Impossible things

Science, denial and the Great Barrier Reef

IN THE SUMMER of 2016 everything changes. Portentous news should come by phone, or a knock on the door, maybe a letter dropping onto a mat. But in this case, it is everywhere. Inescapable. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, some say dead. A wave of bleaching has swept across the coral. The reef is large – the size of Japan – and it takes months to confirm what scientists already suspect. This coral-bleaching event, caused by unusually warm waters, is the worst in history.

When the surveys are released, I delve into the details. The northern reef is the worst. More than 80 per cent of the coral around Lizard Island has died. The shock is visceral, like news of a car crash. I glance up at the framed photos next to my desk: a clown fish nestles in an anemone, and a violet nudibranch dances in blue. I’d taken the photos with my ancient underwater camera, a Nikonos III, on one of those long-ago dives. Those glorious reefs. Gone. In an instant.

The cooling effects of Cyclone Winston, which swept through the region in February 2016 – the purest chance – means that the reef south of Mackay has got off lightly. Small mercies. Overall though, almost one quarter of the Great Barrier Reef has died. Even scientists, those bastions of objectivity, are visibly shaken. They talk of reefs covered in algae and stinking of death.

It is hard to come to terms with the news. I imagine the hard corals turning an eerie white, the soft corals decaying, the fish vanishing one by one. I don’t read dystopian novels, but now I seem to be living in one. As I contemplate this devastation, I am overwhelmed by an urge to return. To go back to the place that was my home for so long. The reef may be mortally wounded, but it is not dead.

Life is busy, I leave my job and enrol in a PhD, but the longing to see the reef doesn’t leave. Finally, almost a year later, I am packing my bag. My diving logbook is a little worse for wear, almost a relic. I flick through it. My first record is from 1979, at the Coral Garden on Heron Island. I was a newly minted scuba diver, all of seventeen and in my first year studying zoology. I had been chosen to work as a research assistant on the island for six weeks in the university break. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I dived with my boss, Barbara Kojis, a PhD student studying coral reproduction. My job was to hold the tape measure as we recorded the sizes of two species of coral along a transect line and to record these dimensions on an underwater slate. It left plenty of time to watch the kaleidoscopic fish dart among soaring corals and the ripple of sunlight through turquoise water. I had never seen anything so beautiful.

I turn the page of my logbook. On my second dive, at the Canyons on Heron Island, Barbara and I were joined by Steve Parish. I was a little overawed. Wildlife photographer Steve Parish was a hero of mine. A pioneer of the underwater close-up, he took exquisite images of tiny creatures that seemed from another planet. I had his book Australia’s Ocean of Life (Wedneil Publications, 1974) at home. Diving with Steve and Barbara, I plunged into those pictures, into a world that felt like home. Memories of my childhood in Fiji flooded back – trips to the islands, snorkelling with my sister in clear, shallow waters. The reef was in my blood.

I returned to the reef again and again. For three weeks, I assisted one of my tutors on Lizard Island, puttering out in a boat each day to count seabirds. What I remember most from that time was the teeming life – the darting reef sharks, the iridescent giant clams, the sun-dappled coral and tree-tufted islands. I was in love with it all – the tanks filled with marine life, the smell of the seabirds, the suntanned researchers from all over the world. I had become a reef science groupie. If I couldn’t find work as a research assistant, I’d paint and clean and garden on the research station to earn my keep.

After my degree, I searched for a reef-related job. A year went by while I scrubbed toilets on Lady Elliot, pulled beers on Heron and served meals at Dunk. I was shortlisted for a position with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority but missed out by a whisker. Life moved on. I got a job in Bendigo, then in Sydney, then started working for the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the New South Wales north coast. I married, had children and for some years returned to the reef with my family for annual camping trips.

But then I drifted away. I discovered mountains. I assumed the reef would be there when I returned. I followed it at a distance, as you do an old lover, signing petitions against development and over-fishing, wishing it well in my absence. As I place the diving logbook in my bag, a twinge of guilt strikes me. Somehow it never registered that things had altered so much.


THE YEAR SINCE the coral bleaching event of the summer of 2016 has been an education. Sometimes it takes a shock to wake you up. To see the world anew. We live in a topsy-turvy time now, it seems. If I turn on the news I’m expected to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I have seen those with vested interests rush to insist that the reef is fine. Sadly, constantly reiterating this doesn’t make it true.

