The story of the reef

By Tim Groenendyk

Historian Iain McCalman’s Linkage project charts the transforming narrative on the Great Barrier Reef from early European explorers - as a ‘labyrinth of terror’ - to an ecological system in peril due to climate change. Like the Reef itself, the project is a multitudinous organism: consisting of various academic disciplines, financial partners and media to tell this tale

Great Barrier Reef

Satellite image of Great Barrier Reef. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

“It kind of begins as a horror story,” said Iain McCalman, describing the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 as perceived by Captain James Cook, and many of his successors, who regarded the Reef as one of the worst places on Earth. “It’s a hell because of the likelihood of being shipwrecked and then drowned or eaten by sharks.

“The other thing they feared was to be shipwrecked and left on land where there were these ferocious, as they saw it, Aboriginal savages – or ‘cannibals’.”

McCalman’s project takes us from this point in Australian history to the present, where the Reef itself is plagued with problems such as mass coral bleaching and ocean acidification, which affects all levels of the Reef’s biodiversity.

Furthermore, the once feared indigenous people now represent one of the groups most urgently and critically affected by climate change and the destruction of the reef.

“Those people live and make their living all along there, and have always lived there,” McCalman explained. “The Torres Strait’s already suffering from rising waters and increasing temperatures.”

“It’s a very serious picture; it’s not just the reef. The reef is a canary for the whole potential action of climate change on the oceans. Scientists tell us that.”

To deliver this important chapter on climate change, McCalman and his team have developed their own unique approach to research and communicating their findings.

Along with engaging several disciplines that aren’t normally connected - ecology, maritime history, marine studies and ethnography - it incorporates new media: films, text and interviews available online and on portable devices such as touch phones.

“What we’re trying to do is to develop a new way of communicating the book if you like,” said McCalman, arguing that it is imperative scholars take part in shaping the future of the book.

“This book is not just presented as a scholarly printed object. We will be presenting some of the books that we produce as this kind of enhanced ebook.”

“It’s a studied and conscious and deliberate attempt to broaden the market of scholarship. I passionately believe in that.”

This ebook, which he describes as a composite package, will allow readers to meander from the main route and delve further into other the ‘extra elements’ depending on their interest.

“If they’re indigenous they might want to see the indigenous people involved, if they’re experts in diving they’ll want to see the shipwreck dive, and so on.”

Shipwrecks, McCalman pointed out, are a valuable source of history, particularly for a country with one of the longest coastlines in the world.

However, with almost four hundred known, major shipwrecks surrounding the Reef, and the great cost associated with dives – an individual expedition can set you back a hefty six figure sum - much of Australian history may remain submerged.

Although McCalman secured the University’s largest ARC Linkage in the first round of 2011, their industry partner, maritime archaeology organisation Silentworld Foundation, will greatly assist with funding the three shipwreck dives he has planned for this project.

“Silentworld is really contributing in a major way,” said McCalman “The founder doesn’t get anything out of it. It’s not his living, but it’s what he believes in. Which is what’s so great about the Linkage.”

One of these shipwrecks includes the Mermaid; one of the ships Phillip Parker King used to perform his intensive survey of the reef.

“It’s an interesting boat because it records a major moment in our history, but also it was built in India and brought across.

“So it’s part of this whole extraordinary connection that we had with India and China when the colony was first founded that we’re only rediscovering now.”

The reason McCalman has presented this project in such an overarching fashion is because it has become clear to him - especially in the midst of furious political debate concerning climate change - that people don’t often listen to scientists anymore.

“It’s easy for people to say ‘well, scientists don’t always agree exactly, they’re just elitist, or they talk a language we don’t understand’.

“One of the things that tells you is the importance of not losing touch with ordinary methods of communication and ordinary ways in which people relate to the reef.

“Which is about its beauty, and about how wonderful it is for a holiday and an escape, and all those things which science isn’t saying.

“We’re trying to draw attention to its fragility, to remind them what we need to do to look after it. And that’s got an incredibly rich history that’s deeply tied up with both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.”