The Great Barrier Reef
A world in water

Myths and mavericks in the world’s greatest marine site
May 31st 2014 | From the print edition
Timekeeper
The Reef, A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change. By Iain McCalman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 377 pages; $27. Scribe; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

WHEN Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, snared on coral in 1770, the Great Barrier Reef became his “labyrinth of shoals”, a life-threatening trap. About 30 years later, Matthew Flinders, a British navigator, saw the reef in a different light. Flinders is best known for circumnavigating Australia, and for giving the continent its name. Less well known is that he was the first European to discover the reef for its beauty. To Flinders, its corals were a “new creation” with shapes “excelling in grandeur the most favourite parterre of the curious florist”. For Charlie Veron, a scientist who has seen more of the corals from underwater than anyone, the legacy after two centuries of human impact casts a more chilling sight. Watching the reef’s disintegration, and perhaps its extinction, is “like seeing a house on fire in slow motion”.

Iain McCalman, a historian at the University of Sydney, has written a masterly biography of the Great Barrier Reef through 12 stories like these. The idea came to him in 2001 when he joined a group of historians, literary scholars, astronomers, botanists and indigenous guides aboard a replica of Cook’s ship to re-enact his 18th-century voyage. Most visitors today see the world’s largest reef as a tourist destination. Mr McCalman found it so vast that no human mind can take it in except, perhaps, “astronauts who’ve seen its full length from outer space”.

The reef extends about 2,400km (1,500 miles) along Australia’s east coast, almost to Papua New Guinea, covering an area half the size of Texas. Like Mr McCalman’s shipmates, and the colourful figures who inhabit his stories, people are still trying to make sense of the reef’s origins and character. Scientists on Lizard Island opened Mr McCalman’s eyes to the most critical chapter of its story: its ailing health. Rising sea temperatures, linked to global warming, have bleached the colour from much of its coral. Over the past 27 years, half its coral has died, thanks to the bleaching, cyclones and the spread of the predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

Judith Wright, a distinguished Australian poet, helped launch one of the first conservation movements to save the reef in the 1960s. She saw its fate as a microcosm of the fate of the planet. Wright and her allies (a forestry scientist and an artist) wanted Australians to see the reef as an “affirmative” national myth. That ideal has always struggled against political pressures to develop mineral resources adjacent to the reef. Mr McCalman suggests it also suffered from earlier myth-making, particularly about the indigenous inhabitants of the reef’s coasts and islands whom European explorers, scientists and beachcombers encountered.

The biggest myth surrounds the story of Eliza Fraser, a shipwrecked castaway who lived among aborigines in 1836, before a white man rescued her. John Curtis, a London journalist, wrote up Mrs Fraser’s story as a sensational Victorian tale that pandered to the racial prejudices of the time: a ravished lady plucked from a world of sexually predatory savages and cannibals. There were other castaways: Barbara Thompson, whom the reef’s Kaurareg people saw as a “ghost maiden” come back from the dead; and James Morrill, a Briton, and Narcisse Pelletier, a Frenchman. All survived with natives for years before re-entering white society. Yet, says Mr McCalman, the toxic myth of Curtis’s version endures still; it has even influenced versions of Eliza Fraser’s story by Sidney Nolan, an artist, and Patrick White, a Nobel prize-winning novelist.

If Mr McCalman has a hero perhaps it is Joseph Jukes, the first naturalist charged with mapping the reef’s coral structures. Jukes’s observations on his 1843 expedition seemed to endorse Charles Darwin’s theory that slowly sinking ocean floors spurred coral growth. Jukes had a more open attitude towards the local population than any European predecessor: almost everything he saw contradicted the natives’ reputation for savagery.

The Great Barrier Reef, “the most impressive marine area in the world”, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, giving a sense of urgency to the environmental problems that have mounted steadily since Cook’s voyage. Mr McCalman’s sweeping and absorbing history is well timed. UNESCO recently announced that as a result of industrial development and dredging along the Queensland coast, the reef could be put on its “world heritage in danger” list as early as next year. The battle that Wright termed a “finale without an ending” still rages.

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