Corals under siege

THERE'S NOT MUCH of a laugh to be had on the topic of global warming but American futurist Bruce Sterling does his best. Sterling's weapon is satire; his tools include the blog and the after-dinner speech. In his "Viridian Manifesto" (Whole Earth, Summer 1999), Sterling calls on artists and designers to join in resistance to the forces of global warming. Viridian, for Sterling, is both an aesthetically pleasing shade of green, and also the colour of Big Mike, the Viridian mascot, a micro-organism that, in death, decays and does the elegant recycle thing. The Viridian movement is a niche inhabitant of the wider green scene, one devoted to taking the mickey out of the pronouncements of the military-industrial establishment while promoting good design as one useful response to the global warming challenge.[i]

While they may not yet have brought the establishment to its knees, contributors to the Viridian website exhibit a ferocious lateral thinking that is refreshing in these post-Montreal days of political posturing while Rome burns. The Viridian movement, Sterling says, is all about "creating irresistible demand for a global atmosphere upgrade". A quixotic enterprise, this task may well be doomed (Sterling is no optimist), but it foregrounds the flip side to all technology upgrades: their wider impact on the atmosphere which, by its nature, is a global entity.

As the warming atmosphere interacts with the warming ocean, both affect the health of coral reefs. It is becoming increasingly clear that only a global atmosphere upgrade is going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it and love it.

The news is not good. Here are some recent headlines from news reports: "Great Barrier Reef to be decimated by 2050"[ii]; "Climate change: icons under threat. The Great Barrier Reef"[iii]; "Coral bleaching, the reef's biggest threat"[iv]; "Too late to save the reef"[v]Science reports a glimmer of hope with the bouncy word "resilience" ("Climate change, human impacts and the resilience of coral reefs"[vi]), but the real issue is how much resilience will be enough. These dire warnings about global warming and the Great Barrier Reef are read in the context of equally alarming climate news: melting glaciers from the Arctic to Bhutan; a predicted rise in the rate of species extinction; dramatic changes in the strength of the currents that drive the Gulf Stream, and more.

What is becoming apparent is that the past 10,000 years of human history may well have been an unusual period of climate stability. Climate instability may be the norm and we are the people who may be lucky, or unlucky, enough to be both implicated in the coming changes and affected by them.


LONG BEFORE LIFE took off on the land, there were reefs in the oceans. Reefs were different then. Four hundred and fifty million years ago, the reef builders were not the corals of today but sponges (the stromatoporoids), sea mosses (the bryozoans) and other classes of organisms, many now extinct. The earlier forms of coral, the tabulate and rugose corals, were like modern corals in that they formed hard reef-constructing skeletons that provided niches for other forms of reef life, like soft-bodied creatures that left no fossil record. Remnants of these ancient reefs can be found, now well above the sea, in the Canning Desert and the Gogo region of north-western Australia or, closer to the present Great Barrier Reef, there are the fossil reefs of Charters Towers in North Queensland.

Finding a reef high and dry and stranded in outback Australia brings powerfully to mind the instability of landscape, the shifts back and forth from former seas to present land, from land now to future seas. Long before the human era, the Gogo reefs grew and died and left their structures in the shape of inland atolls, their relics in the fossil fishes that lie scattered on the surface of the plains. Earth's time scale is here read in the landscape of fossil reefs. Life evolved in the oceans, and reefs existed then in full, if different, complexity. Ice ages came and went, continents collided, reefs eroded when exposed to air in rock uplift and then grew again as ocean floors subsided. Reefs coped with change and, in turn, helped create change, change to ocean currents and chemistry – even, perhaps, changes to climate.

Something new is entering the story. Reefs are changing again, and now it is the turn of humans, rather than fish, to bear witness. What is new is the effect that human activities are having on reefs. While overfishing, pollution and plagues of the crown-of-thorns starfish are serious enough in themselves, ocean warming is proving worse. The year 1998 was the hottest year on record for a thousand years (until 2005) and the summer of 1997-98 was also the year of the stress and death of corals through coral bleaching on a scale never seen before. Early in 2002, a further outbreak occurred, more serious than in 1998. The widespread death of corals occurred at a level called unprecedented, not only in the history of human life on earth, but also, in its suddenness, in the fossil record.

