The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

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9780374248192: The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

Stretching 1,400 miles along the Australian coast and visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is home to three thousand individual reefs, more than nine hundred islands, and thousands of marine species, and has alternately been viewed as a deadly maze, an economic bounty, a scientific frontier, and a precarious World Heritage site. Now the historian and explorer Iain McCalman takes us on a new adventure into the reef to reveal how our shifting perceptions of the natural world have shaped this extraordinary seascape. Showcasing the lives of twenty individuals spanning more than two centuries, The Reef highlights our profound desire to conquer, understand, embrace, and ultimately save the world's most complex ocean ecosystem.

Opening with the story of Captain James Cook, who sailed unknowingly into the southwest entrance of this vast network of coral outcroppings, McCalman shows how Cook spent months navigating this treacherous underwater labyrinth, struggling to keep his crew alive and his ship afloat, sparring with deceptive shoals and wary native islanders. Through a series of dramatic tales from intrepid explorers, unwitting castaways, inquisitive naturalists, enchanted artists, and impassioned environmentalists who have collectively shaped our ideas about the Great Barrier Reef, McCalman demonstrates how this grand natural wonder of the world was built as much by human imagination as by the industrious, beautiful creatures of the sea.

A romantic, historically significant book and a deeply personal journey into the heart of a marine environment in peril, The Reef powerfully captures the delicate relationship between humanity and the natural world.

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About the Author:

Iain McCalman is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a historian, a social scientist, and an explorer. He is the author of the award-winning Darwin's Armada, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, and Radical Underworld. A professor of history at the University of Sydney, he has served as the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the director of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. McCalman has also been a historical consultant and narrator for documentaries on the BBC and ABC, and has been interviewed by Salon and the World Science Festival.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:




Captain Cook’s Entrapment

JAMES COOK DID NOT KNOW, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavour was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

The point, obvious enough in his journals, needs stressing because so many historians inadvertently treat this phase of Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Southern Hemisphere as if the Great Barrier Reef we know today already existed somewhere in the back of his mind. As if he unconsciously knew he was about to enter into combat with a constellation of deep-water “barrier reefs” that ran more or less parallel with the Australian coast for some 1,400 miles, creating between them and the mainland a shallow lagoon of uneven depths interspersed with three hundred reef-fringed coral cays and striated with sand, rock, and coral shoals. In reality he sailed unknowingly within the reef lagoon for around 500 miles before he became aware of something resembling a coral “labyrinth.” Like explorers before him, he’d had no intimation at all of the possible existence of this freakish phenomenon.

For us to have any glimmer of understanding of the experiences and reactions of Cook and his crew, we, too, must rid our minds temporarily of the existence of this vast geophysical phenomenon—a region of land and sea that in 1770 had never been imagined in its totality by any human being, and that would remain substantially unimagined even after the Endeavour had sailed through it.

Cook had at this point partially completed his mission. He had fulfilled the orders of the Royal Society to make accurate observations of the transit of Venus from Otaheite (Tahiti), and was now faced with two larger and more covert tasks: to best the war-vanquished French by upstaging their scientific and imperial ambitions in the Pacific; and to discover, chart, and claim for the King of England—with the agreement of any native peoples—the elusive great southern land that geographers had so long hypothesized. Having made landfalls on the isles of present-day New Zealand between September 1769 and March 1770, the Endeavour had on April 19 sighted land along the coast of what Cook called New South Wales. On April 28 he finally managed to land on this tricky coastline, at what would become known as Botany Bay, a paradise of plants only slightly marred for him by the elusiveness and hostility of the native inhabitants.

Since leaving Botany Bay on May 6, Cook had sighted lines of breakers suggestive of submarine shoals on several occasions, but it was only on the morning of May 20 that he was confronted with a long “shoal” projecting eastward from a finger of land he called Sandy Cape, which forced him to edge northeast for several miles before finding clear water. He named the shoal Breaksea Spit, because after weathering it the ship suddenly entered “smooth water,” a consequence of the sheltering effect of the Swain reefs that were far out of sight. Neither was there anything to suggest that the present shoal might be a coral reef rather than an extension of the rocky shoreline, though we now know it to be an extinct coral reef covered in sand.1

What Cook actually understood of the origins and character of coral reefs at this point remains uncertain. He’d read the travel account of Samuel Purchas in Purchas His Pilgrimage (1613), which described serrated deep-sea coral “ledges,” and he’d recently sighted a variety of reef forms in the South Sea Islands, but it was only much later, on his second voyage, that he explicitly echoed the opinion of his onboard naturalists, the Forsters, that coral “rockes” were formed in the sea by “animals.” Before this, Cook, like many science-minded men of his time, was probably uncertain whether these protean rocklike objects were plants, animals, or minerals, or a hybrid of all three.2

Corals had long been a taxonomist’s nightmare, a little-studied phenomenon that early theorists assumed to be some strange sort of plant. In 1724 the Frenchman Jean-André Peyssonnel overturned the work of a colleague in Montpellier with a letter to the Académie des Sciences, arguing for the first time that the so-called coral flower was in reality not a plant, but “un insect” that could create bone. His idea was ridiculed until it was taken up some thirty years later by the Englishman John Ellis, who in 1752 told the Royal Society in London that these creatures were “ramified [branchlike] animals,” after which his classification became increasingly accepted.