In October 2016, broadcaster Alan Jones weighs in, taking a flight over the reef and declaring it to be ‘fine’. ‘The global warming alarmists will stop at nothing,’ he says on his radio show, broadcast from Cairns.[i] ‘Green groups run a very different agenda,’ says Jones. ‘If they can prove there’s an Armageddon on the way they’ll get money. They want to talk about climate change and shut down everything.’ Jones then launches Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, a ‘global, social purpose’ initiative whose partners include the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and James Cook University.[ii] The disconnect between Jones’ statements and the group’s mission, ‘to support positive action and address climate change’, is mind-bending.

One month later, on Channel Nine news, I watch Pauline Hanson and her One Nation team visit Great Keppel Island, diving down and emerging from the ocean with living coral in hand – never mind the ‘look but don’t touch’ mantra. Despite being one thousand kilometres from the devastated northern reef, this is, she says, evidence that the reef is thriving. ‘When we have these agendas that are actually destroying our tourism industry and businesses...we need to ask the questions and we want answers. We can’t have these lies put across, and by people with their own agendas,’ says Hanson.[iii] ‘The reef is flourishing,’ agrees One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, a former coalminer-turned-politician and climate sceptic. ‘A bleaching event is due to temporary extremes in weather and they’re entirely natural.’

I want to brush off these surreal proceedings as fringe-group lunacy, but this is not the case. Populists like Alan Jones and Pauline Hanson play to a broad audience. Journalist David Leser calls Jones, ‘one of the most influential…figures in Australia’ and ‘more powerful than most politicians’. A poll in February 2017 found that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has a support base of 23 per cent in Queensland.[iv] The policy of this party includes removing ‘from the education system the teaching of a biased and one-sided view of climate science. Teaching of climate science will…be based on the scientific method of scepticism until proven.’[v] One Nation attracts an audience already suspicious of science and institutions, a group susceptible to conspiracy theories. I wouldn’t care about their antics, except that they threaten my children’s future.


A FLASHBACK – HERON Island, 1980. Coral Reef Ecology 101. Me and my trainee-zoologist buddies are out on the reef-flat. We are counting the species – glossy cowrie shells, deep-blue starfish and peach-pink anemones – at different zones on the reef. I learn how diverse ecosystems are more resistant to damage. How the corals on the reef-flat protect the land – if they die, the island is vulnerable to storms. Back then, we weren’t thinking about bleaching. We weren’t thinking about human-induced weather change.

I learn about symbiosis – how two living things come together for survival. Coral is not one creature, but two – a plant and an animal. The animal, which is related to jellyfish, has algae living within it. Hence the radiant living colour. The coral provides shelter and the algae provides nutrients. It’s an arrangement that’s worked well for over five hundred million years. Under heat stress though, the algae are expelled and the corals turn white, starving slowly to death. It’s not hard to see this as a metaphor – this first interconnection spreading outwards. To the fish that depend on the coral, to the people who depend on the fish. A web of symbiosis encompassing the planet.

As I pack for Heron Island, inspecting then rejecting my perished diving fins, I ponder how my work in science has affected my worldview. What has science ever done for me? It has made me realise that nature is fragile, that resilience is built on diversity. That every living creature has its own place in the system and a change in one part affects all. It has taught me that the scientific method is the best means we have of understanding our world.

Science is not about opinion, it is based on evidence. It relies on repeatable tests. Science doubts itself constantly, it is slow to jump to conclusions. ‘Science…is made up…of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth,’ says Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. When scientific research is published, we know it has been through a rigorous process of peer review. Scientists like nothing better than to expose any gaps in research methods, any premature statements of findings.

Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, now director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, was one of the first scientists to predict that coral bleaching was a catastrophe in the making in his paper Climate Change, Coral Bleaching and the Future of the World’s Coral Reefs published by CSIRO in 1999. While the abstract is couched in a cautious scientist’s language, its urgency comes through. ‘Events as severe as the 1998 event, the worst on record,’ he states, ‘are likely to become commonplace within twenty years.’

At the time, his research was greeted with scepticism. He was branded an alarmist and criticised widely. Hoegh-Guldberg talks about this in an interview with ABC’s Australian Story in 2009. ‘This was going to affect me and my relationship with the reef and of course children and grandchildren… If you present science and it’s supported by data, peer reviewed literature and so on, you have to stick with the science. You can’t sort of back off from it and say “Well actually that’s the conclusion but, oh look, it can’t be really that bad.”’

