The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

Hamilton_06_14James Hamilton-Paterson at Literary Review:

Since 1770, when Captain Cook blundered into it in Endeavour and came to grief, Australia's Great Barrier Reef has gone from a navigator's nightmare through being a World Heritage treasure to its present status of moribund paradise. On the way it had to overcome its early 19th-century reputation as the lair of savage Aboriginals. Thanks to Cook's murder in Hawaii and lurid stories of cannibalism by survivors of shipwrecks on the Reef, the newspaper-reading public was cheerfully predisposed to view the 1,400-mile length of the Reef and the Torres Strait as a death zone to sailors, as fatally treacherous to ships as the spear-throwing locals were to their crews.

What did most to change the Great Barrier Reef's image was the interest scientists began taking in corals. The English naturalist Joseph Beete Jukes was the first to resist the popular stereotyping of the Reef and its inhabitants. He and his friend 'Griffin' Melville supplied lyrical descriptions of corals that greatly helped R M Ballantyne in writing his boy's Robinsonade, The Coral Island (1858), especially since Ballantyne had never been nearer the South Pacific than Canada. The science remained contentious. When Charles Darwin published The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs in 1842, he was the first to propose that corals could only thrive in water shallow enough for daylight to reach them and that the great limestone reefs that supported them, often to immense depths, were simply layer upon layer of former corals that had died as the Earth's crust beneath them had sunk over millennia.

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