Coral Bleaching: What have we told ourselves?

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Originality, Accessibility and Significance

I am fascinated by the links between history and communication. How we have perceived events through time has a far reaching and serious impact on an historical event. This was an historiographical concept I wanted to explore in my project. I combined my interest in environmental history and communications to create a project that studied a major environmental focus of the Australian Marine Conservation Society (ACMS) – The Great Barrier Reef – from a new angle.

My online essay, inspired by interactive essays made popular by The New York Times like “Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” and “Thirty Six Thousand Feet Under the Sea” analyses Australian public perceptions of incidents of coral bleaching in the last ten years.

I asked the following questions:

  • When did we understood the seriousness of these environmental events?
  • How did we interact with or approach them?
  • How did large scale media organisations – the press and social media – contribute to our understandings and beliefs?
  • How did industry and government change our perceptions and what role did politics play in dividing Australians on the issue?

My approach to this concept is theoretically original because it looks at a scientific concept through the perceptions of everyday people, making the essay both easily accessible to the average reader and complex enough for the science or history specialist to explore. The project is significant to the scientific community because it broadens their reach and makes a sometimes-inaccessible concept interactive. The ACMS will use elements of my website to further engage their current audience, but I also hope a more interactive study – like mine – will bring new audience members into their database.  


In my online project, I argue that the media had the largest impact on how we as Australians observed an increase in mass coral bleaching. I argue that the media contributed to the development of a politicisation of the events and created a damaging counterargument arguing that climate change and coral bleaching were not linked. Periodically, I argue that Australians started to recognise the impact of climate change on the reef after successive mass coral bleaching in the summer of 2016-2017. I consider the context of successive bleaching when analysing public perceptions and concur that the motivation to protect the reef was affected in the last five to eight years by competing interests and political messages.


My project is based on research conducted by experts in competing fields. I consider the intersection of varying disciplines – scientific, historical and communications – to be the best way to develop a holistic understanding. Resources include the (AMCS’s) extensive collection of newsletters, blogs and social media posts on the issue. I gained a lot of public insight from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the World Wildlife Fund and Climate Council who all hold annual public surveys on perceptions of the environment. There were many key secondary sources that assisted my research including Iain McCalman’s history of the Great Barrier Reef.

By using the “Way Back Machine” an online resource analyses web interactions, I conducted primary research I was able to pinpoint the key times when media focussed on coral bleaching and ask how this concept was being framed. Social media data analysis tools including Meltwater and SemRush also assisted my research. Through these programs I produced a keyword analysis on relevant phrases – “coral dying, coral bleaching” etc and considered how the media contributed to understandings of reefs.  

Themes and Presentation

My project shows how visual representations of coral reefs have impacted our understandings. It is a key theme that I hope to have made clear in the layout of my project. I have included images of coral bleaching, including those from The Ocean Agency[3], and two videos – one sourced from the NFSA titled “Will the Great Barrier Reef Cure Claude Clough?” The drama, filmed in 1967, reflects how old our connection to the Great Barrier Reef has been yet how detached we remain from our impacts on its health. The second video, sourced from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, highlights one of the Great Barrier Reefs most bizarre and beautiful moments: coral spawning. Ironically, this process, a sign of coral health, has been used by conservative media to diminish coral scientists’ warnings. I hope these clips also reflect my second major theme: that coral aesthetics have been one of the most important aspects of public perceptions of bleaching since the 1990s.

My final major theme is the relationship between industry, scientist, communicator and the public. I analyse how these competing groups, with their own opinions and agendas have reconstructed the zeitgeist around coral bleaching. Such a framework is the only way to understand who cares about coral bleaching and why so many still refuse to connect it to climate change.


This project will certainly broaden the number of people who interact with this issue. There have been almost 40 surveys completed on public perceptions of environmental change and degradation in the last five years and many are hidden in digital archives. My combined analysis of all these scientific and social research projects will bring a younger audience of university and high school students – not only interested in science but also in history and communication technology – to this issue. The ACMS existing database of the “Fight for the Reef” campaign has 75,900 subscribers and followers. By using this database as a launch-point, and incorporating visuals into existing research. I think this project will be hugely beneficial to the general public already interested in coral bleaching patterns.

Creativity and Sustainability

Though I was unable to develop oral histories around this project, I think the visual nature of this concept I’m exploring makes an interactive essay website the best possible platform for it. I would like to continue to build this project with the Marine Conservation Society and produce an accompanying Oral History series that would complement my existing research. I also thought a soundscape would make the project even more interactive. The AMCS are happy for me to continue to develop this project moving forward.

Saving the Reef’s future by looking backwards: A joint project with ACMS

The intersection between science, history and activism will be highlighted in my multimedia environmental history project with the Australian Marine Conservation Society (ACMS). It will explore how technology and historical analysis can benefit real world conservation work and assist ACMS to produce a detailed timeline of their historic impact.

Together with my supervisors Cat and Katie, I decided that it would be best for me to link my existing interests with a particular section or team in their organisation. This is something that would most benefit their organisation as well, knowing who to align me with throughout my project for archives and for further information. It would also give that section some concrete content for them to use in their work. All conservation work in this organisation is very site specific. I have decided to work with the reef team, based in Queensland who develop conservationist methods of communication to help to protect the Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs from climate change devastation.

In a meeting I suggested that given the visual nature of these reefs and the multi-sensory nature of the reef in general, I would like to produce a multimedia photo essay that would be accompanied by a range of multimedia tools including oral histories (recorded on my zoom recorder) and historiographic analysis text. This would be built into a webpage but would also be submitted to them as separate pieces of historical analysis which they have said they could either use as a whole or separate and use at different stages of their campaign.

The project will be a historiographic analysis of coral bleaching in Australia. Through a range of technologies, I will analyse how our opinions have changed regarding the coral reefs over time and when the media has really started paying attention. The project will be both a timeline (in part) and a visual history analysis, unpacking how images have impacted Australians with regards to Coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef have increasingly lengthened and gained severity since evidence first emerged in 2002.

Possible challenges moving ahead could include organising time to meet with science communicators (over the phone) for audio interviews and on a practical level, building the website which will require me to up-skill to a higher level of web development. Its an opportunity to improve my digital literary skills and explore how coral imagery can interact his historiographical analysis.

Cat and Katie have noted that they will put me in touch with the communication team in a couple of weeks so I am able to liaise with them about what will suite their existing interface and what kind of access I am able to gain to their archive of conservation work. She is also asking coral reef scientists if they would be comfortable being interviewed. In the meantime, I am reading the works of Ian McCalman (who I have spoken to about an environmental history/Communications honours) and Killian Quigley. I’m sure the Sydney Environmental Institute would be able to assist me in many other ways as well.

As this organisation is so acutely dependent on science communication, but so many of their staff are short of time to do deep history work on their organisation and its impacts as they work to improve the future for Australia’s coral reefs, I hope that my project will provide a new way of looking at the organisations work. Hopefully this will be an initiative that I can continue to develop with them over time and will create a precedent for the ways in which they can digitally communicate their impact through time. Kat has also mentioned that a history of reef conservation and bleaching will tie in well with the 40th anniversary of the Great Barrier Reef as well as being a big priority in the lead up to World Heritage deadlines and WH Meeting in 2022.

I hope that this work with ACMS will reflect the importance of multidisciplinary collaborations between the sciences, humanities and environmental NGOS of Australia and explore the remarkable effect this collaboration has already had. I am passionate about the work this organisation does and hope that my experience as an environmental documentary researcher will help me to assist this important organisation.