Changing beliefs about the past and future of the Great Barrier Reef

Dr John (Charlie) Veron1



Fortunately, scientific interest in the Great Barrier Reef has undergone radical changes. The big question – its age and origin – remained in geological hands for nearly a century, culminating in a major drilling operation in 2000 which triumphantly announced that the northern Great Barrier Reef had a Late Pleistocene origin. That is an impossible proposition. Biological research, almost totally neglected, overtook geology from the 1960s, stimulated by well-known and dire political battles. However, when The Reef became World Heritage listed in 1981, most of the experts had to be imported from the US and UK. Belatedly, Australia was motivated to take control of the conservation and management of its greatest natural asset. Key questions focused on corals: their taxonomy, ecology, physiology, and distribution: the what? where? and why? of reefs. By the turn of the century, these endeavours were gradually being overtaken by the impacts of climate change. Once again, Australia was slow to acknowledge both climate change and the threat it posed for The Reef. The outcries of reef scientists have now gained general acceptance, but The Reef is now in catastrophic decline. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, given Commonwealth Government funds to provide remedies has been a monumental failure. It is now too late to keep the Great Barrier Reef in anything like its former glory and it will soon be too late to save most of its corals from total extinction.


Has three higher degrees in different fields of science: reptilian physiology, insect neurobiology and coral taxonomy.

Was the first full-time researcher on the Great Barrier Reef and the first scientist employed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science. He became Chief Scientist of that organisation in 1997, a position he held for 7 years.

Has 100 publications on almost anything to do with corals from palaeontology, taxonomy and biogeography to physiology and molecular science. He has also published widely on other subjects notably evolution, mass extinctions, more recently, a major website. His best-known publications are:

    • The five volume monograph Scleractinia of Eastern Australia which created the basis of a new, now universally used, coral taxonomy.
    • Corals in Space and Time (Cornell, 1995)
    • The three volume Corals of the World (2000).
    • Coral ID, CD-ROM (2002).
    • A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End (Harvard, 2008).
    • org (2016) a compilation of all taxonomic and biogeographic information about corals.
    • Autobiography A Life Underwater (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Veron was awarded the Darwin Medal for his work on evolution, the AMSA Jubilee Pin for his coral taxonomy, the Australasian Science Prize and other wards for various publications. His last award was for Lifetime Achievement from the American Academy of Underwater Science.

Veron has named about ¼ of the world’s coral species, and mapped and re-described them all. This work has underpinned most major reef conservation initiatives over the past two decades including the ‘Coral Triangle’ which he discovered.

He has been diving continually since he was 18, logging 6000 hours underwater. He has participated in 67 expeditions to most major reef regions of the world.