Great Barrier Reef Stories, Chapter 3:
Reef Music

'A New Zealand Tui' by Cat Burton. Sourced from Flickr Commons

I’m not a marine biologist, or a coral reef ecologist. My Ph.D. is in literature, and my research focuses on cultural histories of environment. When I write, my subjects typically include writers, visual artists, and philosophers. How does this kind of work pertain – how can it be made pertain – to biotic phenomena of pressing contemporary concern, like the correlation between plastic pollution and coral disease in the Asia-Pacific region? One answer lies, I think, in articulating new ways to understand and articulate these phenomena – ways that rely, say, on metrics other than quantitative scientific surveys, and on language other than biodiversity and ecosystem health. So for instance, I like thinking about environments – not least the Great Barrier Reef – in terms of their aesthetic properties, by which I mean the things they offer to our senses: their distinctive forms, colours, textures, and so on. (I talk about this quite a lot in an upcoming Open Learning Environment course here at the University of Sydney, “Global Ethics: The Great Barrier Reef.”) The idea isn’t that the aesthetic stakes are more important than the ecological ones – rather, it’s that by thinking seriously about the relationship between sensory richness and biological vitality, we might give ourselves new ways of perceiving, and feeling, the globe and its lives.

But I’m increasingly mindful of gaps in my thinking. Above, I summarise the sensory by referring to sight and, to a limited extent, tactility. What about hearing, taste, and smell? I realise that I’m half-wittingly practicing what media scholars might call ocularcentrism, or visualism. This habit of prioritising vision has an august history in European thought: we can recognise it in the classical Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and in countless other sources besides. Contemporarily, much of the language deployed to describe the Reef – and to make appeals for its protection – relies on visual superlatives: on claims that it’s “the largest living structure in the world,” the “only living thing on earth visible from space,” and so on. Assertions like these are mighty, and inspiring, but they leave a great deal of room for other sensations, and for other scales: how best to describe the Reef’s nonvisual particularities? Could getting in touch (ahem) with them make us more likely to relate viscerally to the Reef, and to care for it?

I’ve been preoccupied by audition lately, thanks to a few felicitous encounters. I recently heard a memorable interview with David George Haskell, biologist and author of The Songs of Trees (2017). Haskell argues that biodiversity is something it’s possible to train ourselves to hear. This can happen, for example, by tuning in to raindrops falling through the diverse plants that make up a forest canopy: “each leaf,” Haskell says, “is revealing the particularity of its form.” And my own auditory attention was exceptionally roused, a few weeks ago, during a walk in Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, in central North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) New Zealand (Aotearoa). SMM is a fenced, 3400-hectare “ecological island” which aims to approximate, if not actually recreate, “the pre-human New Zealand environment.” This sort of undertaking – some might call it “rewilding” – seems to me imbued with a complex mixture of salutary ecocentrism and faintly troubling nostalgia. But sonically speaking, I can say that the place is marvellous. I came away fascinated, above all, by the tūī (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), an indigenous mockingbird with a song that seemed, to me, like a beautiful, meandering, musical experiment. Finally, I was privileged, last month, to participate in What Lola Heard: Theatrical Sounds from Climate Change, where improvisational music scrambled my senses, rendering me thrillingly aware of the power of unexpected arrangements of sound to reorganise my world.

What does the Great Barrier Reef sound like? An arresting new article describes and interprets the underwater soundscape around Lizard Island, in the Reef’s northern stretches. (Australian artist Janet Laurence’s 2016 installation, Deep Breathing (Resuscitation for the Reef), was inspired by her time at Lizard; I wrote about it here.) Jamie McWilliam and his co-authors identify six distinct “fish choruses” in the surrounding reefs, and observe the “distinctive spatial and temporal patterns” they express. For instance, by listening for, and noting, particular bioacoustic figures, the researchers gained insight into fishes’ habits of movement, and indeed their “site fidelity.” These reefs are, in other words, geographies laden with meanings, meanings that are sensed and experienced differently by different creatures: “by no means,” as Deborah Bird Rose has written, are humans “the only creatures to form attachments to place.” Nor, for that matter, are they the only creatures to compose their lives in time: McWilliam and his collaborators report “a broad range of periodicities” evident in the choruses, as fishes swim and sing rhythmically, and in response to “environmental variables” like “temperature and moonlight.” Through listening – through counterintuitive unfoldings of sensory regard – fish-worlds, reef-worlds, and the tantalising horizons they suggest become suddenly, wonderfully available to our minds and our imaginations.

Of course, human beings are in relationship with those fish- and reef-worlds, rarely though many of us think of them. And while some field recordings provide stunning, and practically – never entirely – unmediated, impressions of the sounds of underwater worlds, it’s important, too, to acknowledge what an embodied person actually hears on the Reef. Take scuba diving, for instance: as Michael Adams writes in an award-winning essay on freediving, breathing through pressure regulators is a noisy business. Personally, I appreciate the way the bubbling makes me unusually aware of my respiration – but I understand how it can seem like so much sonic interference. As for external stimuli, humans are bound to hear certain things very well underwater, and other things markedly less so – to say nothing of the possible impacts on the ears from water pressure, and indeed barotrauma. But maybe these hindrances and imperfections make up precisely what’s worth mulling – worth sounding, as it were. Because hearing the Reef mustn’t amount to reducing and rationalising it, to receiving sounds as mere novel additions to our old collecting cabinets. Better instead to listen in a spirit of humble and ecstatic wonder, to sense the exquisite unreachable, to hail places, movements, times, and lives impossibly beyond our comprehension, and infinitely worthy our respect.

Killian Quigley is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at SEI. Share your impressions of these stories – and of others – with him on Twitter at @killian_quigley and via e-mail at  killian.quigley@sydney.edu.au. He’s got more new writing in the latest print issue of MAKE. He recently saw some dolphins in the Bay of Islands, read this, and wondered who they saw in him.