The Great Barrier Reef scandal

The Great Barrier Reef is threatened by the worst environmental disaster in Australia’s history after a ship ran aground. So why are giant coal carriers allowed to use this well-known shipping hazard as a shortcut?

On 11 June 1770, six weeks or so after becoming the first European to make landfall on the east coast of Australia, Lieutenant James Cook unexpectedly ran aground. His ship, the Endeavour, had struck a reef now known as the Endeavour Reef, within a manifestly far bigger reef system, nearly 25 miles from shore. Only the urgent jettisoning of 50 tonnes of stores and equipment (including all but four of the ship’s guns), a delicate operation known as fothering (in which an old sail was drawn under the hull, effectively plugging the hole), Cook’s expert seamanship and a great deal of hard pumping saved the vessel and her crew.

It would be another 30-odd years before the great Lincolnshire explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders, having circumnavigated the entirety of Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land, gave the vast reef system its name. But despite his astonishing success in charting a safe passage through its treacherous waters, mainly by the expedient of sending small boats ahead to sound the depths, Flinders himself was later stranded on it while heading home for England in 1803.

For nearly 250 years, the Great Barrier Reef has been a hazard to shipping. It is the world’s largest reef system, made up of more than 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands scattered over 344,400sq km off the coast of Queensland in north-east Australia. Covering an area bigger than the United Kingdom, it is also a priceless and unimaginably fragile world heritage site, home to 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises; six species of sea turtles; 125 species of shark, stingray and skate; 5,000 species of mollusc; nine species of seahorse; 215 species of birds; 17 species of sea snake; 2,195 known plant species and more than 1,500 species of fish.

And it is still a hazard to shipping. In recent years, its pristine waters, in theory protected by the statutes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, have become known as the “coal highway”, a busy thoroughfare for foreign-owned bulk carriers bound for Asia. Laden with coal and fuel oil from Australia, thousands of ships, such as the Chinese-owned Shen Neng 1, which ran aground off the country’s eastern seaboard on Saturday, continue to jeopardise the largest marine conservation site in the world. Last night, as salvage teams worked to prevent what would be the biggest environmental disaster in Australian history, environmentalists were not slow to accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the problem.

“This is the $60bn-a-year, largely foreign-owned coal industry that is making a coal highway out of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens party. “There needs to be a radical overview of this huge coal export industry, whether these ships need to use the reef at all, and what the alternatives are,” he said. Local fishermen have dubbed it the “reef rat run,” saying ships routinely take shortcuts to save time and money on their voyage to China.

It was this so-called shortcut, near the Douglas Shoal, off Rockhampton, that is believed to have caused last weekend’s accident. According to reports, the 230m-long ship, carrying 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal, was travelling at full speed when it hit a sandbank, in a protected part of the Great Barrier Reef.