In their recently published essay collection, Dr Pat Hutchings (Australian Museum), Dr Sarah Hamylton (University of Wollongong) and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (University of Queensland) delve deep into Australian coral reef history, ecology, management, First Nations cultural significance, and future.

Australia’s coral reefs are unique, ancient and continue to fascinate tourists, scientists, conservationists and many alike. But Australian naturalists have only just begun to unravel the origins, diversity and challenges facing the long-term survival of our reefs. A recently published book edited by Dr Sarah Hamylton, Dr Pat Hutchings and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg explores our evolving relationship with reefs and highlights what you need to know about Australian coral reefs. Coral Reefs of Australia: Perspectives from beyond the Water’s Edge includes essays by 91 contributors and authors, arranged in eight chapters bringing together the diverse views of First Nations peoples, geologists, biologists, managers, artists, historians, and conservationists.

The reef at Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island, the cover image for Coral Reefs of Australia: Perspectives from beyond the Water’s Edge.

Image: Matt Curnock
© Matt Curnock

The book covers a vast geographical scope: 50,000 square kilometres, from the Indian Ocean’s Cocos (Keeling) atoll in the west, to the Pacific Ocean’s Lord Howe Island in the east. The core focus of the book is how we interact with coral reefs, focusing on First Nations culture, coastal livelihoods, exploration, discovery, scientific research and climate change. Here, Dr Pat Hutchings and Dr Sarah Hamylton highlight some of the key themes in this important compendium.

Changing perspectives and evolving relationships

Reefs were once viewed as perilous nautical hazards by early colonialists, but a shift occurred in the early 20th century, in London. The Great Barrier Reef Committee was created in the 1920s with a purpose to explore and understand the vast Australian coral reef. A major research expedition by the Committee to the Low Isles on the Great Barrier Reef was undertaken in 1928-29. This started an era of empirical and experimental reef science. In the 1980s, this Committee became the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS), and ACRS celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2022. As the oldest coral reef society in the world, ACRS has enabled Australian scientists to play a critical role in international coral reef science and management. The establishment of research stations like the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station allows researchers to study the reef’s diversity, faunal behaviour, and to monitor changes over time associated with climate change. Reefs are now also home to industry (such as the Western Rock lobster industry) and tourism.

Lizard Island Research Station Aerial Panorama 14 May 2023

The Australian Museum's Lizard Island Research Station, 2023.

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Fundamentals of coral reefs

Reefs and their associated fauna are connected, yet complex. Reefs consist not just of corals, but also inter-reefal areas, mangroves, seagrass beds and more. Coral reefs are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, yet they live in nutrient poor “blue deserts”. Corals have evolved to thrive in these environments in partnership with zooxanthellae, which provide corals with energy while the zooxanthellae utilise the coral’s waste products and gain a stable home. This symbiotic relationship is finely tuned to the environment and very sensitive to changes in water temperature and alkalinity.

Of key importance to the reefs are the phenomenon of mass coral spawning (imperative in connectivity and reef renewal), the intensity and duration of cyclones, and the animals living in the reef. Reefs are dominated by invertebrates, as well as sharks and rays in addition to charismatic dugongs, whales, turtles, and crocodiles.

Reefs also have a deep history. A little-known fact is that today’s coral reefs sit on top of a series of ancient reefs that were exposed and killed during periods of low sea level. In order to unlock this history, detailed scientific drilling has been undertaken on the Great Barrier Reef. In this compendium, authors provide detailed diagrams to show how sea levels have changed over the past 20,000 years. Although the Great Barrier Reef is typically where our minds go when thinking of Australian coral reefs, it is important to also consider the tremendous variety of islands associated with the reefs, which are also featured in this book.

This crossing the "Blue Highway" image shows the habitat used by the fish called the red emperor. These fishes are not restricted to one reef. Adults spawn at outer reefs, and larvae are transported and swim to inshore habitats such as estuaries and seagr
This crossing the "Blue Highway" image shows the habitat used by a fish called the Red Emperor. These fishes are not restricted to one reef. Adults spawn at outer reefs, and larvae are transported and swim to inshore habitats such as estuaries and seagrass beds. Juveniles move offshore to reefs and inter-reefal habitats before they mature. Image: Russell Kelley
© Australian Coral Reef Society, BYOGUIDES

Conservation and management of reefs

Central to this book is highlighting the importance of First Nations peoples in conserving reefs. As the first and continuing custodians of our reefs, the importance of this role and the importance of reefs to culture is outlined by Traditional Owners in this edition. Likewise, the critical threats of climate change have elevated the importance of conserving and managing reefs. This is the focus of the final chapters, including for Ningaloo and the Coral Sea.

In recent history, various organisations from NGO’s to museums have contributed immensely to awareness of the value of corals reefs and the threats these ecosystems face. However, there is still a long road ahead. In the face of multiple threats, the authors explore how and if reefs may be rehabilitated and restored. For example, can research develop super corals which can cope with warmer waters? Can experimental work breed corals resistant to bleaching events? These topical issues are discussed with contributions from First Nations peoples, researchers, non-government organisations and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations.

Coral Bleaching Lizard Island

Can we develop super corals which can cope with warmer waters?

Image: Dr Lyle Vail AM
© Australian Museum

This book covers many disciplines and is designed to be browsed by anyone who is curious about coral reefs, as well as coral reef researchers (and is available to purchase in the Australian Museum gift shop). An extensive reference list is provided, so the reader can delve into the relevant literature. While some stories are challenging to read in the face of significant threats, there is much to celebrate about the beauty, diversity and importance of our coral reefs, and reasons to be optimistic. We can all contribute to the long-term conservation of coral reefs!

Dr Pat Hutchings, Senior Fellow, Marine Invertebrates, Australian Museum.

Dr Sarah Hamylton, President of the Australian Coral Reef Society; Associate Professor, University of Wollongong, NSW.

Meagan Warwick, AMRI & External Partnerships Coordinator, Australian Museum.

More information:

  • Sarah M. Hamylton, Pat Hutchings and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg eds. 2022. Coral Reefs of Australia. Perspectives from beyond the Water’s Edge. CSIRO Publishing.
  • Hamylton, S., Hutchings, P., Sims, C., Ward, S. 2022. The Australian Coral Reef Society: the last 40 years of a century working with Australia’s coral reefs. Historical Records of Australian Science, 34(1), 1-18.
  • Hutchings, P., Brown, B.E., Byrne, M., Hamylton, S., Spencer, T. 2022. The remarkable contribution of ten remarkable women to Australian coral reef science. Historical Records of Australian Science, 31(1), 19-35.