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A Natural Wonder in Peril

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Richard Ling
A blue sea star resting on coral in the Great Barrier Reef, along the northeast coast of ­Australia. ‘Fully half of the Great Barrier Reef has already been killed,’ Tim ­Flannery writes. ‘Not all the damage has been inflicted by acid and heat, yet as the years go by these emerge as the overwhelming threats.’

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef stretches for around 1,430 miles along the continent’s northeast coast, encompassing an area roughly half the size of Texas. Those who have dived into its pristine reaches know firsthand that it is one of Earth’s natural wonders—a coral world of exceptional beauty and diversity. Yet as Iain McCalman’s “passionate history” of the reef makes clear, it is also a stage on which dreams, ambitions, and great human tragedies have been played out. He tells his story by chronicling lives that, either inadvertently or intentionally, have shaped our perception of the coralline labyrinth.

Just who discovered the reef is a matter of conjecture. Certainly Captain James Cook encountered it in 1770 as he charted Australia’s east coast in His Majesty’s bark Endeavour. But did he recognize the formation as a whole? The reef forms a kind of funnel that narrows northward. In its southern reaches it is so wide-mouthed that Cook failed to notice it. Only as he approached the latitude of present-day Cooktown did he realize that he had become ensnared in a coral maze.

Close to midnight on the night of June 10, Endeavour struck bottom, then stuck fast. In the darkness Cook and his crew were about as far from home and help as anyone could be. The great navigator understood that even if the vessel could be hauled free, it would likely sink. He foresaw that sailors would scrabble for seats in the longboat, but believed that those who succeeded could expect a far grislier death at the hands of “the most rude and uncivilized” people on earth than those who surrendered to the sea.

Still, there was no choice but to risk all. Waiting for a high tide, Cook had the vessel hauled free—and later found that a piece of coral the size of a fist had stuck in the hull, partially stopping the flow of water and allowing the ship to reach the Endeavour River, where it was careened and repaired.

Around six weeks later, after several anxious days threading the labyrinth, the repaired Endeavour finally reached the open sea. Then Cook did an astonishing thing—he ordered the vessel turned around, so he could find a way back in and continue his coastal survey. At 4 AM on August 16, the reef was again making itself known. The sound of a great surf “foaming to a vast height” filled every ear.

Waves that had gained strength by traveling the breadth of the Pacific were rearing up, then dashing themselves before the serrated coral ramparts. With no ground for an anchor and not a puff of wind, the ship lay helpless as the incoming tide carried it ever closer to what Cook knew was “the very jaws of distruction.” Amid waves “mountains high,” Joseph Banks, the expedition’s gentleman naturalist, later recalled, “a speedy death was all we had to hope for.”

For two hours in the predawn gloom the desperate crew rowed for their lives as they attempted to tow Endeavour clear, but the tide was unrelenting. Then, at first light, a few slight puffs of wind were felt. Cook would live to find his passage and complete his chart. But at what cost in mortal peril?

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Captain Matthew Flinders continued charting where Cook had left off. Remembered as the man who gave both Australia and the Great Barrier Reef their names, he was also the first European to show an appreciation of the reef’s beauty. Peering through clear water near the Northumberland Islands, he recorded seeing

a new creation, as it was to us, but imitative of the old…. We had wheat sheaves, mushrooms, stag horns, cabbage leaves, and a variety of other forms, glowing under water with vivid tints of every shade betwixt green, purple, brown, and white; equalling in beauty and excelling in grandeur the most favourite parterre of the curious florist.

For all the reef’s beauty, Flinders “could not long forget with what destruction it was pregnant.”

The safe passages surveyed by Cook and Flinders had, by the mid-nineteenth century, become popular shipping routes. Yet every soul passing though that beauteous landscape surely experienced moments of terror. The realization that corals were living organisms “which lurk and even grow” was particularly unsettling. Shipping channels charted as clear as little as thirty years previously could thus sometimes prove to be bristling with dangers.

The fate awaiting travelers, if the shudder and groan of coral upon hull ever was heard, was there for all to read in the newspapers and penny dreadfuls of the day. They lingered particularly upon the fates of those who reached shore, and few held such morbid fascination to the Victorian public as the white women cast away among cannibals.