For the deeply practical Yorkshire navigator James Cook, it was more important to know that corals produced vast rocklike edifices that could grow up from unfathomable depths, lurk just under the ocean surface, and sink any ship. At that time it was navigators, more than scientists, who wanted to know what corals were up to.3

The Swain reefs responsible for the sudden smoothness of the sea were a collection of massive deepwater coral aggregations some 125 miles to the east that marked the southeastern entrance of the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. In effect, the Endeavour had wafted into a vast natural coral basin resembling a woven Aboriginal fish trap; the latter was designed to snare its victims by enticing them into a wide entrance that narrowed suddenly to entangle them, much as the Reef was about to do by veering sharply northwest toward the mainland. As Cook’s great editor J. C. Beaglehole observed, anyone telling the captain’s story should at this point sound a roll of “premonitory drums.”4

Cook also failed to sight what might have proved the giveaway presence of the coral cays of the Capricornia group, which were lying over the horizon to the east, some forty-three miles off the mainland. Instead, as they coasted along in a comfortable twelve to twenty fathoms of water with the coast in clear view, they skirted clusters of tall, picturesque islands that Cook named the Northumberland and the Whitsunday groups: these were former mainland volcanic mountain chains that had been transformed into islands by raised water levels and coastal subsidence.

Even the recurring “shoals” surrounding these islands—actually fringing coral reefs—caused Cook no real alarm. Shallows, shoals, and banks held little fear for the veteran sailor who had steered dozens of coal transports like the Endeavour through England’s treacherous northern coastal waters, and who had navigated flotillas of warships through the rock-filled Saint Lawrence River during the Seven Years’ War. Though irritating and, as they increased in incidence, time-consuming, shoals like these could be detected and dodged, provided the leadsman sounded the depths continually and the ship’s pinnace was sent ahead to locate deeper channels.5

Cook and his young companion, botanist Joseph Banks, did notice that the ship appeared to be entering a distinct new region. The sun was hotter, the air more humid, the sea warmer, the landscape rockier, and the flora more reminiscent of the West Indies. For the first time since leaving Tahiti, they observed palm nut trees and “the true mangrove.” These familiar plants convinced Banks that they were departing “the Southern Temperate Zone” and should expect to see more tropical flora. From now on, too, he and Cook would use the tropical West Indies as their template of comparison for the environments encountered. As in the Caribbean, hammer oysters and small pearl oysters were abundant, and both men speculated on the possibility of a future pearling industry for the British Empire. A brief landfall on May 29 further confirmed the similarities with Jamaica, though the lack of water and the presence of barbed grass, clouds of mosquitoes, slimy mangrove mud, and huge tides gave a bleak impression, generating the place name of Thirsty Sound.6

The shoal dodging continued as they sailed a slow zigzag course between each new crop of continental islands and the shore. On June 9 they anchored near a small inlet, slightly east of a rocky eminence that Cook named Cape Grafton. It repeated the pattern of high “stony” and “barren” landscapes recently passed at Cape Upstart, Magnetical Island (now Magnetic), Dunk Island, and Cape Sandwich. Here, at the site of today’s Yarrabah community, Cook and Banks scrambled up another stony peak to gaze down on yet another mangrove swamp worryingly devoid of fresh water. Spires of “smooks” (smoke trails) indicated the nearby presence of Indigenous people, but none were sighted. That the explorers were being watched, however, is suggested by a faint red painting of a three-masted square-rigger scored on the underside of a barely accessible rock overhang that looks out over present-day Mission Bay.7 When the Endeavour embarked from this bay at midnight on June 10, 1770, under a bright moon and in a slight breeze, Cook had no idea that a chain of coral reefs and cays belonging to what we now know as the outer Barrier lay pincered in toward the northeast, around fifteen miles from the ship. True, he and Banks did note the presence of a cay on a coral reef near their previous anchorage. Cook named it Green Island after the ship’s astronomer, Charles Green. Banks suspected that it was “laying upon a large Coral shoal, much resembling the low Islands to the eastward of us but the first of the kind we had met with in this part of the South Sea.”8