The principal cause of coral bleaching is global warming. In bleaching, coral loses its colour and much more. The brilliant colours of corals come from the symbiotic relationship that is the coral polyp, where one partner, the plant, lives inside the other, the coral. The plants are tiny single-celled algae, the zooxanthellae or symbiotic dinoflagellates that live within the tissues of corals in great numbers. When the zooxanthellae become stressed by the heat of the oceans, they collect in the hollow column of the coral polyp and leave their host. The coral skeleton becomes visible through the transparent polyp and large areas of coral turn white. As corals lose their colour, they lose some 60 per cent of the energy derived from the symbiotic relationship. When the zooxanthellae leave, ill-health and often death of corals follows. Huge areas of reefs worldwide whiten and frequently die. In the nature documentary Silent Sentinels, the sight of huge areas of dead white coral makes for compelling viewing of the disaster-movie kind.

Coral bleaching is relatively new as a cause of massive death of corals. In 1998, reef scientists were unsure about what would happen next. Was the massive bleaching a one-in-a-thousand-year event or was it a sign of more serious damage to come? In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pronounced that global warming is a reality, and as a result, ecosystems will change. Within a generation, reefs are expected to change dramatically. Not all corals will die, and some will recover and adapt, but it is the rapidly increasing frequency of global bleaching events that is of great concern.

In all the previous talk about greenhouse warming and extreme weather events, this particular event was not predicted. Earlier, in 1987-88, the CSIRO and the Commission for the Future organised a huge public awareness campaign about the impacts of the human-enhanced greenhouse effect on Australia. The impact on coral reefs was part of the brief, but more in the context of rising sea levels, and the impact of ocean warming was considered minimal. What science did not predict, and could not have predicted given the knowledge in 1987, has emerged as its most dramatic challenge. In addition, if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles between 1990 and 2070, as may happen, it will also increase in concentration in the oceans, and this in turn will affect the rates at which corals take up calcium for their skeletons. The result is a form of coral osteoporosis, with reduced coral growth and strength.

he Great Barrier Reef has many meanings, with science providing one set of creation-destruction narratives. In indigenous stories, sea places have mythic stories to tell of how this place came into being, of how other worlds connect to this world. The stories of coastal Aboriginal people are tales of sea creatures and their journeys, stories that connect past mythic events with present coastal land and reefscapes. Here a spirit ancestor chased a whale or dugong, there it lay down to rest, and if you look with the eyes of faith you can see its shape in the rock and its breath in the spray of the waves – the reef shimmers with mythic significance.

In European times, the reef has been an economic resource for commodities, tourism and extractive industries. The reef has seen shelling and sheep farming, whale and dugong hunting, pearl and bêche-de-mer fisheries, penal and leper colonies. Limestone and corals were mined, people and drugs smuggled and oil drilling was only narrowly avoided. Events of the relatively recent past merge into the present growth and, some might argue, incipient decline of million-dollar tourist industries, where the reef gains new meanings as a place of pleasure and leisure, and the new jobs of reef managers and conservers are created.

Stories overlap and intertwine. On one level there is the litany of problems. For example, here are the problems a coral reef faces: crown-of-thorns starfish, agricultural run-off, and over-fishing. The reader is bombarded with issues and the recital of quantitative information and statistics, most of it gloomy. At another level of story comes the recital of cause and effect. If these are the issues, what are the causes? What chemical and biological factors, such as global warming, contribute to the destruction? The third level includes theories of biological and geological evolution. How has this reef system come into existence and how has it changed given the vast time scales of biological and geological epochs? The fourth level concerns the myths and metaphors of the reef, talk of the balance of nature, the resilience of coral reefs, the harmony of nature, the integrity of an ecological system (imagine also imbalance, discord, lack of integrity). How relevant are concepts of human morality, probity and prudence when applied to non-human systems? Reefs symbolise, on a metaphoric level, the creative-destructive nature of the universe. All these elements enter into ways of knowing the reef, ways of talking about it.

