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The Reef: A Passionate History Hardcover – 20 May 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scientific American (20 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374248192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374248192
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 2.8 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,297,557 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


[Iain] McCalman has written an innovative history . . .His approach is at once episodic and kaleidoscopic . . . McCalman's own passion for the Reef informs the book throughout, whether in his engaging account of sailing through it in a replica of Cook's HMS Endeavour, or in his concluding laments for its environmental degradation . . . For a work about such a vast topic--big in scale, big in its implications for how we hold a planet in trust--"The Reef" is a compellingly intimate account of human interaction with this slice of nature. "David Armitage, Los Angeles Review of Books"

By the end of McCalman's transformative book, we feel the full force of this slow-motion emergency. In story after story of fascination and trepidation, in revelations and in requiems, this passionate history brings to life the Great Barrier Reef's magnificent mutability. "Rob Nixon, The New York Times Book Review"

Reefs, like their terrestrial counterparts, tropical rainforests, are increasingly threatened by human activity; some already exhibit a marked decline. Like rainforests, too, they show exceptional biodiversity, a characteristic which is increasingly valued as an index of the wellbeing of our planet. It is this decline that makes Iain McCalman's "The Reef," on the discovery, history and future prospects of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, so timely. It is fascinating because of the wealth of information it contains on both familiar and unfamiliar topics. Andrew Campbell, "Times Literary Supplement"

A masterly biography of the Great Barrier Reef . . . Mr McCalman's sweeping and absorbing history is well timed. "The Economist"

Australia's Great Barrier Reef stretches for around 1,430 miles along the continent's northeast coast, encompassing an area roughly half the size of Texas. Those who have dived into its pristine reaches know firsthand that it is one of Earth's natural wonders--a coral world of exceptional beauty and diversity. Yet as Iain McCalman's "passionate history" of the reef makes clear, it is also a stage on which dreams, ambitions, and great human tragedies have been played out. He tells his story by chronicling lives that, either inadvertently or intentionally, have shaped our perception of the coralline labyrinth. "Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books"

[An] ambitious, elegant narrative of the Great Barrier Reef and its remarkably drawn-out discovery. "Jennie Erin Smith, The Wall Street Journal"

Iain McCalman's "The Reef," like its subject, builds slowly into beauty, offering an account of the Great Barrier Reef as it exists in culture, language and dream, as well as in marine biology. "Robert Macfarlane, The Observer (UK)"

McCalman's tone shifts from the boy's own adventure, scientific excitement and scamming of early encounters, to dizzying disaster-epic suspense. But never for a moment does his literary skill falter. His detailed explanation of marine science is a model of translation for the layman. And his respect for Indigenous people is a model of intercultural translation . . . He describes the Indigenous view of events without exoticising the individuals he talks to. Nostalgia permeates the book, for ancestral lands lost and for what we all might be losing now. "Miriam Cosic, The Guardian (UK)"

Splendid . . . [A] wonderful paean to the Great Barrier Reef. "David B. Williams, The Seattle Times"

An intimate exploration of the Great Barrier Reef . . . "The Reef" uncovers personal stories that weave together the biological evolution and human discovery of the Great Barrier Reef culminating in its current state--a World Heritage site in desperate need of protection. "The Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket, MA)"

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty. "Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness"

[Iain McCalman's] mission is to illuminate the reef's glorious complexity by recounting the stirring, wild, and surprising stories of fraught encounters between islanders and outsiders . . . [His] passionate history' is a call to save this fragile global wonder.' "Donna Seaman, Booklist"

McCalman loves the reef and fears for its future . . . [He] selects his subjects judiciously and writes with flair, creating a multifaceted portrait of one of the world's great wonders. "Kirkus Reviews"

Combining engaging accounts of early explorers with discussion of current scientific findings and their implications . . . McCalman's book will be enjoyed by the general reader, students at the undergraduate level, those interested in the history of science, and travelers to this magnificent region. "Judith B. Barnett, Library Journal"

Brilliant, beautiful, a hymn to the past, present and increasingly uncertain future of one of the world's greatest treasures. "The Reef "is necessary reading for anyone who cares about the future of the ocean. "James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers"

The Great Wall of China is dwarfed to nothingness, along with everything else proud humans have built, by the minuscule polyps that fashioned the Great Barrier Reef. That living reef, the world's largest, is in desperate trouble, the victim of climate change and a melancholy legacy of carelessness, indifference, and greed. "The Reef" is more than a lament; it is a brilliant history of our long interaction with this precious feature of our world, weaving together coexistence, terror, exploration, exploitation, scientific curiosity, and love. Iain McCalman has a rare gift for conjuring up both famous and forgotten lives and for awakening our wonder. "Stephen Greenblatt, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern"

Usually a subject of natural history, the Great Barrier Reef finally finds a place in a contradiction fundamental to the history of modernity: the desire to preserve nature while exploiting it for profit. With this book, Iain McCalman cements his reputation as one of the finest historians of our time. "Dipesh Chakrabarty, Professor of History, University of Chicago"

