Book titles

The Reef – A Passionate History

Iain’s latest book, The Reef – A Passionate History will be published by Penguin Australia on 23 October 2013.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system. It can be seen from outer space, has been selected as a world heritage site and is labelled one of the seven natural wonders of the world, yet few know the social, cultural and environmental history behind it.

The Reef charts the shifting status of The Great Barrier Reef from labyrinth of terror to global treasure, in 12 extraordinary tales.


In 2001 a BBC TV re-enactment of Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage caused me to fall in love with the Great Barrier Reef and triggered the preoccupations that shape this book. I learnt, among other things, that the Reef was a product of human as much as natural history, built by minds as well as corals, or — to adapt what writer Robert Macfarlane says in his wonderful book Mountains of the Mind — I learnt how reefs are contingencies of geology and biology, and ‘products of human perception … imagined into existence down the centuries’. In the Age of the Anthropocene, where humans have for the first time begun to influence geological as well as environmental change, this ‘collaboration of the physical forms of the world with imaginations of humans’ has become especially salient.

Mine is a story of encounters between Reef peoples and places, ideas and environments over more than two centuries — beginning with Captain James Cook’s bewildered voyage through the labyrinth and ending with today’s searing mission by coral scientist John ‘Charlie’ Veron to warn us of the Reef’s prospective death.

I explore how the Reef has in the recent past been seen variously, and sometimes simultaneously, as a labyrinth of terror, a nurturing heartland, a scientific mystery and a fragile global wonder. I’ve written my stories of encounters between humans and this colossus of nature in biographical form. I explore the lives, thought and work of around twenty extraordinary individuals — men and women, Australians, Indigenous peoples, Britons and Americans — who’ve shaped our ideas and attitudes to the greatest marine environment this planet has ever seen.

I’ve focused mainly on three types of people: Western explorers, resource seekers and scientists who’ve investigated Reef environments; romantic beachcombers, artists, photographers and divers who’ve found creative inspiration in the Reef’s beauties; and Indigenous peoples and their adopted castaways, who lived on and cared for the Reef’s coasts, islands and seas before being dispossessed by Europeans. In the process I’ve come to realize that the passions and ideas of humans and the biological work of polyps and algae have together created the Reef, and they must work in unison if our planet’s greatest marine wonder is to live.



ABC Radio 612, 23 October 2013

ABC Classic FM, 28 October 2013
Midday with Margaret Throsby


Jennifer Moran, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 2013
No description or photograph quite prepares a swimmer for an unspoilt reef. At first glance it is astonishing; at close examination it is truly wondrous – the intricate forms, the colour, the fabulous variety of corals. Hung with painted fish and bathed in lucent water, it raises all kinds of questions about the nature of its creation and the methods of its preservation. A reef is not just prime real estate for turtles, fish or crustaceans, it is an ecosystem affected by human interaction and an affecter of the human imagination. It is that nexus – people and their perceptions of the most famous coral formation, the Great Barrier Reef – that interests Iain McCalman. Read more

Miriam Cosic, The Guardian, 29 October 2013
“[So] many historians inadvertently treat this phase of Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the southern hemisphere as if the Great Barrier Reef we know today already existed somewhere in the back of his mind,” writes Iain McCalman. He is a wonderful storyteller, his narratives propelled by lyrical writing, as anyone who has read his racy Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro and magisterial Darwin’s Armada will know. The pace is maintained here, by dividing The Reef into 12 separate stories, starting with Cook (it’s remarkable how many geographical features still carry the names Cook gave them) and Matthew Flinders’ marathon circumnavigation of the continent, including his competitive remapping of Cook’s observations. McCalman writes about European shipwreck survivors and the Indigenous clans they encountered. He documents a US scientist’s obsession with proving Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation wrong, reigniting the evolution controversy of the 1860s. And he ends with the life story of Charlie Veron, the marine scientist who frightened a hushed audience at the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society in London in 2009 with a powerful warning that the Great Barrier Reef is dying. Read more

Richard Bilkey, Fancy Goods Books+Publishing, 15 November 2013
Like the early explorers who sought to chart a safe passage through the Reef, McCalman’s narration expertly navigates the complex issues of exploration, colonisation, exploitation and conservation that are still facing us today. While Captain Cook may have seen the Reef as an impregnable natural ‘barrier’, we now know that coral communities are incredibly fragile and sensitive to environmental disturbances. Unsurprisingly, McCalman finds hope in the inspiring efforts of people living and working on the Reef, but one senses that the survival of the Great Barrier Reef relies on much greater action from all of us. Read more

Robyn Annear, The Monthly, December 2013
A coral reef, it seems, is an environment ripe for anthropomorphism. In The Reef: A passionate history (Viking Penguin, $45), Iain McCalman avoids the kind of racy analogies confected by Stacpoole and Banfield. Instead, he draws on the human history of the Great Barrier Reef for stories of reciprocity and conflict, of diversity, of hosts and hosted, of cultures in and out of balance – stories that reflect the vivid and complex biology of the Reef itself. The subtitle, “A passionate history”, is the key to the book. McCalman’s telling of the Reef’s human history is indeed moved by passion, making it a joyous read and a genuine revelation. Read more (login required)

Buy it online

Australia: Penguin Books Australia

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