It is clear that for him this issue is personal. The boy who grew up watching Diver Dan cartoons became a young man who slept on a laboratory floor to learn about coral from the world’s leading expert. He is a passionate advocate for his science. Perhaps it is because he breaks the mould of the quiet, objective scientist that he attracts so much criticism. Journalist and commentator Andrew Bolt has been a sustained opponent, calling him a ‘warming alarmist’ with a ‘gift for the snappy line’.[vi] Online climate-change denialist forums seethe about his links to conservation groups, calling him an ‘activist scientist’.[vii] But these are strange times. It is no longer enough for scientists to stay studiously in their labs. They have to shout to be heard.


HEART-BREAKINGLY, IN MARCH 2017, the week before I leave for Heron, the reef bleaches again, for the second year in a row. This is unprecedented. On its website, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is yet to mention the 2016 bleaching, let alone this one. Things are moving too fast for bureaucracy.

A report on the bleaching in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail on 11 March quotes Dr Neal Cantin of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. ‘We are now entering uncharted territory,’ he says. ‘This is the first time we have ever seen back-to-back mass bleaching events. It is deeply concerning.’[viii] Dr Cantin states that the reefs can be seen from the air ‘glowing white’, with coral bleaching from Lizard Island in the far north to Great Keppel Island off Rockhampton. But not Heron. Not yet.

I scan down to the below-the-line comments expecting concern, shock, sadness, a desire for action. My stomach contracts as I read them. They talk of this being the biggest con in the history of mankind and an attempt to spur the politicians into throwing more tax-payer money away. The comments are angry and almost unanimously sceptical about both the truth and meaning of this event.

I move to The Australian, which focuses on the need for Queensland to plead with UNESCO not to place the reef on the World Heritage in Danger list. The comments here are even more livid. Stand up Australia and tell them to mind their own business. Tell this grubby bunch of UN sponsored parasites to nick off and mind their own damn business. Stop grovelling at the feet of international bureaucrats…[ix] I close the page feeling profoundly disturbed.

Since when has a belief in science been mocked as political correctness? Since when have global institutions designed to protect natural heritage been so reviled? I have spent my whole life working in science and with scientists. The process of scientific reasoning is instinctive to me. It is only in recent years that I have come to understand that this acceptance of science as a way of understanding our world is not universal.

As I look into it, I find that suspicion of science is not new. Whenever times are hard people turn on those they perceive to be elite. Scientists were sent to the guillotine in the French Revolution and made to work as labourers in the Chinese Great Leap Forward. Many great scientists such as Darwin, Pasteur and Galileo were scorned in their lifetime. But now, mistrust of science appears to be building.

Distrust of experts and institutions is a hallmark of right-wing populism. This ideology ignores scientific advice and purports to believe that scientists who raise the alarm are motivated by nothing more than an ambition to secure funding. Populist leaders promote simple solutions to complex problems – they imply there is nothing that a bit of common sense won’t fix. I am eerily reminded of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ‘Don’t you worry about that’. Another feature of these leaders is their focus on nationalism. They reject any ‘meddling’ in our affairs by global agencies such as UNESCO. ‘We are being controlled by the UN and these agreements that have been done for people’s…self-interest,’ proclaims Hanson on her Barrier Reef jaunt. It’s much easier to direct anger elsewhere than take responsibility for this destruction.


TRIVIA SIGNS, DESIGNED to reduce driver fatigue, line the highway to Gladstone. What is the world’s largest living thing? says one. The answer comes a few minutes later: The Great Barrier Reef. We are getting close. I feel some sense of trepidation. Will Heron Island have changed? But we are at the southern end of the reef here. It should be all right.

The boat ride to Heron is as stomach churning as ever, the catamaran bumping over the choppy seas. After almost two hours, the reef comes into view – the familiar translucent water, the wheeling noddy terns, the glimpse of green pisonia trees. As we come over the reef-flat to Heron Island I look down. Plates of blue, green and purple coral appear from the depths. I let out a breath. The boat pulls in at the wharf and the familiar acrid scent of seabirds surrounds me.