When the trading brig Stirling Castle, bound from Sydney to Singapore, struck a reef and sank two hundred miles off Australia’s northeast coast in 1836, the captain’s wife was among a handful who gained a seat in the longboat. Eliza Fraser reached shore on Great Sandy Isle (soon renamed Fraser Island after her), where she lived for six weeks among the Badtjala Aboriginal people, before being rescued by a convict.

The newspapers of the day could not get enough of her story, and Fraser herself proved to be an able self-promoter. When she arrived in London in 1837, she visited a Mr. Kelly, the city’s Lord Mayor, who was also a small-time publisher. Realizing that he had a potential best seller on his hands, he turned to John Curtis, a journalist at The Times, to write up Fraser’s story.

McCalman tells us that “all early nineteenth-century British newspapers relied to some degree on income procured by small-scale bribery or blackmail.” So it was that Kelly paid Curtis to pen “a sparkling, real-life newspaper melodrama of cannibalism, imprisonment, murder, torture, and sexual violation.” The book that followed, SHIPWRECK of the STIRLING CASTLE,…the Dreadful Sufferings of the Crew,… THE CRUEL MURDER OF CAPTAIN FRASER BY THE SAVAGES [and]…the Horrible Barbarity of the Cannibals Inflicted upon THE CAPTAIN’S WIDOW, Whose Unparalleled Sufferings Are Stated by Herself…, set, in a moment, European attitudes toward the native peoples of the Great Barrier Reef region. Much of the tale was wild exaggeration, yet the beliefs it fostered made massacre, displacement, rape, and murder of the natives seem more justified.

Just how sensational Curtis’s book is becomes evident from reading other shipwreck narratives. When the 313-ton bark Charles Eaton, India-bound out of Sydney, was wrecked in 1834 in the Torres Strait, most of the crew were massacred. But two boys, sixteen-year- old John Ireland and three-year-old William D’Oyley, narrowly escaped and were rescued by the people of Boydang Island. The fate of the Charles Eaton remained unknown until late 1836, when news arrived in England just in time for John Curtis to include it in his book. But even he found it hard to turn the boys’ rescuers into monsters—it was clear from their testimony that the lads were genuinely fond of their adoptive parents.

Ignoring such inconveniences, Curtis took it upon himself to recommend how the Europeans might deal with the reef natives. “Exterminate the whole of the inhabitants” was one option, though he admitted that he preferred subjugation and conversion to Christianity. Yet driven by Curtis’s hyperbole, frequently extermination was the result.

It is a strange fact of Australian history that the most informative of the shipwreck sagas remained all but unknown until the late twentieth century. One of these concerns Barbara Thompson. She was just thirteen in 1844 when she ran away to sea with her lover, William Thompson, captain of the cutter America. Shipwrecked on Madjii Reef in the Torres Strait, she was rescued by three Aboriginal boys and adopted when a couple recognized—by certain features of her chin and eyes—that she was their daughter Giom, who had recently drowned. The pale wraith from the sea was thus the returned Giom—marki naroka, a ghost maiden.

Giom, who lived among the islands for five years, soon adapted to life there. She forgot her English and much of her past life, and seems to have taken the charismatic young man Boroto as her lover—marriage with marki naroka being prohibited among the Kaurareg people—and it is thought she bore him the child Outsie, meaning “muddy water.”

What we know about Thompson’s life is owed to the unique talents and dedication of Oswald Brierly, the thirty-one-year-old artist aboard HMS Rattlesnake, which “rescued” Thompson. His commitment to learning the local dialects and to living among the Kaurareg during the Rattlesnake’s extended stay in the Torres Strait gave him unique insights into the culture. Like Thompson, he too was adopted into a clan.

Brierly’s journal and glorious sketches—which unaccountably remained unpublished for over a century—reveal a deep fascination with the Kaurareg and their technology. Again and again he drew and painted the outrigger canoe Kyee Mareeni—Big Shadow—owned by the senior man Manu. “I had,” he writes, “long admired but never till now seen anything that realized so much the idea of beauty.” And just as he dwelt upon details of the outrigger’s construction, so did he dwell on the subtleties of character—including minutely observed details of their physical appearance, personalities, and idiosyncracies—of his islander friends.

