My first encounter with the Great Barrier Reef was in a glass-bottomed boat near Brampton Island at Easter in 1985. For a small girl from the country who only saw the sea once a year in the summer holidays and who was used to the contained and chlorinated water of swimming pools, the purple and red coral and shoals of sparkling fish were astonishing. And terrifying. When I snorkelled above a giant clam, I surfaced, gasping, and asked my mother, ‘What if my feet get trapped in its mouth?’
Just as it was difficult for an eight year old to comprehend the foreignness of the reef’s creatures, so too is it hard to take in the magnitude of the reef itself. It is, as Ian McCalman writes in The Reef: A History, ‘so extensive that no human mind can take it in, the exception perhaps being astronauts who’ve seen its full length from outer space’ (3). Made up of tiny coral polyps, it is the world’s largest living structure and largest coral reef system, roughly the size of England and Ireland put together. The beauty and complexity of its formation and ecosystems have drawn explorers, scientists, writers, tourists and photographers to its atolls and cays.
McCalman notes that the Reef was ‘built by human minds as well as by coral polyps’ (9), which goes some way to explaining the many histories of the Reef that begin with the first substantial record of a European encounter with it, Captain James Cook’s journal. However, it has of course existed long before Cook’s ship became wedged on a piece of coral. The present reef structure is estimated to be 6,000-8,000 years old, while there are more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Traditional Owner groups that have long and continuing relationships with the Reef region and its natural resources. As Wright opens The Coral Battleground, her account of the fight to save the reef from mining in the 1960s, ‘This story has no real beginning and no one knows what its end will be.’ The end, however, may be looming.
A 2012 paper from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Wollongong noted that the Great Barrier Reef had lost half its coral cover over the last 27 years. 48% of this was due to storm damage, while 42% was from the invasion of crown of thorns starfish, and 10% due to bleaching on account of increasing acidity of oceans from global warming. Despite this, in December 2013, Federal environment minister Greg Hunt approved a plan for dredging to create three shipping terminals as part of the construction of a coal port.
In the ensuing outcry, the government backtracked, and a consortium of developers resubmitted a proposal for onshore dumping. They proposed dumping on the Caley Valley wetlands, which are a filter for water running into the reef. When the new Labor government was elected in Queensland in 2015, they made a decision to prevent dumping. On 1st July 2015, UNESCO made a decision to put the Reef on probation until 2019 and expressed their disappointment in the decline of the quality of the Reef.
Meanwhile the price of coal is dropping, major investors such as the National Australia Bank have withdrawn their support for Adani and in November 2015, the Queensland government passed a ban on dumping. However, the Reef’s health continues to deteriorate despite state and federal efforts, as outlined in this article in The Conversation.
I protested for the Reef at a rally in 2013, I give money to Getup to agitate for political action to protect it, I’m writing a speculative fiction novel about the reef and climate change, and on Saturday I will be taking part in a swimathon organised by the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office. I’m part of Avid Readers and Writers for the Reef, a collection of fantastic writers and readers put together by the wonderful and independent Avid Reader bookstore in West End.
I adore swimming. I grew up in north-west New South Wales where it was so hot that we spent most of our summers in the pool. It’s also useful for me creatively: if I’m stuck with something that I can’t work out in my writing, I take it into the pool and think about it as I swim. By the time I get out, I’ve usually come up with a solution. I’m not so great with my swimming technique though, as the only lessons I had were at Boggabri Primary School and they didn’t extend to tumble turns (which I still can’t do).
However, swimming with the literati on Saturday! I’m so excited. Other swimmers are Mary-Rose MacColl, Anita Heiss and Ellen van Neerven, plus some Avid staff (who are so lovely you sometimes want to steal them) and readers (without whom there would be no writers).
If you’d like to make a donation to support our swimming efforts and to conserve this gorgeous and irreplaceable (at least in our lifetime) piece of the environment, you can do so on this page.