The University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station is unrecognisable. Burnt down in 2007, it has been rebuilt with improved facilities. The tanks filled with coral and the air of purposeful endeavour haven’t changed though. Outside the laboratories, I see rows of numbered cylindrical tanks, twelve in total, that are part of the ‘Reefs of the Future’ project, which has been running for six years. The tanks have varying temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide and each contains a miniature coral-reef ecosystem. They provide a forecast of what the reef might look like under different climatic conditions. I peer through a transparent lid into the ‘current state’ tank and see delicate blue coral and a waving anemone – it’s like a reef in a bottle. The adjacent ‘do nothing’ scenario, a projection of what conditions might be like mid to late century, is frightening – a tank filled with algae and dead coral. Another tank shows the future if we take action to halt climate change now. It is not quite the vibrant reef of today, but there is living coral and less algae. As I look at the tanks, it seems so obvious. Stop carbon emissions and we can save some of the reef. Keep going the way we are and these majestic underwater cities die.

Nearby, a large concrete tank houses another research project. This one is examining how coral reefs can be regenerated. Coral spawn from healthy reefs are harvested and then seeded to damaged reefs. It has worked on a small reef in the Philippines, but whether it can be successful on a large scale is uncertain. Research is continuing.

That evening, PhD student Saskia Jurriaans from James Cook University gives a presentation about her work on coral bleaching. She was at Lizard Island when the corals bleached in March 2016, turning first from their natural colours into fluorescent pinks and blues – a rainbow flare of distress – and then dying. She shows us a picture of a bleached clam – its usual blue-green iridescence is dull white. I had forgotten that clams too, have symbiotic algae. The audience is reluctant to let her leave. ‘What can we do?’ someone asks. It may be possible to breed a ‘super-coral’ using corals from the Red Sea, she says, which are tolerant to warmer temperatures. These could be used to restore bleached reefs. ‘But it’s a very complex problem,’ says Saskia apologetically. ‘We need more time.’ As I walk back to my room the shearwaters call ooh, ooh from their burrows, like children telling ghost stories. More time. More time. It’s the one thing we don’t have.


I HAVEN’T DIVED for more than twenty years, but the next day I decide to take the plunge. The scuba gear – the computer, the buoyancy vest, the regulator – have all changed and I am more than a little rusty. Burdened with equipment, I step off the boat and sink beneath the surface. Once there though, suspended in blue, it’s like I never left. Extravagantly colourful, it’s an ecosystem designed by Matisse. A bright yellow trumpetfish, long and thin, glides beneath me, gaudy parrotfish nibble at the reef and a school of blue-green chromis flash in the sun. While the coral is mainly healthy, as we swim along the reef I spot a plate coral, bleached white among the green. ‘The sea’s much warmer than it should be,’ says the dive guide after we surface. ‘Twenty-eight degrees, when usually now it would be twenty-five.’ The coral is hanging on, but it is feeling the heat.

It is not only the Great Barrier Reef that is under pressure. In the past thirty years we have lost half of the total coral from the world’s reefs. I think about that as the dive boat chugs back to shore – about what it means for us now and what it means for the future. Coral reefs are not only beautiful, they are vital to the successful functioning of the planet’s ecosystems. One in four fish – one quarter of the world’s fish stocks – lives on a coral reef. Reefs provide food to over one billion people, while millions of others live on coastlines protected from storm surge by reefs. Predictions for 2050 are dire. ‘Even under the best circumstances, which is stabilisation under the Paris climate agreement, we’re only going to have 10 per cent of today’s reefs there,’ says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. Even under the best circumstances.

A worldwide March for Science in April of this year – something I thought I’d never see – was sparked by the removal of all references to climate change from the US White House website. I’d mistakenly thought that science was a self-evident good, not a cause you must march to defend. The new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, does not believe that carbon dioxide causes global warming. Donald Trump goes one step further, tweeting in 2012 that climate change is a Chinese hoax. He has since used the words ‘hoax’ and ‘bullshit’ on multiple occasions to refer to climate change. I think of Charles Darwin’s quote that ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge’.

In Australia, we are not much better off. Climate change denialists such as Cory Bernardi, Barnaby Joyce and Ian MacDonald have a major effect on policy. Funding for science research dropped to an all-time low in 2015. This placed us embarrassingly near the bottom of the OECD ranking for federal science funding – behind Portugal, Russia and Greece. Cuts to climate science programs at CSIRO followed in 2016. The government’s Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan virtually ignores climate change. Meanwhile, the Adani coal mine, which will be the largest in Australia when it goes ahead, will damage the reef further. ‘I think there is no single action that could be as harmful to the Great Barrier Reef as the…coal mine,’ said Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, in The Sydney Morning Herald.[x] Apart from the water quality impacts of dredging at the port, coal from the mine would release enough carbon dioxide to cancel out the emissions cuts agreed at the Paris
climate summit.