Why did Brierly’s masterpiece of ethnography remain unpublished until 1979? It could have done so much to rectify the gross caricature of the peoples of the reef region as cannibals and sadistic murderers. But perhaps that was the point: as told by Brierly, Thompson’s story failed to reinforce the stereotype.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, accounts of shipwreck among native cultures descended from hyperbole into grand farce. Henri Louis Grin (alias Louis de Rougemont) was a Swiss sailor who claims to have been shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef and to have lived with the Aborigines for years. His account—serialized in Wide World Magazine—became an instant sensation and was followed by a best-selling book. Scandalously, The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont and its serialized predecessor were entirely invented. Even the fact that Grin ended his days in a circus sideshow as “The Greatest Liar on Earth” did little to puncture his fame. Decades before, Samuel Clemens had written, “Australian history…does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies.” Especially in the case of Grin, these words were prescient.

Grin embroidered his fantasy with two of the most extraordinary shipwreck survival stories ever written. James Morrill was twenty-two when in 1846 the Peruvian, a Dundee-based merchantman carrying timber from Sydney to China, foundered near present-day Townsville, while Narcisse Pellettier was just fourteen in 1858 when the French merchantman Saint-Paul came to grief off Cape Direction, on Cape York. Both were adopted by Aboriginal clans and integrated easily into tribal life.

Each castaway lived with his adopted family for seventeen years, and both left stories packed with insights into a now vanished way of life. Morrill’s adventures were recounted in a brief pamphlet published shortly after his “rescue,” while Pelletier’s biography appeared in French in 1876. Yet for McCalman their real significance lies in how, Grin’s borrowings aside, they were ignored by the Australian public. It was not until 2006 that Morrill’s account was first republished, and then in America, while Pelletier’s appeared for the first time in English only in 2009. One possible explanation is that, as it went about dispossessing its native peoples, colonial Australia needed the fiction of tribal barbarism as a balm for its guilt.

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Ben Cropp/Auscape/The Image Works
A venomous red lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, in the Great Barrier Reef

By the end of the nineteenth century the native tribes of the reef area had been largely subdued or exterminated, and a growing sea snail and pearl shell industry was established. Accordingly, governments sought experts to advise on managing the reef’s bounty. The most illustrious of those recruited was William Saville-Kent, today regarded as the founding father of Australian reef science.

Saville-Kent’s childhood was not easy. When William was three, his harsh and promiscuous father began siring a second brood with the live-in governess, in the family home. William’s mother, ailing and perhaps despairing, died thereafter, leaving William and his siblings isolated and emotionally crushed. William had one ally—his sister Constance, who like him was congenitally syphilitic courtesy of their father. At the ages of eleven and twelve respectively, William and Constance absconded from their unhappy home, but were forcibly returned. The press covered their story, and it seems possible that Charles Dickens adapted it in his last and unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In 1860, a few years after their forced return, the body of William and Constance’s three-year-old half-brother Francis was discovered dumped in an outhouse. The child had been savagely stabbed and all but beheaded. Suspicion fell upon the runaways and although Inspector Whicher of Scotland Yard, who led the inquiry, could not obtain a conviction, he was convinced of the children’s guilt. He never lost interest in the case, and five years later Constance confessed that she was the sole murderer. William had embarked on a career in science and was due to inherit money from his mother’s estate. Only by absolving him and refusing a plea of insanity—which might cast doubts on William’s mental state and thus threaten his inheritance—could Constance protect her brother’s interests. The cost was heavy indeed—the death sentence for a teenage girl, later commuted to twenty years in prison.

Rendered sterile by his inherited syphilis, and with a difficult and withdrawn personality, William chose life in a remote colonial outpost. In 1888 the Queensland government asked him to join a surveying expedition of Australia’s north, and concurred with his suggestion that they appoint him commissioner of North Australian fisheries.