History doesn't get any more lively than this. A stylish, racing read, "The Reef" surprises with every turn of the page, investing one of the world's greatest natural structures with human drama. In almost cinematic episodes that veer from scientific epiphany to physical brutality, from the eighteenth century to our own conflicted age, Iain McCalman introduces an amazing cast of characters. In the process--and it's a very entertaining one--he creates an entirely new account of a natural marvel, couched in gripping historical narrative, both witty and rigorously scholarly, sweepingly grand and vividly detailed. "Philip Hoare, author of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea"

The magnitude of the awesome Great Barrier Reef is matched here by Iain McCalman's deep exploration of its compelling history and colorful ecology. An important biography of a fragile place. "Katherine Harmon Courage, author of Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea"

In "The Reef," Iain McCalman artfully weaves scientific inquiry and historical rigor into the life stories of twenty individuals. As we experience this extraordinary place through their eyes, we come away informed and inspired. "Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman's Lagoon and executive director of Mission Blue"

No other historian I know brings together exploration, science, the environment, and strange experience with the erudition and the eloquence of Iain McCalman. "The Reef" is utterly absorbing as well as richly informative. "Nicholas Thomas, director and curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge""

About the Author

Iain McCalman is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a historian, a social scientist, and an explorer. He is the author of the award-winning "Darwin's Armada," "The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro," and "Radical Underworld." A professor of history at the University of Sydney, he has served as the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the director of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. McCalman has also been a historical consultant and narrator for documentaries on the BBC and ABC, and has been interviewed by "Salon" and the World Science Festival.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Travelling in Queensland and snorkelling on the Reef, this provided an informed background read to understand both the biology but also the history, politics, artistic expression and current crisis. Highly readable and digestible in distinct chapters - much food for thought.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is no lecture focused on the nature of the greatest coral reef, but a swirl of human stories that ebb in and out across the oceanscape. Most of these accounts are full of pain, fear, or desperation, where lives have been tested or broken on the reefs, or broken people have found refuge, healing, and wonder of this glorious environment. As the rise of ocean temperatures and acidity threatens to erase this whole foundation of life, McCalman makes one of the finest appeals to love in the whole literature of human relations with nature.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A very interesting book and a novel approach to the history of a great Australian Icon, the Reef, being a series of stories about people closely associated with the reef in one way of another
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9c3d1cf0) out of 5 stars 28 reviews
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c1aa3d8) out of 5 stars important, insightful and a great pleasure to read 18 Nov. 2013
By Nigel Kirk - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
‘The Reef’ is a vast system of geological, aquatic and biological systems with a complexity that defies description. How then to write about it? McCalman synthesizes the disparate aspects of the Great Barrier Reef into a lively topic by chronicling human associations with the reef through twelve stories. He commences with the disastrous discovery of the reef by Captain Cook. Then stories weave in contact with the aboriginal inhabitants, integrating conservation knowledge and lore and the confrontation, constantly misreported at the time, between European and aboriginal cultures. Each chapter offers insights about human encroachment onto the marine, climatic and ecological systems of this vast landscape. And each chapter monitors that window of conditions that allow the existence for this fragile entity. The closing story of Charlie Veron, “Darwin of the coral”, provides a warm yet scientifically incisive discussion of the reef’s current status and its future.

McCalman is an academic historian whose considerable abilities offer the reader a thoroughly researched and balanced account of the reef and its human associations. He assembles anecdote, history and passion into an enjoyable book. Yet the strength of this book, as with his previous book Darwin’s Armada, is his narrative ability to place the reader in the world of the beach comber, the naturalist and the scientist. You can smell the sea breeze. His account of the original indigenous stewards of the reef and of the comparable attempts of more recent Australians is balanced and informative.