Even so, this isolated coral novelty failed to engender alarm or to change what had become their habitual pattern of sailing off the coast. Night visibility under a glowing moon was good, and a seaman was, as usual, standing at the bows swinging the lead to measure the depth. Cook assumed there was ample time to change course should shoals be indicated. But the retrospective entry in Cook’s journal, dated Sunday June 10, serves as our drumroll and presages the end of their innocence, “because,” he wrote grimly, “here begun all our troubles.”9

John Hawkesworth, the clever hack writer who produced the popular Admiralty edition of Cook’s papers through which details of this voyage would reach the public for the next eighty years, and who would often insert his own imaginings of Cook’s inner state of mind, has the navigator reflect to himself at this moment:

Hitherto we had safely navigated this dangerous coast, where the sea in all parts conceals shoals that suddenly project from the shore, and rocks that rise abruptly like a pyramid from the bottom, for an extent of two and twenty degrees of latitude, more than one thousand three hundred miles; and therefore hitherto none of the names which distinguish the several parts of the country that we saw, are memorials of distress; but here we became acquainted with misfortune, we therefore called the point which we had just seen farthest to the northward, Cape Tribulation.10

A mild scare during dinner when they crossed the tail end of a shoal was quickly succeeded by deep water, so Cook and Banks retired for the night, only to be rudely awakened around 11:00 p.m. when the water shelved suddenly from twenty fathoms to nothing and the ship struck heavily on a reef. Being twelve miles from the shore and still surrounded by deep water, Cook instantly realized that they must have hit coral.11

Thanks to Hawkesworth’s dramatic account, the crew’s subsequent thirteen-hour ordeal, as they fought for the survival of the ship, has become an explorer’s classic. We envisage the men, with horror frozen on every face and oaths stifled in their throats, staggering to retain balance as the ship tilts and beats against the rocks with a grating that can be felt through every plank. We watch helplessly while the sheathing and false keel float away in the moonlight; we hear the repeated splashes of more than fifty tons of cannon, ballast, lead, and coal being tossed overboard in a futile effort to float the impaled hull off the coral. Stark disappointment greets the risen tide’s failure to reach the ship’s bottom, let alone float it free. There remains only the faint hope that the night tide will be fuller.

Hours later there is the sound of the returning tide rushing through the leak, combined with the frantic heaving of successive hands, Banks included, working the three unbroken pumps against the rising water. We feel their exhaustion as they slump on the tilted deck, oblivious of pump water gushing over their bodies. There is a surge of hope on every face as they make an unexpected gain on the leak. Then a last desperate heaving on the capstan and windlass, pulling against the taut anchor chains that radiate from the center and stern, in an effort to jump the ship off the coral. Finally, at 10:20 a.m., the Endeavour is heaved into deep water; soon after the young midshipman Jonathan Monkhouse’s brilliant fothering (leak-stopping) expedient temporarily plugs the leak. He fills canvas with loose clumps of oakum, wool, and sheep’s dung, “or other filth.” Cook explains that this canvas must be “hauld from one part of her bottom to a nother until the place is found where it takes effect; while the Sail is under the Ship the Ockham [oakum] &c is washed off and part of it carried along with the water into the leak and in part stops up the hole.”12

According to Hawkesworth, Cook—tough and phlegmatic seaman though he was—“anticipated the floating of the ship not as an earnest of deliverance, but as an event that would probably precipitate our destruction.” Cook assumed, too, that anarchy would ensue as the men sloughed off their naval discipline and fought like beasts for one of the scarce places on the boats, never realizing in their panic that a worse fate awaited them should they actually reach land:

… we knew that if any should be left on board to perish in the waves, they would probably suffer less upon the whole than those who should get on shore, without any lasting or effectual defense against the natives, in a country, where even nets and fire-arms would scarcely furnish them with food; and where, if they should find the means of subsistence, they must be condemned to languish out the remainder of life in a desolate wilderness, without the possession, or even hope, of any domestic comfort, and cut off from all commerce with mankind, except the naked savages who prowled the desert, and who perhaps were some of the most rude and uncivilized upon the earth.13

Still, with the leak reduced and hope resurgent, the ship limped for the shore, butted by contrary winds and dodging awkward shallows while waiting for the master in the pinnace to find a suitable channel and a landing place to repair the hull. By Thursday, June 14, he’d discovered a narrow passage leading to a spot on the mangrove banks of what Cook would later call the Endeavour River, the site of modern-day Cooktown. With the wind blowing a gale, the ship “intangled among shoals,” and a real danger of being driven onto other reefs to leeward, Cook investigated the master’s channel, “which I found very narrow and the harbour much smaller than I had been told but very convenient for our purpose.” Even so, they endured three further days of squalls, gales, and groundings on river shallows before they were safely beached.14

On June 19, the day after the Endeavour had been careened on a rough wooden stage in preparation for repairs, Cook climbed the steepest hill behind the makeshift harbor to get a sense of the countryside where they were marooned. His eyes met “a ver...

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