Report from Underwater Worlds: Seeking Buoyancy

Killian wraps up his journey on The Underwater Worlds Project, explaining the importance of allowing the Reef to unlock sensations

Giant clam, image by NOAA, via Unsplash.

This is the fourth and final instalment in a four part blog series on The Underwater Worlds Project, a research venture undertaken by The University of Sydney, RMIT, Stanford University and Vanderbilt University. The project explores how aquatic environments and the marine creatures who inhabit them were imagined, represented, explored, exploited and endangered.

I was nervous about touching the giant clam’s velvety mantle, and probably wouldn’t have, had I not been terrified of appearing timid. We were about fifteen or twenty swimming Ellison Reef, the less experienced among us herded by a cadre of fearless teenaged brothers, whose dad’s boat had brought us out from the mainland. One of them snorkeled alongside me, and then dove several meters to a monumental mollusk. He rubbed its finery, and a stately gurgle was audible as water spouted from the clam’s exhalent siphon and its shells shut heavily. They were plentiful, these frilly colossi, and my boardshorted guide, who was probably half my age, ushered me to another. I descended and gingerly ran the tips of my fingers along the mantle tissue, over, I suppose, the zooxanthellae algae that live there, transforming sunlight into sugar and protein. The clam was nonplussed, and my buddy moved along, smiling, in search of more vigorous caressers.

Ellison was marvelous, but it wasn’t as spectacular, or as immersive, as Heron, let alone One Tree. There was no island, and the swimming was comparatively challenging – we jumped off the back of a motorboat into water that was deeper and choppier than anything we’d encountered. But to grasp the story of the Great Barrier Reef, it was necessary to come here, off the coast of Mission Beach, to learn about people – and a place – without whom the Herons and One Trees might no longer exist. In the late 1960s, Ellison was at the center of a furious and consequential dispute between the Queensland government, who sought to mine the reef, and an eclectic group of pioneering conservationists, including John Busst, Judith Wright, and Len Webb. Their success in saving Ellison contributed enormously to the eventual creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which was set up in the proceeding decade.

The Reef is on such a scale – and of such overwhelming significance – that you’d be forgiven for assuming that it’s always been around, and always will be. A couple of days before visiting Ellison, we’d traveled to John and Alison Busst’s former home, at Ninney Rise, for “Rainforest and Reef – Conservation Stories,” an inspiring gathering of scientists, artists, tourism organizers, activists, fruit farmers, and teachers. There, where the Wet Tropics – they were wet, windy, and powerfully lush – meets the Reef, we were reminded that the things we call nature do not exist outside of history. Many of the voices we heard were those of local Queenslanders, women and men whose knowledge of their environment, their community, and the forces that shape them thrilled and humbled me. I met seventy-three-year-old June Norman, whose celebrated Reef Walk, completed over the course of eighty days the previous summer, had set her ambling twelve hundred kilometers from Cairns to Gladstone. I scribbled notes to expert discussions of mahogany gliders, melaleucas, cassowaries, and satinash trees. I heard disparate futures imagined, lamented, debated over, and celebrated. I ate black sapote cheesecake, and passionfruit curd.

In June of this year, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee held a meeting in Bonn, Germany. Among their tasks was to decide whether to relegate the Reef to the “List of World Heritage in Danger.” The deliberations reflected mounting concern with the ecological impacts of industrialization along the Queensland coast. Capital dredging, which involves removing huge portions of the sea floor in order to build things on it, or simply to make room for ships, has direct – and fairly obvious – consequences for marine life. Climate change, accelerated by coal dug from Australian earth and shipped from Queensland ports, has knock-on effects for coral reefs that are probably more destructive still. The Australian government lobbied aggressively against the Reef’s reclassification, appearing at times to curry inappropriate favor with the international press, and to dampen some perspectives on the Reef while promoting others. Conservationists urged their auditors to recognize the signs of a deepening crisis, some suggesting that the receipt of an “in danger” listing would be preferable to any validation of the status quo.

On July 1, the Committee announced that it had voted unanimously against reclassification. Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt was jubilant, insisting that Australia’s management of the Reef, current and planned, was a model that the rest of the world would do well to emulate. Critics of that management interpreted Unesco’s decision as a kind of probationary reprieve – state and national governments have made various promises to reduce damage to the Reef, and to reverse extant destruction, and progress reports are to be forthcoming. Assurances have been made that reckless coastal construction is at an end, but the Committee’s determination probably greenlights some of the very projects that first spurred it to parley. Many of us may apprehend the outcome with a sort of numb bewilderment – how are we to evaluate its justness, and what might we possibly do to engage?

One of the more impressive clichés we tell about the Great Barrier Reef is that it’s the only living structure on our planet that’s visible from space. It’s a fantastic thought, but it rings ironic when we realize how few of us see the Reef from earth. Maybe this is what’s inspired the World Wildlife Fund’s nascent Reef initiative, “See It, Save It,” which uses smartphones and virtual reality technology to plunge viewers into a variety of sites, such as Myrmidon Reef and Lady Elliot Island. With Underwater Worlds, we’ve been out to multiply the points of contact between readers, artists, scientists, and the undersea, and to share the stories that, like coral skeletons, have put us on our present footing. For my part, this involves exploring how ecosystems like the Reef can unlock sensations, feelings, and awarenesses that many of us never experience. This isn’t a matter of poking around for the next curious distraction. It’s about deepening and expanding our knowledge of this watery globe, and inviting the sea into our ethical consciousness. Biodiversity is an aesthetic, as well as an ecological, value, and it’s worth thinking seriously about where that value comes from, what it’s made of, and where it’s going. If we don’t know the ocean, we are as good as clueless, but we can learn it if and when we let it teach us how to swim.


Killian Quigley is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Read Killian’s first blog on Bringing the Reef into View, second blog on Saltwater Sublimity and third blog on Oceanic Thought.

Image: WorldFish via FlickrCommons