“THIS story has no beginning and no one knows what its end will be,” wrote poet Judith Wright of the Great Barrier Reef in her 1997 book Coral Battleground. Though written more than three decades ago and focused on documenting that era’s campaign to protect the reef from oil and gas mining, that line and the rest of Wright’s insightful book remain just as relevant today. The remarkably diverse natural wonder is the focus of this stunning three-part series. It comes from the team behind the 2013 award-winning documentary series Kakadu, the four-parter following the heavily armed rangers who patrol the flood plains and ancient sculptured escarpments of Australia’s largest terrestrial park. Much of Kakadu was filmed with hand-held cameras by embedded fly-on-the-wall operators travelling with the ranger units. The storytelling was driven largely by the commentary of these units, who turned back to chat or comment to camera, and by the actions of those with whom they came into contact.
Life on the Reef, narrated with just the right kind of weathered-voiced Queensland insouciance by actor Rupert Reid, is more cinematically conventional but has the same understated, but deeply held, politics at its heart. The reef is still under attack, now from increased threats of climate change and approvals of projects such as the Carmichael coalmine.
A World Heritage site since 1981, the reef is famously the only living structure that can be seen from space. Described by astronauts as “a thin white line in the blue ocean”, the reef covers a total area of 344,400sq km — larger than Switzerland, The Netherlands and Britain combined. Like Kakadu, Life on the Reef focuses on the aesthetic beauty of the subject but also significantly on the people who call it home.
There’s an Aboriginal family that has lived off the sea for generations; an enthusiastic diving instructor and naturalist from Ireland; a critical flight paramedic for Queensland Ambulance Service; and a team of scientists desperately trying to protect the nesting ground of the endangered green sea turtle. These people are described by our soothing narrator as those seeking the “crucial balance between economic and ecological”, though the series is not afraid to get a little bit more political.
We are reminded that a thriving ecosystem such as that of the incredibly diverse reef is extremely delicate. Biologists calmly explain the innumerable conditions that must be met for coral growth and species survival. These explanations are accompanied by soaring overhead shots of the picturesque coastline and islands, and remarkable underwater scenes of the brightly coloured fish and coloured coral that thrive beneath the surface.
The photography of series director Nick Robinson, Luke Peterson and Jon Shaw is spectacular, much of the filming done in challenging environmental conditions beneath the surface. The divers are sometimes surrounded by huge tiger sharks taking advantage of the green sea turtle rookery on the reef’s most protected place, Raine Island.
“Save the Barrier Reef” was the first bumper sticker used in Australia, and unfortunately, as this series so poignantly reminds us, it remains a necessary sentiment today.
But Life on the Reef is also a testament to the enormous power of nature, showcasing the reef’s deft adaptations from season to season and the strength of many of the creatures that dwell there.
The series is a reminder that our premier storytelling medium has become the primary source of encounters with the natural world. It’s easy to get the impression these days that nature really only exists so that it can entertain us on television. It’s the only place most of us will encounter wild animals, as we do here, or for that matter the natural world itself.
The series may well boost the numbers (already 1.6 million per year) of tourists visiting the reef, determined to witness for themselves the area poet Kenneth Slessor described so marvellously as: “Flowers turned to stone! / Not all the botany / Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole / Could find the Latin for this loveliness”.