Charlie Veron: A Life Underwater

veron life underwater coverCharlie Veron: A Life Underwater

Penguin Viking, 2017

As has happened with other books, particularly where I have some personal connection to their authors, I have come across a published review which says what I would have said (and says it at least as well as I could have said it) and decided that it was better for me to quote excerpts than to write my own review.

The quotations below are drawn from the extended review by Tim Elliott for the SMH (you can read it in full here).

… Equal parts memoir, coral reef primer and requiem to a planet, [A Life Underwater] charts a career that could scarcely be imagined today, a love affair with science birthed from childhood wonderment, free-range academia and happy accidents.

… Veron’s achievements are, quite literally, unprecedented. He was the first to compile a global taxonomy of corals – a monumental task that effectively became the cornerstone for all later learning. He was the first to show that, contrary to received wisdom, the Indo-Philippines archipelago has the world’s greatest diversity of coral, not the Great Barrier Reef.

A Life Underwater is a very approachable introduction to reef science since it allows us to learn the science sequentially through Veron’s own journey of discovery. Continue reading “Charlie Veron: A Life Underwater”

Having kittens

It is an embarrassingly long time since my last post but a large part of the reason is that I was busy doing other good things, so I don’t feel quite so bad about the gap as I would otherwise have done. My major project was setting up the website for Kittens for the Reef, a cute video which I think everyone should watch:

Kittens for the Reef was launched on May 31 by one of its stars, Dr Charlie Veron (Fluffy couldn’t make it) at Townsville’s Eco-fiesta, an annual event which brings together all sorts of greenies. I attended and enjoyed it, as I have in previous years.

There is usually a new gadget or idea which catches my attention more than the others, and this year it was a cleverly designed and engineered portable solar power system from SolairForce. Continue reading “Having kittens”

Dredging the Reef to export coal

I try not to spend too much time on politically divisive issues here on Green Path but some are just too close to me, for one reason or another, to pass over in silence. GBRMPA’s recent decision to allow dumping of dredge spoil in Great Barrier Reef waters is one such.

Like many others I saw it as a betrayal of all that GBRMPA is meant to stand for. The very first sentence of the Authority’s self-description is, “The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is responsible for managing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park so it’s protected for the future.”  Similarly, the “Chairman’s message” on the site begins, “Our fundamental obligation is to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the World Heritage Area. We do this by striving to ensure all human uses of the Park are ecologically sustainable and that the ecosystem’s natural functions, especially resilience, are maintained,” and it ends, “Key issues for the Reef now are the effects of climate change and declining water quality, commercial and recreational fishing pressures, ports and shipping [my emphasis] and coastal development. Our challenge is to assess, advise on, and implement policies to ensure the cumulative effects of all these issues are not leading towards a long-term decline in the environmental quality of the Great Barrier Reef.”

Accordingly, we should all be able to expect GBRMPA to do everything it can to protect the Reef and feel entitled to some level of disappointment when it fails. But it was more personal than that for me, since I signed up as a volunteer at Reef HQ Aquarium several years ago, and the Aquarium is not just a tourist destination but (explicitly) the educational outreach facility of GBRMPA:

As the National Reef Education Centre for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Reef HQ Aquarium will open your eyes to an amazing world filled with thousands of charismatic marine creatures. … Reef HQ Aquarium was the vision of Dr Graeme Kelleher, a former chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). Dr Kelleher’s objective was to create the Great Barrier Reef on land, making the reef accessible and affordable while at the same time spreading the reef conservation message …”

When GBRMPA gave the go-ahead for the dredging I saw no alternative but to resign from the volunteers’ programme. I gave my reasons in a letter addressed the volunteers’ manager (with whom I have never had a disagreement) and cc’ed to senior management at Reef HQ and GBRMPA. It outlined the specific issues as clearly as I could manage and I see no reason why I shouldn’t cc it to the world, so here it is:

Dear J-,

I began working with Reef HQ as a way of doing my little bit to help the environment and I like to think that in my four and a half years I have made good use of my time, informing volunteers and, indirectly, the public about Reef science and the environment.

Over the last six months I have gradually become more and more concerned that GBRMPA was losing its integrity under pressure from the Abbott government. The weakening of guidelines on new port developments in October last year disappointed me and the associated allegations of corruption and conflict of interest at Board level worried me.

Then, in mid December, Greg Hunt approved the Abbot Point port expansion but set up GBRMPA to take some of the political heat by making his approval conditional on GBRMPA’s approval of the dredge spoil dumping.

At that time, we in Reef HQ were told very firmly that while we were wearing the uniform shirt we were to repeat the official line on Abbot Point and related matters. That also concerned me, since I do not believe that anyone should be asked to lie, or consent to being gagged, to cover up awkward truths.

GBRMPA has now given Hunt everything he so clearly wanted.

I realise that its terms of reference may have been extremely narrow, but at some point someone has to take a stand. If the terms of reference did not allow GBRMPA to address the real issues, GBRMPA should have made that abundantly clear to everyone, even while following good scientific practice and answering the question as given.

