During my first week on the job as Director of the Australian Museum, in April 2014, I had to support the evacuation of a tropical island on the Great Barrier Reef, 240 km north of Cairns and over 2,000km away from my office in downtown Sydney.

There’s nothing quite like a Category 4 cyclone to trigger your immediate appreciation of Australia’s oldest museum’s operational responsibilities.

Cyclone Ita’s 158km/h winds hit the AM’s Lizard Island Research Station (LIRS) – and all its marine research staff, students and visiting teams – at 6.30pm on a Friday afternoon.

Founded in 1973 by one of my predecessors, the inspirational Dr Frank Talbot, who was Director of the AM from 1966-75, and led for the last three decades by the inimitable Drs Anne Hoggett AM and Lyle Vail AM, everyone on LIRS was swiftly and safely moved out of harm’s way.

However, the Great Barrier Reef was impacted and its Ribbon reefs in particular suffered from the ferocity of those 2014 storms. In the years following, particularly 2016, 2017 and 2020, huge impact coral bleaching events occurred, also due to significant heat stress.

Aerial view of Australian Museum Research Station & Blue Lagoon Image: Charlie Shuetrim
Aerial view of Australian Museum Research Station & Blue Lagoon Image: Charlie Shuetrim Image: Charlie Shuetrim
© Charlie Shuetrim

This year we celebrate 50 years of the AM’s LIRS, a globally-recognised research station devoted to understanding the incredible scale and structure of the Great Barrier Reef which can be seen from space. Thousands of international marine scientists from all over the world have been trained on or conducted valuable research on Lizard Island. Around 100 research projects are annually conducted by some 400 scientists and support personnel – what a place to discover and learn! In the past half century 2,700 scientific publications have been produced from work conducted at LIRS with film crews regularly using it as a base for quality climate engagement documentaries, opening minds with arresting visuals that move us to act.

Co-Director, Anne Hoggett, was our esteemed Speaker for LIRS, and for the reef, at this year’s Talbot Oration, “Coral Reefs in Hot Water” on Wednesday, 31 May, the third in the AM’s ‘Spotlight’ lectures on critical environmental issues.

The reef immediately needs the same level of care as we gave to our teams when we got that call about Cyclone Ita approaching… to be fully protected, without further equivocation.

As Anne and Lyle say, the threats remain many and constant.

Unless carbon emissions are reduced and brought under control – which means government and industry action – the other solutions to combat silt and nutrient runoffs, plastic pollution, overfishing and physical damage to reefs are diminished.

Lizard island Research Station May 2023

Anne Hoggett AM and Lyle Vail AM on Lizard Island in 2023.

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

In its own way, the Great Barrier Reef is almost too famous, too stellar, too much ‘part of the furniture’. Corals are animals too. We must get even more serious. We must move Great Barrier Reef’s place in the climate conversation on, and fast.

Australia’s First Nations peoples have long illuminated Caring for Country, to being innately interconnected with the natural world, on land and sea. Denial and fear are part of the natural understandable responses in the human psyche and by extension, our culture, to what seems too big to absorb – something like losing the reef, for example. Rebecca Huntley, who gave last year’s AM Talbot Oration: Inspiring Visions for a Climate Solution, eloquently outlined how we might absorb and re-frame our emotional responses toward simply having conversations with each other about taking action on climate change – regardless of where we are in our attitudes toward it.

Anne and Lyle and LIRS’s staff and partners – including the dynamic Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation – have carried on in a spirit of hopefulness for 50 years, redeveloping this internationally-renowned coral reef research facility and reaching new audiences with ever more ways of ‘knowing’ coral biology. And while there’s no dearth of effort or hope, safe recovery and long-term repair can happen only with protective, pragmatic action.

Simply put, and as Anne outlined on Wednesday, we need everyone to:

  1. Speak up about climate action as a personal priority.
  2. Advocate for pristine, full protection marine parks and ocean conservation.
  3. Adjust your own behaviour locally. So, come along and help us help the reef!