"Like seeing a house on fire in slow motion": The painful destruction of the Great Barrier reef

Iain McCalman's new book, "The Reef," offers a riveting account of the World Heritage Site's tragic demise

By Osha Gray Davidson
August 7, 2014 3:45PM (UTC)
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(Tanya Punti, via Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on OnEarth.org.

OnEarth Does the world really need another book about the Great Barrier Reef? It already accounts for a small library’s worth of excellent volumes, from coffee table books to natural histories probing its unique ecology. With The Reef: A Passionate History, however, Iain McCalman has produced something important and utterly new: a detailed and engaging account of human interactions with the largest coral reef on the planet.

Stretching 1,250 miles along the eastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef (actually a collection of more than 2,500 separate reefs) is home to thousands of species of corals, fish, whales, crustaceans, sea turtles, sponges, and countless smaller but ecologically vital creatures. In what could best be described as an unnatural history, McCalman, a research professor of history at the University of Sydney, chronicles the slow discovery and quick unraveling of this unique ecosystem by humans who have viewed the reef primarily through the distorting prisms of fear, greed, and ignorance for more than two centuries.


The 1770 expedition led by Lieutenant James Cook sets the tone for this epic tale. Sailing the HMS Endeavor into what he thought was open water (but was really a lagoon between the barrier reef and the Australian mainland), the British explorer soon ran the three-master aground. It was a near-disastrous first encounter.

“We envisage the men,” writes McCalman, “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….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.”

By the time the crew managed to free their ship and limp to shore, what would become the predominant European view of the reef as a terrifying labyrinth was set. For decades afterward, it was an enemy to be conquered, a perspective that extended to the area’s original inhabitants. One of McCalman’s primary contributions, in fact, is his social historian’s understanding that the story of the reef is inseparable from that of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. This insight is most notable in his analysis of the ordeal of the nineteenth-century castaway Eliza Frazier at the hands of her aboriginal captors. This captivity narrative, with its graphic details of cannibalism and sexual violation, was almost entirely an invention of the press. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a “core cultural myth” that was used to justify the theft of native lands and the newly discovered resources of the reef.


In McCalman’s telling, the Great Barrier Reef is a vast screen onto which its conquerors have projected their fears and desires, from howling wilderness to scientific enigma to vacationers’ Shangri-La. These images have been so compelling that few have noticed that the screen itself is disintegrating under a barrage of environmental insults, including poor agricultural practices that smother the corals in silt and algae, overfishing, damage from ships and dredging operations, and, most recently, ocean acidification caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In the book’s final chapter, Charlie Veron, one of the world’s foremost reef scientists, says that the decline of the reef is “like seeing a house on fire in slow motion ... there’s a fire to end all fires, and you’re watching it in slow motion, and you have been for years.”

Osha Gray Davidson

Osha Gray Davidson is the author of five books of nonfiction and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.

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Australia Climate Change Crude Oil Great Barrier Reef Onearth.org