And what are the real issues? If the Abbot Point expansion goes ahead (as now looks all too likely), annual CO2 emissions from the Galilee Basin coal may be nearly twice Australia’s current total emissions, accelerating the climate change which is already destroying the Reef and the rest of the environment. The immediate impact on the Reef is comparatively (but only comparatively) trivial: run-off from the dredging and the port operations, and a constant stream of coal freighters through Reef waters. The dredging itself is the least of the problems and always was.

GBRMPA could have stopped all this, or at least made it clear that it opposed it. Instead, Russell Reichelt merely said, according to the ABC (, that the organisation was not pressured to approve the proposal and that the decision was based on relevant scientific data. “We do it quite dispassionately on the effects on the reef and we avoid being drawn into some of these misconceptions that I think do drive a lot of the public opinion,” he said.

I simply cannot continue to work within an organisation which is willing to trample logic, common sense and its own core responsibilities to whitewash such a disastrous decision.

I could say more and I will, but not here. I will take my skills, my knowledge and my undiminished passion for the environment to groups which are genuinely committed to minimising and mitigating damage to the environment and are not fatally compromised by GBRMPA’s submission to a rabidly anti-environment government.

That was submitted just over two weeks ago and I have seen nothing in the news since then to make me think my decision was unjustified.

On the other hand, I have seen the news that GetUp! is mounting a legal challenge to GBRMPA’s decision and I will support that here and now by commending their fighting fund page to my readers: here it is.

P.S. The Townsville branch of Wildlife Qld has just added an excellent post to its blog, sorting out the legal actions in progress to defend the Reef from this attack and others. It includes links to all the organisations involved, making it easy for readers to add their efforts to the campaign.

The Great Barrier Reef – a discovery guide

gbrcoverThe Great Barrier Reef – a Queensland Museum Discovery Guide

Principal author: Greg Czechura

Published by the Queensland Museum, 2013; 440 pp.; $59.95

This handsome volume joins a long list of books with the same title and similar contents. They have appeared every five years or so since 1968 and one might well ask why we need yet another. The answer is twofold: we know a lot more about the reef now than we have ever known before, and the photography has improved tremendously.

The visual impact of the newer books is stunning, and makes the older books (good as they were for the time) look very dull. The present book showcases outstandingly good images and many are further enhanced by black backgrounds – at a certain cost in legibility of the white-on-black text, unfortunately.

Colour photography 1968 (lower left) onwards
Colour photography 1968 (lower left) onwards

The publishers call their book a “discovery guide” and it falls somewhere between a reference book and a coffee-table book. An introduction leads into chapters on geology, habitats, corals, algae, sponges, cnidarians, etc, and then, in the last quarter of the book, the human history of the reef: indigenous history, European exploration, tourism and management. The chapter authors, mostly curators from the Queensland Museum, are experts in their fields but can’t give us much detail because most of the page space is allocated to pictures. I found myself happily browsing but rarely settling to read steadily, and I think most readers will do the same.

Older books
Reef books displayed
Reef books 1968 onwards

I will leave a full review to someone better qualified than myself. Meanwhile, Parish’s book (2007) at front left in my photo is frankly in the coffee-table category – lavish photography but minimal text. The Reader’s Digest book (1985, reprinted 1990 and maybe later) on the right of the back row is still available new, from Amazon if not locally. The earlier books cannot match their quality and in any event are probably no longer in print.

Reef Talks at the AFCM

Townsville – well, the part of it that I know best – is getting ready for the beginning of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, an annual event now in its 21st year or thereabouts. Its focus is of course the music, but it attracts many interstate visitors and it tries to give them a taste of the tropics while they are here. The Virginia Chadwick Memorial Reef Talk does so by combining two lectures on new Reef science with a ‘water’ themed concert. Here’s what the AFCM says about it:

Virginia Chadwick Memorial Reef Talk

Sunday 28th July, 2013 – 3:00pm C2, Townsville Civic Theatre

The Virginia Chadwick Memorial Reef Talk is a unique event and a Festival highlight. Science and music come together in a stimulating and moving combination. Leading research scientists in the tropical and marine sciences present fascinating findings and recent advances in Great Barrier Reef research supported with film and images. Music programmed by Piers Lane and performed by Festival artists completes an intriguing, entertaining and informative session for all ages.

Presentation 1: Dr Alvaro Berg Soto: ‘How to protect rare species of inshore dolphins in the Great Barrier Reef?’

Presentation 2: Dr Thomas Bridge: ‘The deeper we go, the less we know’ – exploring Queensland’s deep-water coral reefs.


  • Rachmaninoff – 12 Romances Op.114 No.11 Spring Waters
  • Schubert – Die Forelle D550 – Rosamund Illing and Piers Lane
  • Ledger – Processions – Australian String Quartet
  • Schubert – Piano Quintet in A major D667 (The Trout) – Andrew West, Dene Olding, Phil Dukes, Li-wei Qin and Kirsty McCahon

Adult $35, Member $28, Concession $30. Click here to book online or phone 07 4727 9797.