Iain McCalman managed to outdo his wonderful "Darwin's Armada" with his history of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which I recently reviewed for The Wall Street Journal.
Corals and Castaways
by Jennie Erin Smith
When HMS Endeavor smacked against a mass of coral 12 miles off the eastern coast of Australia, Capt. James Cook had only the vaguest idea what coral was. Cook was used to navigating sandy shoals and shallows along uncharted coasts. But he was surprised to discover "rocks" that rose abruptly from untold depths to just below the surface, leaving no time to change course. It was only beginning to be understood in 1770 that such rocks were, in fact, the work of invertebrate animals. Cook did not realize that he had been hemmed in by a reef system of inordinate scale, some 215,000 square miles of coast, sea, islands and coral, that would take another two full centuries to be measured in its entirety.
Six weeks after stranding in the Great Barrier Reef, saddled with a scurvy-sick crew and having just botched relations with generally amicable aboriginals by refusing them a share of some turtles his sailors caught, Cook painstakingly threaded the Endeavour through the coral to reach open sea, then turned back and crashed again. Much of the expedition's energies ended up being spent averting death, and naturalist Joseph Banks would later lament that "we had not time to make proper observations upon this curious tribe of animals," the corals.
In "The Reef," Iain McCalman's ambitious, elegant narrative of the Great Barrier Reef and its remarkably drawn-out discovery, Cook is credited with stumbling blindly upon it and little more. Subsequent generations of British explorers would observe the Reef more closely, though they still equated it with peril, both from the corals and the humans they encountered.
Throughout the 19th century, ships struck coral there constantly, leaving survivors, when there were any, stranded for months or even years. Several long-term European castaways, Mr. McCalman shows, adapted fully to indigenous cultures: they forgot their native languages, resisted rescue or became depressed upon re-entering white society. One castaway, rescued quickly, took a dimmer view of her experience. In 1837, Eliza Fraser, a Scottish sea captain's widow, arrived in London to beg alms after her brief "kidnapping" by aboriginals. She had been forced to perform hard labor, she attested, and her clothes were stolen, while her husband had been speared in the shoulder and died.
A hack journalist converted Fraser's story into a gothic yarn about rape, cannibalism and decadent forms of torture, though her fellow surviving castaways alleged that much of this account was false: No one had been kidnapped, raped or eaten, they said, and hard labor was the order of aboriginal life. Yet the island of Fraser's ordeal was renamed after her, and British papers began to call for the forced assimilation, or even outright extermination, of the Barrier Reef's peoples. Within a few years, Australia began putting parcels of aboriginal hunting and fishing grounds in the hands of white settlers, reducing many dreaded "savages" to servitude.
Mounting concern about the Reef's physical and human dangers led the Royal Navy to launch more purposeful scientific and anthropological investigations. In 1843, HMS Fly brought along the naturalist Joseph Jukes to study the growth and behavior of reef corals; the worry was that new structures might appear in waters thought safe to navigate. Jukes picked corals apart, scrutinized the intricate dynamics of colonies and discerned that each reef was a "mass of brute matter, living only at its outer surface." Fascinated by what early explorers had so feared, Jukes went so far as to praise this monster reef system, whose very name invoked the hardships it presented to navigators, as "one of nature's greatest mysteries, its origins equally wonderful and obscure, its extent so vast, and its accompaniments so simple, so grand, and appropriate."
Jukes was little swayed by anti-aboriginal propaganda. He defused his shipmates' conditioned hostility to their island hosts by performing goofy dances when things got tense, though he was admittedly unnerved when one geological outing ended in a friend being speared through the back. Another expedition brought along a young artist-ethnographer who took pains to learn the Gudang and Kaurareg languages. He conducted careful interviews and sketched detailed, accurate portraits, whereas previous ship artists were content with mocking caricatures.
Science on the Reef entered its most productive era around the turn of the 20th century. Harvard zoologist Alex Agassiz arrived by steamer to try and prove Charles Darwin's theories of coral-reef formation "nonsense." He didn't succeed: Darwin, it turned out, had been mostly right that reefs started close to newly formed land and grew up toward the light as the land and sea floor sank—though Darwin had missed the roles played by plate tectonics and climate-related changes in sea levels. Agassiz's work attracted the attention of more scientists eager to unlock the Reef's mysteries. A Cambridge team built a temporary marine lab, measuring the light densities of seawater, drilling rock cores and growing reef corals in experimental "gardens." They began to learn how the organisms depend on photosynthetic algae, living in their tissues, for the energy and oxygen needed to build.
But demystifying the Reef had its consequences. Farmers began petitioning to mine supposedly dead portions as a cheap source of fertilizer, and Australian government officials, in the 1960s, began talking not only of the "rational exploitation" of its minerals but of leasing its entirety for petroleum exploration. The Reef barely escaped being turned into "a quarry surrounded by an oil slick," as one of Mr. McCalman's subjects put it, before it was declared a marine park in 1979.
A little over a decade later, indigenous Australians were granted the right to petition for the return of traditional lands within the park, and some succeeded. Despite such victories, the Reef's survival prospects remain dubious. Half its coral cover has been lost over the past 30 years, and the worst may be yet to come. Ocean acidification—caused by the uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide—will prove lethal to coral rock if unchecked. Capt. Cook's labyrinth of terror could start to dissolve like "a giant antacid tablet," in the words of one reef scientist, as soon as 2050.
—Ms. Smith is the author of "Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers and Skulduggery."