photographer in 1922, faced the future of the Great Barrier Reef

In 1926, Australia’s Frank Hurley, explorer, filmmaker, and photographer, announced in the Sydney Sun that the seafloor opened up endless avenues for our curiosity.

Hurley, sensing a lucrative future in the underwater frontiers, had embarked on six-year-old expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait as well as Papua to capture photographs of the tropical ocean floor.

The oceans of the 1920s were regarded as magnificent and sublime. The promise of an unexplored area of the earth enticed explorers. In the 1920s undersea photography was a new phenomenon. Louis Boutan, who lived from 1859 to 1934, was one of the few photographers who had captured underwater images.

Figure 1, Frank Hurley and Allan McCulloch on Dauko Island, Papua, 1922. Australian Museum AMS320/v4697

Hurley, an adventurous and curious man, had been on expeditions in Antarctica. He was the official photographer of the Ernest Shackleton Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1914-1917. This allowed him to experience the vast and frozen Antarctic Seas. Hurley was the official war photographer of the First World War. His photos of exploration and warfare define the limits to human endurance.

Hurley’s diary shows how he planned a trip in 1920 to the colourful and warm Great Barrier Reef. He wanted to capture iconic footage of exotic places and people for a travelogue film. The film was released in 1921 under the title Pearls and Savages.

Hurley observed in 1920 as he sailed past the corals reefs on the Australian east coastline, the Torres Strait and the reefs off Papua.

Shoals of brilliant, electric blue. Red fish and others with stripes of yellow & gold were among the many. The colors were so varied & blended together in such harmony & in such a vast number, that it was as if one was gazing at a wild morphic fantasy.

Hurley returned to Australia in 1922 with Allan McCulloch, a fish expert at the Australian Museum. He was determined that he would photograph the seafloor.

In the days prior to scuba diving, underwater photography was virtually impossible. Hurley built an aquarium in Port Moresby in 1922.

Figure 1 shows Hurley seated next to McCulloch, surrounded by Papuan crew members who navigated and carried their equipment. The two are relaxing at the beaches of Dauko Island, off the coasts of Port Moresby. In the background, you can see the aquarium.


Figure 2. Frank Hurley underwater scene, Papua 1922. Australian Museum AMs320_v05093

Hurley was able to film corals, tropical fish and other creatures at eye-level and create the illusion of being underwater. The aquarium had a problem. Corals and fish were dead and released a mucus, which interfered with Hurley’s efforts to get crystal-clear images.

The aquarium sent native assistants to the reef in order to collect fish and corals. The corals and fish kept making the water cloudy. Hurley and McCulloch were frustrated by the coral “slime”, which ruined the image (See Figure 2, above).

Hurley’s diary describes how the aquarium is constantly emptied and then refilled. McCulloch and he scraped the living animals off the branches of limestone and photographed the coral skeletons.

Frank Hurley underwater scene. Dauko Island (or Lolorua Island), Papua. 1922. Australian Museum AMS320_v05076.

Read more: Bleaching has struck the southernmost coral reef in the world

Coral bleaching

Hurley went in search of coral reefs and, through the mass media that grew during the 1920s (including films and illustrated magazines), he hoped to transform the beauty of reefs and turn it into a modern spectacle. He intended to show the pictures around the world, especially to those who had never seen a sea floor.

Frank Hurley, fish under water, 1922. Coloured lantern slides. Australian Museum AMS320/V3242

Hurley, a picture sorcerer from Papua, was called a “magician of visual images” in 1924’s Illustrated London News.

The story of Hurley’s aquarium is also part of what American historian Lynn White Jr called in 1967 “the historical origins of our ecological crises”.

Corals in the aquarium were killed by the sun’s heat, silt, oxygen depletion, and overcrowding.

Read more: What we have in common with corals and their unexplored microbial world

The corals in Figure 2 are seen expelling zooxanthellae, algae they normally live symbiotically with, which are responsible for the beautiful colors of some corals. But in times of stress, the algae are released in a process known as “coral bleaching”.

Hurley, in 1922, had come face-to-face with the future of this region, including the Great Barrier Reef, without realizing it.

At that time, nobody could have imagined that in 100 years, their actions would cause seawater temperatures to rise, climates to change, and coral reefs to face extinction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *