Report from Underwater Worlds: Bringing the Reef into view

Killian Quigley recounts his experience visiting the Reef for the first time as part of the Underwater Worlds Project.

Image by Tchami

That morning, at five hundred meters, we’d phut-phutted by as a juvenile humpback leapt like an epiphany from the lagoon. Descending, we’d hailed One Tree, its tiny island taking sun while the rest bathed – sensibly, I thought – in electric aquamarine. We’d be buoyant in it, soon. Some hours after, the afternoon closing and the four of us back in the Dehavilland, vision was poor over the Queensland coast. We flew toward the sun as it declined, trailing as it did a glowing silver curtain, as if guarding the Port of Gladstone from view. Haling westward, it revealed the container ships, a muster of right angles in black and red.

Beyond and ashore, railroad tracks and power lines etched an anachronism in industrial chiaroscuro. Twilit, the Port, ships, and train cars were not unbeautiful, not exactly. But after a couple of days on the Reef, shaded by prop-rooted pandanus and octopus bush, swimming with fish called stout long tom and many-spotted sweetlip, it was Gladstone that looked alien, and strange.

It was the second of July, and we were returning to our point of departure, where we’d caught the Heron Island ferry fewer than 72 hours before. Last summer, I had the fabulous good fortune to join the Underwater Worlds Project, an international collaboration between researchers at the University of Sydney, RMIT University, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University. As I see it, Underwater Worlds is an attempt to come to grips with the ways human communities have understood, represented, and inhabited the undersea, It’s a huge undertaking – submarine space has been seducing, terrifying, and sustaining our bodies and cultures from time immemorial. It’s timely, too: as we become more aware of anthropogenic changes in underwater environments, we empower ourselves ethically to direct the course of our partnership with the ocean.

I’m a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee. I study the ways that ideas about aesthetics and science interact – sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds, always in dazzlingly complicated choreographies – to trace the things and lives we call nature. This is important, because words like “natural” and “unnatural” contain many and powerful meanings, meanings that shift between times, places, and cultures, and that have emphatically tangible consequences for the earth and everything in it. We have long understood that definitions of nature – and evaluations of its beauty – are dependent, to a significant extent, upon values that we humans project upon the world outside ourselves. Bearing this well in mind, I’m interested in how the world projects itself into our art, our language, our knowledge: ecosystems operate on us, as well as the other way around, and when we acknowledge this, our aesthetic knowledge and ethical consciousness expand.

I’ll give you a concrete example of what I mean, an example that has special relevance for Underwater Worlds and last year’s trip to Australia. About a hundred years ago, the American Impressionist artist Harry L. Hoffman took a trip to Nassau, where he painted some oils of the local coral reefs. Hoffman had trained and worked at the famous artist’s colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut (for much of the rest of his life, he’d live there, too), as well as in New York, Paris, Italy, and Spain. So by the time he arrived in the Bahamas in 1916, his painterly eye had been exercised by diverse persons, artworks, traditions, and places. His view was influenced by technology, too: for pieces like ‘Underwater Fantasy, Nassau,’ Hoffman used a water-glass, or water-telescope (basically a bucket with a glass bottom), in order to image the undersea.

Several years on, Hoffman joined the naturalist and author William Beebe on widely-publicized trips to the Galápagos archipelago, British Guinea, and Bermuda, as undersea artist on the expeditions. From early training at the Yale School of Art and the Académie Julian to water-glassed fantasies to celebrated scientific voyages: Hoffman’s example illustrates the fact that while we might be used to thinking about ecosystems, artworks, and scientific studies as incontrovertibly distinct, they are often riffing on one another, whether we choose to hear the music or no.

By my reckoning, a Nashvillian’s nearest ocean beach is on the Gulf of Mexico, in or near Pensacola, Florida. That’s about 700 km south of the Grand Ole Opry. Before coming to Australia, I’d spent much of June at home in Kinsale, on the south coast of Ireland, learning to scuba dive (in rather colder water) and reading up for the coming undertaking. For all that, it wasn’t long before I realized that my preparations had been inadequate: just before we chug-chugged into the harbor on the southwest end of Heron Island, we passed by Wistari Reef, and for the first of many times, I felt like a fool.

To my uninitiated eye, a fringing reef was a befuddling spectacle to behold, let alone describe. It was odd, first, to encounter a great submerged something, lying below the surface of the sea but shallow enough to nearly make out. When I think of it now, the word that comes to mind is “lurks.” The reef, I thought, was lurking. And then the colors – blues, solemnly dark, aquamarine, and emerald, but also browns, grays, and greens. They presented in rings and patches, signs of depth, death, and life that familiar landscapes – and my limited experience with the sea – had not previsioned. One of the things I felt in this moment was frustration – due, partly, to something about a green-headed graduate student feeling like a naïve idiot, but also to something more basic, and more productive: I was being confronted with a threshold of my aesthetic – and ethical – understanding of the world.

At Heron Island, One Tree Island, and in Mission Beach, on the Cassowary Coast, we’d spend our time working and talking with scientists, artists, and activists, in order to better understand the intellectual and educational potential of Underwater Worlds. From this distance, it occurs to me that looking at Wistari, I was beginning to realize that the Great Barrier Reef, and the undersea more generally, do much more than contribute to our aesthetic store, considered in terms of colors, images, forms, and so on. They also compel us to expand our understanding of what the aesthetic is – of what senses it involves, of what feelings it can entail, and of what life forms it touches.

The ferry ride ending, we motored past the rusted iron remains of the HMAS Protector, irreparably damaged during the 1940s and later reincarnated as a breakwater for the harbor. We stepped off the boat, and headed directly for the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station, where we met some of the people whose understanding of the Reef would do so much to enlarge ours. Touring some of the station’s laboratories, living quarters, and teaching facilities, I thrilled at the logistical and technological imagination it clearly took to run such a sophisticated operation at such a remote spot. Over lunch – which was startlingly good – we talked crown-of-thorns starfish, Reef-based teaching, and where we’d better head to make the most of the afternoon’s snorkeling. Someone mentioned they’d heard tell of a lemon shark who liked to patrol the Protector. As if obeying a summons, we cleaned our plates, grabbed our gear, and walked to the water.

Killian Quigley is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. For the current academic year, he is teaching at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, in France.