A Natural Wonder in Peril

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…

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