The attempt to come to grips with the issue of global warming and the Great Barrier Reef soon moves beyond the science and politics to their personal meanings. Why do we consider the Great Barrier Reef to be a beautiful place? If biodiversity is lost, what else goes? The term "biodiversity" is a highly political word, embracing not only the complexity of ecosystems but also their beauty and the moral dimension of how humans should act in preserving species diversity.

In the coral reef, biodiversity is made visible to the visitor: the underwater world seems crammed with forms of weird and wonderful life. The observer is highly privileged. Fish may keep a certain distance but do not flee from human encounter in the way that wild animals do on land. On a coral reef, biodiversity packs a profound emotional punch.

The beauty and intricacy of reefscape, of underwater landscape, is something that draws people into it, enthralls them in the tourism experience and has them coming back for more. Nature tourism may be given an economic value but there is more to it than this; many reef visitors find a quasi-spiritual meaning in the experience. The multiple character of the reef experience from science to tourism is an important factor in this discussion. Coral reefs also have aesthetic and emotional value. Reefs are ecological systems important for human health and wellbeing in more than the economic sense.

Historically, coral reefs were fraught places for mariners. When Captain James Cook sailed through the Great Barrier Reef in 1770, he did not, as far as we know, ever take mask and snorkel and have a look at the underwater landscape over which he sailed. He used clues from the surface to estimate the depths. He was understandably keen to put as much draught as possible between his keel and the dangerous reefs below. What nature revealed to him, through its surface, was: "Danger. Take care."


IN THE HISTORY of art, landscape painting has a long tradition. Unsurprisingly, there is no similar tradition of painting underwater landscape, as the zoologist William Saville-Kent pointed out in his book, The Great Barrier Reef of Australia (1893). Saville-Kent pioneered the art of reef photography, the photographer being better able than the artist to take advantage of the short periods of time the reef was exposed at extreme low tides. He captured reef-scape as if it were landscape, with corals, clams, sea urchins and lagoons as elements in composition, in place of the peaks, rivers and forests of landscape art. His reefscapes lie exposed in air. As the first Commissioner of Fisheries for the colony of Queensland[vii], Saville-Kent argued that the resources of the Great Barrier Reef should be harvested within conservation limits – he was an advocate for sustainability and biodiversity long before the words were coined. Saville-Kent's images helped create one concept of the beauty of coral reefs – the coral garden, with decorative hard corals predominating.

In the 1960s, the poet and conservationist Judith Wright was active in the protest against plans by the Queensland Government to permit oil drilling and limestone mining on Ellison Reef. In The Coral Battleground(Nelson Australia, 1977) Wright explains: "Slowly but surely as the years go on, we are destroying those great 'water-gardens', lovely indeed as cherry-boughs in flower under their once-clear sea ...[viii]" Cherry boughs? Water gardens? The mystery of the language is revealed in its cited source, Five Visions of Captain Cook, the poem written in 1931 by Kenneth Slessor. His poetic invocation of the "crystal twig", "petal", "water-garden" and "cherry-bough", springs from a European Arcadian tradition ill-equipped to cope with a radically different underwater landscape.

Judith Wright's passion to save the reef sprang more from her conservation principles than from personal experience. In the days before mass tourism, it wasn't so easy to visit the reef. Wright visited only once, spending a few weeks on Lady Elliot Island, a coral cay where the spectacular underwater landscape was in stark contrast to the land above water, an island ravaged by guano mining and goats. In the early years of reef tourism, the reef was explored from above, as it were, at low tide when reef walkers turned over lumps of coral rock to view the life beneath as it lay exposed in air or in shallow pools. The total immersion experience with mask, snorkel or scuba was not so common. Wright paid tribute to Slessor, but she took her meaning further. Her "water-gardens" were "far more complex, far more alive, teeming with myriads of varied animal lives". She moved from his early twentieth-century conceptual understanding of landscape-as-scenery to the science-informed landscape-as-environment.

Imagining reefscape in terms of underwater environment conveys both a sense of ambience in terms of sensory immersion, and also a sense of natural relationships in which the viewer is also a participant. The viewer may be there, underwater, with snorkel or scuba or may be an armchair traveller watching a nature documentary. For the diver, immersed in another world, water flows over skin, light ripples down from the surface through the refracting air-water barrier; the sound of one's own breathing is magnified; bubbles of air plop past. The myriad of varied animal lives continues, indifferent to the diver's presence.

