Saving the Great Barrier Reef through a marriage of arts and sciences

Reef illustrations by Saville-Kent

They were an unlikely trio, but together poet Judith Wright, artist John Büsst and forest ecologist Len Webb waged a campaign that saved the Great Barrier Reef from being mined, culminating in its 1981 World Heritage listing.

For Iain McCalman, author of the award-winning The Reef – A Passionate History, their story showed not only that ordinary people can take on powerful forces and win. It demonstrated that a union of the arts and sciences – of sensibility and intellect – can have extraordinary impacts.

The Barrier Reef itself is a product of both nature and the human imagination, notes Professor McCalman, a cultural and environmental historian at the University of Sydney. And understanding that duality is crucial, he believes, if we are to combat the modern perils now threatening the Reef’s very existence.

His book tells the story of human engagement with ‘this colossus of nature’, and with the communities it sustains.

Beginning with Captain James Cook, whose ship Endeavour came to grief on a coral outcrop in 1770, McCalman reveals how different eras, ideas and values – economic, scientific and aesthetic – have shaped the Reef’s multiple identities.

For Cook, the vast coral kingdom was a ‘labyrinth of terror’. For Indigenous peoples, it was a ‘nurturing heartland’. For scientists, an engrossing mystery. For divers, a place of wonder and beauty. For artists, a source of creative inspiration.

Incorporating a mass of original research, the book presents characters such as William Saville-Kent, a distinguished marine scientist with a dreadful secret, and Ted Banfield, author of the early 20th century bestseller Confessions of a Beachcomber.

It was Saville-Kent’s photographs of living reefs, and his brilliant, hand-coloured drawings of coral and fish, that first opened people’s eyes to the Reef’s riotous beauty.

As for the Reef’s dwellers, the accounts of 19th century castaways whom they rescued helped to counter the prevailing view of Indigenous tribes as violent savages.

The Reef’s final story features the renowned coral scientist John ‘Charlie’ Veron, who stunned a Royal Society audience in 2009 with a warning that the world’s reefs face extinction within a few decades.

Such ‘wickedly complex’ challenges, McCalman believes, require humanities scholars to exploit their storytelling and visual skills to “persuade the public of the absolute importance of their engagement”.

With most of his own research projects, he collaborates with scientists and digital artists. The Reef spawned an award-winning website. The Sydney Environment Institute, which McCalman founded and co-directs, is multi-disciplinary.

The Reef inspired an approach to McCalman by residents of cyclone-ravaged Mission Beach, south of Cairns, where Büsst lived and planned the campaign with Wright and Webb. They told him they wanted to rebuild their community and tourism industry around the trio’s story.

With his help, they secured state heritage listing for Büsst’s home, Ninny Rise, and custodianship of the property. It is destined to become a centre for artists, and for reef and rainforest environmental research.

PHOTO: Illustration plate (CHROMO XI) from Kent, W. Saville (William Saville), The Great Barrier Reef of Australia; its products and potentialities, London: W.H. Allen, 1893. Via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (not in copyright).


Saving the Great Barrier Reef through a marriage of arts and sciences [pdf 149kb]
The Power of the Humanities full publication [pdf 2.2mb]

For further information contact:

Visit The Reef for more information on this research.
Address: 3 Liversidge Street
Acton, Canberra ACT 2601
Ph: (+612) 6125 9860
Fax: (+612) 6125 9142