“Life on The Reef” explores the beauty and complexity of The Great Barrier Reef over a year

I write about television because I love it, but the Masters degree I occasionally talk about is in environmental studies. So Life on The Reef was right up my alley. It’s also on at 7:40 pm on Sundays on the ABC, which is just before Broadchurch, which I’m still watching for some reason. Life on The Reef is directed and shot by Nick Robinson, who also directed Kakadu in 2013, and both docu-series are about more than just the organisms that live in these unique ecosystems, they’re about the people who live near and within them and work to protect them. Just as Kakadu has rich uranium resources that could be exploited, there are proposals to build a port on the Great Barrier Reef for the purpose of exporting coal. This demonstrates Australia’s priorities – the mining industry is more important than the environment – but luckily Robinson’s documentaries also highlight the eco-tourism industry in Australia.

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t just one ecosystem, or one reef, but many ecosystems and reefs that are intertwined and influence each other. Robinson focuses on sections of the reef, but also takes a holistic approach on how land use impacts the nearby ecosystems. Changing land use for agriculture (in this case the sugarcane industry) have led to nutrient enriched soils and increased runoff into waterways, and the water in some areas of the Great Barrier Reef have also become nutrient enriched. Consequently, there have been spikes in the populations of Crown of Thorns Starfish, in some cases leading to plagues. This is an issue because the Crown of Thorns eat coral, and have devastated parts of the reef. Robinson spends some time with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Rangers, who have surveyed over 1500km of reef to understand not only starfish numbers, but also the types and numbers of different corals in different sections of the reef so that they know where an outbreak would be the most devastating. Robinson understands that there is no such thing as a pristine environment, and that because of human impacts, humans need to intervene in order to control such outbreaks so that the health of the reef can be maintained and improved.

It would be impossible to make a documentary about such a vast area without touching on the interactions between humans and the environment, especially since so much of what people know about the Reef has come from researching it. There’s always a desire to know more about why things happen the way they do, and it’s fascinating. Much of Robinson’s work is made possible by the people who work on the Reef, and it’s through their cooperation and passion for their work that Life on the Reef is such a good documentary. The rangers guide Robinson through aspects of their job, and it is through their facilitation that he is able to get the fantastic underwater photography of coral spawning, watching a diver collect specimens at 70 metres below sea level and watch volunteers survey numbers of the Wedge-tailed shearwater on Northwest Island.

As much as I learned watching Life on the Reef, I also experienced its beauty, which was wonderfully captured by Robinson’s direction and cinematography. On Northwest Island, he saw a critter of some kind walking along the ground and just trained his camera onto it after he’d been looking at muttonbird nests. There were shots of birds flying above the islands where they nested, and newly hatched green sea turtles making their way to the ocean for the first time. There were slicks of egg and sperm moving with the currents on the surface of the ocean and bioluminescent sea creatures observed under a black light – both were as beautiful as each other in separate ways, and it’s down to Nick Robinson’s fantastic eye, and I’m so excited to see his next documentary.

Other thoughts

  • I have about five pages of notes that I took while watching Life on the Reef for my own research.
  • Some of the other interesting topics I didn’t touch on are Project Manta on Lady Elliot Island, the revival of the Reef’s dugong population and the whale diving tours (watch the third episode just for the diving tours.
  • I was away when the second episode of the series aired, so I caught up on iview, which is good most of the time, but this is a documentary that benefits from being watched in HD, so take advantage of that.

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