For the armchair viewer, a sense of "being there" is heightened in hyper-reality. The Australian documentaryCoral Sea Dreaming (1992) brings the hidden sex lives of coral polyps to the screen. The viewer goes on an exhilarating ride with the coral gametes on the one day in the year when they are released in a mass coral spawning. As the larvae then rise like golden globules in the dark blue sea, we follow them to the surface. Suddenly we are above the water, looking down on the sea. The coral larvae look like a vast spread of brown scum, swirls of dishwater froth. To the next cut, where the view is from high in the sky. What was once scum becomes visible as the pattern of reefs in the sea. The film editor turns beauty to ugliness, ugliness to beauty in deliberate challenge to our aesthetic prejudices.


ON THE REEF futures website (, there is a coral bleaching simulator, where the visitor may enter the variables and see what the reef will be like in the year 2050.[ix] The website lets us choose from a range of conditions and presents us with images of the reef as it changes from being the present day "hard coral dominated reef" to a reef where the hard corals are in decline, and soft corals and algae provide more of the cover – a do-it-yourself ecological disaster simulator. The fear is that the Great Barrier Reef will become increasingly like Caribbean reefs, where hard corals have largely disappeared.

In December 2000, I travelled to the Lihou Reefs, a reef system outside the Great Barrier Reef, a remote, rarely visited part of Australia about 600 kilo-metres east-south-east of Cairns. It is the largest reef structure in the Coral Sea. In 1982, the Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve was declared a category 1a strict nature reserve, to be preserved in as undisturbed a state as possible. Cited in support was the aesthetic value of the underwater landscape: the reef system has "spectacular and unusual underwater topography and reef structures". [x]

At Nellie Cay, we dived down the side of a coral bommie to the sandy reef floor, then drifted up past a steep wall of sponges, soft brown-green in colour, cups stretched towards the surface. Black feather-stars and colonies of lime-green encrusting corals contributed to a soft and muted reefscape, rather like Ireland in the mist, were it not for the fusiliers, damselfish and Maori wrasse that swam around. The reef wall with its muted blacks, browns and greens was a far remove from the coral reefscape as conventionally depicted, for example, by William Saville-Kent. In reef images the hard corals are selected for impact, often the Acroporaspecies with their pointed twig-like fingers. The Lihou experience was an experience of a different, softer reefscape.

The Lihou Reefs also support large populations of soft corals. What on the Great Barrier Reef is often a sign of reef degradation must, in this remote place, be part of a more natural, but different reefscape. When a reef is damaged, whether by storm or human impact, soft corals are often the first species to recolonise, and their initial success may crowd out hard corals that previously flourished. The reef, after damage, will change its proportions of reef communities. At the Lihou Reefs, it is more likely to be the way things are. Yet a reefscape of soft corals has its own aesthetic value. A tourist may well take delight in them for their own sake, entranced by the colours and unaware of the links with cycles of destruction and creation. For the scientist, however, knowledge and appreciation of the underwater landscape are intertwined. Knowledge of loss privileges what is judged more pleasing, more pristine.

The reef management plan seeks to preserve the Lihou Reef system in its "near pristine" condition. Earlier in 2000, there was some talk of oil exploration in the area, as the Lihou Reefs are outside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but such talk seems to have stopped, at least for the moment.


THE SCIENCE IN management plans, such as the plan for the Lihou Reefs, provides a new frame for understanding and seeing beneath the surface. Appreciating underwater landscape involves an element of "seeing" the depth of time. The Lihou Reefs are special in part because two separate episodes of reef building created the present structures, but this will only be visible to the geologist who can see in present structures the outcomes of past events and processes. In the nature documentary, the narrator helps spell out these connections and tells a story of the dramatic progression of events and species through time.

