Sydney Environment Institute

The Great Barrier Reef and its region

This project encompasses and derives from Iain McCalman’s prize-winning book, The Reef. A Passionate History, published in 2003 by Penguin, Melbourne, and in 2014 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux/Scientific American, New York; and by Scribe, London. The book is a human history of one of the world’s most bio-diverse, beautiful and important eco-systems from the time of Captain Cook to our present-day age of climate change.

Stretching for 2,300 kilometres along the east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is as large as Japan, encompasses 3000 islands, and is the only organic creation that can be seen on our planet from outer space. A world heritage wonder and an Australian marine park that generates major tourist income, it now stands in acute danger of extinction as a result of human actions. Greenhouse Carbon dioxide and Methane are contributing to ocean warming that generates episodes of potentially lethal mass coral bleaching. At the same time the slower but stealthy action of ocean acidification brought about by changes in ocean chemical composition through the absorption of CO2 threatens to erode the calcium skeletons of reef-growing corals and other ocean species. As well, chemical and sewage pollution and the dredging of the Reef lagoon to facilitate coal transportation lead to the suffocation of corals through sediment and expose them to the likelihood of coral disease. Voracious coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish have also reached plague proportions in part because their larvae flourish in polluted waters.

This includes an award-winning open-source website,, containing three short films, made by Mike Bluett and Iain McCalman, and a series of interviews with Indigenous custodians and scholars such as Alberta Hornsby of Cooktown. These are currently being expanded into a larger documentary film project with Moira Fahy of Productions1000.

This project intersects with a further series of collaborative oceanic and coastal workshops being undertaken with community environmental and eco-tourist groups and associations based at Mission Beach, south of Cairns. Having been devastated by two successive cyclones in 2006 and 2011, this community has instigated ambitious projects of environmental and cultural renewal. These aim to preserve and protect local island, rain- forest, reef and coastal habitats and also celebrate the region’s leadership of the conservationist campaigns that culminated in the formation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its UNESCO World Heritage listing. We are working with Mission Beach environmentalists to help protect and renew a series of major Reef and Rainforest cultural heritage sites and buildings, including former activist John Busst’s house at Bingil Bay and Ted Banfield’s cairn and walk on Dunk Island.