It was not just fisheries but the reef in its entirety that interested William Saville-Kent. A keen amateur photographer, he set about documenting its beauty and diversity. His book The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: Its Products and Potentialities was published in 1893. The Scotsman hailed it as the “first authority on its subject,” while Nature—already on its way to being the world’s foremost science journal—commended its photographs, which allowed the public to see for the first time, it said, the wonders of the reef for themselves. At last, admiration began to replace fear of the great coral labyrinth.

In later life Saville-Kent turned to commerce. He claimed to have discovered the secret of culturing spherical pearls, and in 1906 formed a pearl-culturing company. An assistant asserted that he actually succeeded in culturing perfect pearls, but when the pioneering biologist died of a blocked bowel in 1908, his notes on pearl culture proved unintelligible.

If Saville-Kent opened the door to public appreciation of the reef, it was the journalist E.J. Banfield who introduced it to the masses. He was forty-four, disillusioned, and in ill health when he visited Dunk Island, near Townsville, in 1896. Having read Thoreau’s Walden, he fantasized about living beside the fringing reef with its white sandy beach and rainforest-covered peaks. With the help of a family of Aborigines, who held traditional title to the island, he and his wife Bertha built a house and garden there, and began exploring the wonderland that surrounded them.

Banfield’s account of his island paradise, published as The Confessions of a Beachcomber in 1908, was an instant hit. It was the perfect panacea for the city-bound office worker, and was followed by two wildly popular sequels. Visitors flocked to the reef and among them were scientists bent on trying to understand the origins of the vast structure.

Coral reefs are based on large collections of very small sedentary marine animals that take the form of polyps—they resemble sea anemones, having columnar bodies, with a mouth surrounded by tentacles. Since they can only grow in sunlit waters, how are we to account for the coral atolls rising abruptly from the sunless depths? A crucial insight was provided by Charles Darwin, who launched his scientific career with a paper speculating that coral reefs and atolls were built upon slowly subsiding volcanic foundations. As the coastlines and mountaintops sank, the growth of the coral, with living animals building on skeletons, was sufficient to fill in the space that was opened up, and so the distinctive “barriers” and 0-shaped atolls were formed.

In 1896 Alex Agassiz—son of the renowned Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, who was among the most prominent resisters of Darwin’s evolutionary theory—embarked on a cruise of the Great Barrier Reef aimed at disproving Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation. As a result of a damning review of his father Louis’s scientific research by Darwin, Alex bore a deep sense of grievance. He was joined in his anti-Darwinian crusade by many, including the Duke of Argyll and a trio of eloquent English bishops, who believed that if they could refute Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation, his ideas on evolution might well vanish too.

Alex Agassiz’s expedition was a flop, coming up with nothing conclusive to demolish Darwin’s theory. It took the technology of the atomic age to settle the dispute. In the 1950s American scientists prepared to detonate a hydrogen bomb on Eniwetok Atoll. They drilled deep into the reef, penetrating 4,629 feet through fossil coral, and finally reached volcanic rock. Darwin’s subsidence theory was proved.

A young student of Alex Agassiz, Alfred Mayor, was destined to have greater impact. He discovered that corals were exquisitely sensitive to changes in water temperature, speculating in 1914 that “those forms which are sensitive to high temperature are correspondingly affected by…the influence of CO2.” Around eighty years later, as climate change began to have an effect, his prescience became clear: he had identified the mechanisms of reef destruction.

The 1920s saw a systematic scientific effort aimed at understanding the Great Barrier Reef, when what became known as the Cambridge expedition settled at the Low Isles in the Torres Strait to conduct its research. In a series of reports published between 1930 and 1968, its scientists slowly unlocked the reef’s innermost secrets. Their most important discoveries concerned the extent of cooperation that prevails between species in the coralline mass. From the algae that live in the bodies of the coral polyps to the glass eels that inhabit the anuses of sea cucumbers, it is symbiosis that permits the reef to survive.