The reef provides the vision of beauty; reef science supplies the theoretical links. Divers can see for themselves the interdependencies once they know what to look for. The anemone fish shelters within the waving fronds of the anemone host, enticing other small fishes into the anemone's trap. I see utterly different creatures – prickly sea urchins, sausage-like bêche-de-mer, sea stars, brittle-stars and feather-stars – and find science has discovered their close relationship within the phylum of the Echinoderms. I know that all the crannies in the corals, within corals, underneath coral rubble, are occupied by forms of life, because the photographer-naturalist has shown me in advance. Fishes glide languidly by and their indifference to human presence provides our pleasure.

Reef environments evolve over time, created by the activities of coral polyps and by forces of wind and water, ice and global warming. This is the "deep time" of the evolution of the planet, the oceans, the life forms that create and inhabit the reef. When Aboriginal people first came to Australia, perhaps some 40,000 years ago, the Great Barrier Reef as it is today did not exist. Instead, a coastal plain 200 kilometres wide extended to a limestone ridge on the shore, that ridge itself a relic of precious barrier reefs. When Judith Wright described "the battle to save that thousand-mile stretch of incomparable beauty from the real destroyers – who are ourselves"[xi], she was only partly right. Human destruction is real enough but it is nothing in comparison to the great reef-destroying episodes of the past, well before the people came.

The sad fact is that, as knowledge of global warming has increased and as ecological indicators are getting worse, human behaviour has not changed. There will be climate winners and climate losers, and who will win and who will lose is not yet clear. Reefs come and go in great cycles of time, grander than mere human time. They will be here, in some form, when humans are long at rest with the dinosaurs. But though change to the reef may well prove insignificant in geological time. I live in human time. I want the reef to survive in my time and for the human generations to come.

How can we put some kind of collective value on the individual experiences of so many reef visitors, how can we make the leap from the subjective experience of delight to the social dimension of conservation? Experience brings something, but it is not enough. Science brings knowledge but with the proviso that what there is to know always exceeds what is known, and probably, ultimately, the human capacity to know it all. The delight in beauty, the imperfection of knowledge and the desire to preserve the reef – here desire encounters conservation policy in the gap between what people say as individuals and what people collectively do.

Conservationists are concerned that their listing of what's wrong with the planet, the litany of environmental doom, may cause people to switch off from their message. Conservation talk may inspire, unintentionally, a feeling of despair in the listener, rather than a positive response to the struggle. The conservation perspective is one of increasing pessimism about the survival of diversity in species and in ecosystems. Ecological awareness tends to bring about a general gloominess of outlook. It's hard to remain happy knowing that the Great Barrier Reef may not be there in fifty to a hundred years.

Delight in underwater landscape has the power to lift the viewer from despair to active contemplation. On coral reefs, the ocean-air systems, photosynthesis, food chains, genetic codes, reproduction, speciation and its necessary companion, extinction, were in place long before humans arrived. The sea arouses the sense of immersion in ongoing life, immersion in a nonhuman frame of reference, and with this comes a sense of liberation. I am suspended in warm water as if I were a part of it, entering into some prehuman condition of flowingness. The history of human evolution rolls back for this moment of re-entry into the oceanic past, and the planktonic ego is liberated, for the moment, free from responsibility for the earth. Air and sky are left behind, the sea washes over, and it is a different self that dives down to meet whatever moves below. 



[ii] Emma Young, "Great Barrier Reef to be decimated by 2050", New Scientist, February 23, 2004,

[iii] AnchorAnchorMelissa Fyfe, "Climate Change: icons under threat. The Great Barrier Reef", The Age, November 17, 2005, pp 16-17.

[iv] Donna Field, "Coral bleaching, the reef's biggest threat", ABC radio,

[v] Melissa Fyfe, "Too late to save the reef", The Age, February 12, 2005, at

[vi] Hughes, T.P. (et al), "Climate change, human impacts and the resilience of coral reefs", Science, 301, 2003, pp 929-933.

[vii] A.J.Harrison, Savant of the Australian Seas. William Saville-Kent (1845-1908) and Australian Fisheries, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart, 1997, p.85.

[viii] Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground (Nelson, Melbourne, 1977) xiv


[x] Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve at

[xi] Wright, The Coral Battleground, xiv.

See also Rosaleen Love, Reefscape. Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, (Joseph Henry Press, Washington DC, 2000) available online at

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