The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.
With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.
The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.
At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.
The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.
This review originally ran in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.