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish infestation have reduced the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover by half. And the outlook is grim. Still, Veron holds a tenuous hope that a strain of heat-tolerant algae, as yet unknown to science, might emerge to continue the fruitful symbiosis on which the Reef depends for life.

McCalman, too, retains some optimism. “[N]othing is certain,” he writes, “when it comes to predicting the operation of nature, which has the capacity to defy as well as exceed our worst prognostications.” A future reader will observe how we have come to accept climate change as our implacable fate, and yet how we kindle hope from morsels no bigger than zooxanthellae.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

Heart Reef, in the Whitsundays. © Queensland Tourism

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