This review is of the hard copy of this great book, I cannot comment on the Kindle adaptation.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c1aa42c) out of 5 stars Nice sketches of natural history and Australian interaction with the Reef 23 Dec. 2014
By Montana Skyline - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Prospective readers should understand that this is neither a comprehensive history of the man's interaction with Great Barrier Reef nor a scientific exploration of the Reef. Rather, it is a nicely assembled and neatly written set of sketches, chronologically tracking a selection of interactions with the Reef that range from early (non-aboriginal) explorers and castaways to scientists and contemporary conservation activists. Along the way, McCalman provides some very nice descriptive writing and introduces us to a host of curious characters. Of course, the author has his favorites and points of view on topics ranging from misunderstanding of aboriginal inhabitants to climate change, and from near-saints to frauds and "hyena" politicians. It might be fair to say that the recent living fare better than the longer dead. Whether or not one shares McCalman's journalistic take (although he is a professional historian, this collection is more akin to high-quality journalism), it is an easy and rewarding read. If I don't quite share the enthusiasm of some rapturous reviews, I nevertheless enjoyed and learned from the book. I happily recommend it to anyone interested in a nice slice of Australian history laced with fascinating natural science.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c8cfca8) out of 5 stars Flotsam and Jetsam on the Great Reef 15 Oct. 2014
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This is not a history of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. As the author freely admits, this is a collection of biographical sketches or as the author would have it, "biograghical narratives" of twenty or so people who at one time another interacted with reef. Thus, this is really an old fashioned book in the line of books about the outcasts, adventurers and eccentrics who have washed up on pacific shores. The author is obviously a capable historian and the sketches are well written and well researched. There is an underlying current of science running through the book, but the scientific sections are the least interesting. The author does make a pitch for saving the reef, but this needs no argument: the reef is a beautiful natural monument and of course it should be protected. 0ddly, one of the curious (and usually unpleasant ) band of dissenters was a scientist who in 1925 claimed it's existence was the "greatest pity" for the people of
Queensland, Australia. This is an interesting and engaging book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c1aa6b4) out of 5 stars Less than expected.. 4 Dec. 2015
By JMking - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Great Barrier Reef is something many know exists but few know much about. In Iain McCalman’s book “The Reef a Passionate History” I felt intrigued when I looked at the cover and read the synopsis. Upon opening the book and reading the first few pages I what I was expecting and what I was reading were very different things. The book borders the lines of being a romantic novel from the prospective of a man enamored with tales from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I was expecting to gain some insight into the biology and possibly geology of the “three thousand individual reefs, more than nine hundred islands, and thousands of marine species”, as noted in the synopsis. Instead the book dove off into the love life and hardships of the people who tried to study and inhabit the numerous shoals, beaches, and banks of the reef. From the excursions of Captain James Cook, to the studies and preservation efforts of numerous different aristocratic misfits. The book became a rinse and repeat of the same struggle to inhabit the environment and develop an understanding of it with some aspect of romance and the occasional tumultuous skirmish ending in the death of a token character. I was less than enthusiastic to continue reading beyond the first few chapters once the common theme had been recycled. There are few books that grasp their audience and leave them wanting more and there are many that lose their audience after the first few chapters, unfortunately for Iain McCalman, “A Passionate History” was the later of the two.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9c1aa654) out of 5 stars I love David Attenborough 9 Dec. 2015
By sara s. - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
There is an old wives' tale that suggests one should never judge a book by its cover. The Reef is a classic example of said tale. The beautiful cover of intriguing coral is enough to convince anyone of interest that it will cover exactly what the front of the book suggests, Captain Cook to Global Warming. It does in fact cover Captain Cook and every estranged castaway the author could dig up from the lost historical pit that is the Great Barrier Reef.
The book begins with the authors’ own personal experience on the reef as a part of a crew assisting in sailing around the reef while National Geographic filmed a documentary. The authors’ admiration for this hunk of living beauty is beautiful and at times painfully thorough. His personal accounts are short and the rest of the book is summed up as, Many naturalists got the experience of a lifetime having the opportunity to set first eyes on the Great Barrier, its islands, its natives, and its animals.
The British Empire sent explorers, scientist and collectors all over the world to discover new lands and to map potential new routes. A number of these ended up in Australia. If there ever were examples of natives being misunderstood and then whipped out, oh wait, there are multiples. Well, needless to say, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia were in fact misunderstood by all with the exception of a couple of explorers, Jukes, for example.
Due to typical ignorance of mankind, many of those explorers had poor first impressions of the Natives. The white invaders posed a threat as they neither understood the natives’ natural resource management practices nor their cultural beliefs, thus there were many a feud to be had. [Insert copious spearing here.]
The book pressed on with its better chapters and characters with intermittent random tales in-between. As the title suggests, it is a passionate HISTORY, not necessarily a SCIENCE text book. Though, it does provide a pleasant landscape of early exploration and the excitement adventure holds. It touched on Darwin and Huxley and scientists to come, one who’s interested in the Great Barrier was merely to disprove Darwin’s theory of how reefs formed.
One of the larger portions of the book that stayed with me began with the never ending Eliza Fraser story in Chapter 3. She had been a part of a shipwreck as well as a rescue and upon her arrival home a fabricated story evolved of her having been attacked by an Aboriginal clan from the south end of the Great Barrier. This sadly led to future explorers with a falsified notion of the Aborigines. On one voyage a young artist named Oswald Brierly took it upon himself to investigate. He learned that the Aborigines did not have any predisposition to “unordinary” savage behavior. They had their beliefs and conflict usually occurred between clans breaking one another’s rules. Later on, Brierly did not publish his positive findings of the clans to avoid public scrutiny from another young castaway found amongst one of the clans during his expedition. This inevitably could have been the turning point for the future of the Aboriginal culture. Had more people been aware of their knowledge and way of life, maybe they wouldn’t have been so rudely displaced.
The book ended on a great chapter. Having begun with a delightful description of Sir David Attenborough’s ‘breathy’ voice, it’s a wonder the man doesn’t ever appear to run out of breath. Maybe the rest of this paragraph should cover Attenborough and not the book. The chapter was one I fully enjoyed, but it didn’t leave the audience feeling empowered to go out and FIGHT for the sake of the corals.
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