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