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Originally published Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Reef:’ 20 stories of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Iain McCalman’s “The Reef” is a splendid natural history of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, told through the stories of 20 people who were profoundly affected by it.


Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Reef — A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change”

by Iain McCalman

Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $27

“Here began our troubles,” wrote James Cook in his journal of June 10, 1770. Unbeknown to him, he had entered into the 1,430-mile-long Great Barrier Reef. For the next six weeks, Cook faced constant obstacles as razor-sharp corals, unpredictable currents and narrow passages nearly sank his ship several times.

Cook’s adventure was not an auspicious introduction for what is now recognized as one of the world’s most astounding ecosystems. Fortunately, those who followed came to understand, appreciate and marvel at the Reef.

In his splendid new book, “The Reef — A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change,” Australian historian Iain McCalman, author of the underappreciated “Darwin’s Armada,” has written what is in essence a geographical biography. By telling the stories of 20 people who encountered and were profoundly affected by the Reef, McCalman reveals how our understanding of the Reef reflects our understanding of the wider world.

My only complaint is the lack of maps. In a book filled with place-based details, you would think there would be more than just one, single modern map.

McCalman’s earliest stories highlight our fears of the unknown, not only of the physical features but also of the people, as exemplified by Eliza Fraser’s highly suspect tale of cannibalism and savagery among the reef-dwelling Aborigines, which unfortunately influenced how people viewed the Reef for decades.

But then came people like naturalist Joseph Jukes, the first to paint a positive picture of the complex community; William Saville-Kent, the first to photograph and show the true beauty of coral; and Ted Banfield, who wrote of a Thoreau-like existence on an isolated isle.

Although there would be many like these three, not until the 1970s did others find success in protecting the fragile ecosystem. As with so many other places, however, climate change is threatening to undo the web of laws and regulations designed to protect the Reef, and its future is uncertain.

To his credit, McCalman chooses to end his book on a positive note by focusing on people and their relationship to the Reef. He compares it to the symbiosis between the algae and polyps that form corals. “If anything can inspire us to prevent this [impact of climate change], it’s that very partnership itself,” he writes.

In a place that has so strongly influenced us, perhaps we can return that gift and make a positive influence on it. A good way to begin is with McCalman’s wonderful paean to the Great Barrier Reef.

Seattle author David B. Williams’ latest book is “Cairns: Messengers in Stone” (Mountaineers Books).



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