This new scientific appreciation did not expunge a more base view. In a study published in 1925, J. Stanley Gardiner, head of Britain’s fisheries department, stated that the reef was “a great nuisance to navigation…because it…destroys 70,000 to 80,000 square miles of most admirable trawling ground.” This functionalist attitude came to the fore again in 1968. The Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke- Petersen, was—according to McCalman—a man with “the hide of a rhinoceros and the mind-set of a hyena.” He was determined to mine the reef for fertilizer and drill it for oil and gas. All that stood in his way was a grassroots environmental movement led by a poet, a forester, and an artist. The poet was Judith Wright, one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Nonetheless their task seemed impossible.

The Queensland premier used every opportunity to brand the protesters as “a lunatic fringe,” “nitwits,” “cranks,” and “rat-bags.” Were it not for the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster, spilling crude oil off the coast of Cornwall, and an oil spill off Santa Barbara in 1969, Bjelke-Petersen might well have had his way. As it was, in 1975, a left-leaning federal government acted to protect the reef by instituting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

Despite such protections, today the reef has never been in greater peril. A vast new coal port is being planned for Abbott Point, on the Queensland coast. It involves dredging five million tons of mud, to be dumped within the reef. The coal reserves of Queensland’s Galilee Basin will pass through Abbott Point, increasing the global seaborne coal trade by a third. With conservative state and federal governments determined to exploit the mineral, only its low price (currently around US$68 per ton) and a handful of protesters stand in the way.

Despite a ban on drilling for oil, fossil fuels have made a devastating stealth attack on the reef. The first intimations came in the 1970s, when areas of coral turned white, then died. Coral bleaching—as the phenomenon is known—occurs when underwater heat waves act to put stress on the coral polyps, causing them to eject the algae living in their tissues and so turning them white. Without algal partners they cannot grow the bony skeleton that forms the reef, and over weeks the coral polyps slowly starve and die, leaving a white skeleton. Even without bleaching, the rise in ocean acidity caused by CO2 dissolving into seawater will prevent the corals from laying down their bony skeletons. So it is that heat and acid, derived from burning fossil fuels, kills the reef.

The reef’s current champion, Dr. Charlie Vernon, saw his first bleached coral—a four-inch-square patch—off Palm Island in the early 1980s. Now, he says, it’s “horrible to see…corals that are four, five, six hundred years old…die” from the heat. For the reef, Vernon says, catastrophic global warming has already arrived.

William Saville-Kent’s photographic record provides a poignant historic benchmark of the reef’s decline. Because he was always careful to keep some landmark in the background, the locations of his photographs can still be traced. We see that what a century ago was a delightful coral garden is today a scene of utter devastation. The full extent of damage inflicted on the reef became evident in 2012, when a study revealed that fully half of the Great Barrier Reef has already been killed.1 Not all the damage has been inflicted by acid and heat, yet as the years go by these emerge as the overwhelming threats.

If the rate at which humanity is currently burning fossil fuels continues, the world will be around 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by 2100 than it was in 1800. Can the reef adapt? A recent study shows that if the Great Barrier Reef were to keep pace with a 7.2 degree rise in temperature, its complex ecosystems would need to migrate southward at the rate of twenty-four miles per year. Yet corals seem unable to migrate at rates greater than six miles per year. So, it appears, climate change will simply outpace the reef. Even if we slow the rate of change, the damage will be monumental. Scientists foresee that “the majority of existing coral reef ecosystems are likely to disappear if average global temperature rises much above 1.5°C above the preindustrial values.”2

Australians say they love their reef, yet today their actions show that they love easy money more. As an earlier generation struggled to save the coralline wonderland, Judith Wright said of her people:

          We are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.

Today the fate of one of the most magnificent ecosystems of our planet lies in the hands of some of the most technologically advanced and affluent people who have ever existed. We shall soon know whether they value their natural heritage sufficiently to avert a great coral apocalypse.

  1. 1

    Glenn De’eath et al., “The 27-Year Decline of Coral Cover on the Great Barrier Reef and Its Causes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 1, 2012. 

  2. 2

    See “Australia’s Marine Resources in a Warm, Acid Ocean” by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg et al., in Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World, edited by Peter Christoff (Earthscan, 2014). 

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