However, the Adani coal mine is set to ignite a huge resistance movement. A coalition of thirteen environment groups has formed to create what Bob Brown calls ‘a nationwide showdown’ bigger than the Franklin Dam protest. So far, the combination of nonviolent direct action and political lobbying appears to be paying dividends. Three of the four major Australian banks have currently ruled out funding for the mine, and federal Labor is stepping back from its support. The battle for the reef, however, is also taking place on another front. In February this year, a group of major philanthropists launched a bold new plan, 50 Reefs, the first program ever to tackle coral reef protection on a global scale. Supported by a scientific network including Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and the University of Queensland, 50 Reefs is funded by a private group that includes the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul G Allen. Based on the premise that only 10 per cent of reefs will survive past 2050, the program is a form of triage: the fifty reefs are the ones that will be saved in order to act as a seed bank for re-establishing lost reefs when conditions improve.

I have trouble believing we have come to this point, to choosing the reefs that we can and can’t save, that this is the best-case scenario left to us. This program seems to me an act of bravery, a refusal to look away. It is staring down the future and saying ‘this is what we can do’. It might not be much, but it is better than nothing.


MY VISIT OVER, I watch Heron Island recede in the distance and I’m not sure when I will get here again. We’ve both changed since the first time I visited. Me, I’ve got more wrinkles and sometimes my knees hurt – but that’s only natural. The reef is still vibrant and glorious here. Clownfish still hide in anemones, baitfish still block out the sun. Forty years ago, I’d thought it would be this way forever. But now, I can’t help wondering how many summers it has left. We don’t expect an ecosystem to die before us. Like a child dying before its parents, it defies the natural order of things.

Forty years ago, Australian poet Judith Wright published The Coral Battleground (Thomas Nelson, 1977) about her fight to save the reef from the adverse effects of limestone mining and oil drilling. ‘The idea that anyone would take the remotest chance of damaging the reef is beyond belief,’ she said in the book. Branded as ‘cranks’, a small group of activists – writers, ecologists and students – took on the Bjelke-Petersen government. The battle to raise public and political awareness of the reef’s value took many years. Ultimately, however, they won, and the reef was protected as a marine park.

Our fight is more complex now and more demanding. We have more to lose and less to gain. But perhaps we can take courage from their example. A small group of so-called cranks has changed the world before and can do so again. Australians who value the reef need to tell our government what we want. Demand decision-making based on good science. Call out those who expect us to believe in impossible things. This is a complex problem, not a simple one. Setting up scientists as straw dummies to cut down won’t make it go away.


[i] Slezak, Michael. 2017. ‘Alan Jones launches Great Barrier Reef site after criticising “global warming hoax”’. The Guardian. Accessible at:

[ii] Lloyd, Judy. 2017. ‘Citizens Of The GBR Foundation Board Announced’. Tourism Tropical North Queensland. Accessible at:

efs"es Darwin o16. ''xbc6.html ia, Voters and the Campaign

[iii] Marler, David. 2016. ‘Pauline Hanson Filmed Handling Great Barrier Reef Coral’ No Fibs. Accessible at:

[iv] Beaumont, Adrian. 2017. "Queensland Galaxy: One Nation Surges To 23%". The Conversation. Accessible at:

[v] ‘Affordable Energy Policy’. One Nation. Accessible at:

[vi]Bolt, Andrew. 2014. ‘Swimming In A Sea Of Disinformation’. Herald Sun. Accessible at:

[vii] Laframboise, Donna. 2014. ‘The WWF activist in charge at the IPCC’. Accessible at:

[viii] Michael, Peter. 2017. ‘Reef Bleaching “Can’t be stopped”’. Courier-Mail. Accessible at:

[ix] Elks, Sarah. 2017. ‘Queensland: We need time on reef’. The Australian. Accessible at:

[x] Elliott, Tim. 2016. ‘“Charles Darwin of coral reefs” blasts Carmichael coal leases’. The Sydney Morning Herald. Accessible at:

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