Knowing Nature & Ourselves (Part 1.)


I am very privileged to have some wonderful friends, who still take the time to observe nature.   Once upon a time we found these people in universities studying the natural sciences, now we are perhaps more likely to find them in film school or at iNaturalist.

One of the best ways to know something about the underwater world, including Great Barrier Reef ecosystems, is to strap an air tank to your back and step into the Coral Sea.   If you take a camera, you may have a permanent record of what you observe.

This is the beginnings of being a marine biologist.   Observation is fundamental to science; science begins with gathering information.

To be a real biologist you must make your own direct observations about the natural world.   You can’t be a biologist and rely on the observations of others, they must be your own.    If you relied mostly on the measurements of others, then it would be like claiming to be a photographer but only republishing photographs taken by others.   You may be a publisher, but not a photographer.  It would be deceitful to claim otherwise.

Some people are like this.  They take the work of others and claim it as their own.  It may be measurements, or it may be photographs.   Of course, some photographs can be transcribed and understood as numbers, or they can be a direct measure of something.

Photographs have tremendous value in science.

When I knelt next to that giant coral on the sandy sea floor in the Garden of Porites at Myrmidon reef some years ago, and when Stuart Ireland took a photograph of me beside it, for sure we already now had a permanent record of the size of that monster coral.  At one level I functioned as a yardstick of its size.  From knowing my height, it would be possible to calculate the height of the coral.  In fact, we went on to measure the height and width of that same coral with a tape measure.

For sure, you can be a data analysis by relying on information from others, but a scientist gathers their own information however limited and however imprecise.

You can become very famous never making your own direct observations, never looking through a telescope at the stars yourself, for example.  But please don’t tell me that you are a scientist.  That would be deceitful.   To repeat, you may be an analyst who is good at self promotion even a manager with a large team, but that doesn’t make you a scientist.  You may have your name on so many scientific papers, but if you have no first hand knowledge of how the data was gathered.   That doesn’t make you a scientist.

To be sure, if you are really a marine biologist then you will have observed the underwater world up-close with your own eyes, just as if you are really an underwater photographer you take your own photographs underwater.  You don’t republish photographs from others, and claim them as your own.

Photographers and cinematographers who know and understand their craft are always in search of authenticity.  They are looking for images that are not only an accurate representation of the world, but that also invoke feelings.   They are after much more than click bait on social media, or fame and money in the commercial world.  They know that they are unlikely to ever be properly financially compensated for their efforts.  After all, we increasingly live in a world that places little value on real knowledge and its accurate representation.

I have been listening to an audiobook that my daughter recommended, entitled ‘Why We Remember – The Science of Memory and How it Shapes Us’ by Dr Charan Ranganath.  It explains that as individuals we make decisions based on our feelings, that are a consequence of what we remember.  Much of this happens beyond the reach of our rational and conscious mind.  So, the stories that we tell our children, the photograph we keep, and the films we watch, they all matter.

It is not just the facts that make a difference, in fact the choices we make – good and bad – are often made irrespective of the facts of the matters before us.   It is how we remember the world that matters most.

Perhaps this is why families that have first-hand experience of the natural world know that it can be beautiful, and it can also be very destructive – many fishers, farmers and indigenous Australians remember this.  That nature gives, and nature also takes away.

Scuba divers, rock climbers and bushwalkers also have some knowledge of this, people who get out into nature often see the natural cycles of death and regeneration.

Many people now live in apartments in cities so removed from nature. This makes them so vulnerable to nonsense stories suggesting that coral cover, for example, must be increasing at the Great Barrier Reef, or it must be in terminal decline.  What they believe is more likely to depend on how the AI in their social media feed has categorised them and their interests.  These city people often fail to understand – because they have no memory – that more usually there are natural cycles of destruction and then regrowth in the real world.

Stuart Ireland emailed me this morning with photographs of terrible destruction from Tropical Cyclone Jasper.

He sent me the two photographs with a short note:

On my way back from Cooktown on the weekend …  witnessed what Jasper did to rivers and creeks near Wudaj Wudaj.

They are saying the weather event here was a 1/2,000-year event compared to Cairns 1/100 year.

The power of water is amazing but devastating … a water hole we used to swim at, gorgeous mountain stream, reduced to barren riverbed.

Photographs taken in almost same spot. They have reconstructed the whole road.

It’s just like how we felt diving John Brewer Reef after TC Kirrily.

Tropical Cyclone Kirrily did a lot of damage to John Brewer reef and we dived that reef soon after the destruction, and Stuart Ireland who is a marine biologist and cinematographer recorded it all.  As I explained in one of my very first short films, entitled ‘Beige Reef’ to film a coral reef is to acknowledge it, and also to provide a permanent record of the state of that reef for that moment in time.

The other thing my daughter has recommended recently is a ‘Mood App’.  I’ve just had a look to see if my app. has a word to perhaps better explain my feelings when I dived John Brewer with Stuart just three weeks after TC Kirrily.  Perhaps the most accurate word, to describe my feelings at that time is:

Stunned

Then I went back some few weeks later and I felt very differently.  I could already see signs of recovery and I felt, perhaps the best word is:

Optimistic

Just as the river bed that Stuart photographed on the weekend, it won’t stay a barren riverbed, and so John Brewer reef is already showing real signs of recovery.  And the fish never deserted this reef.   As I wrote in a blog post back in April:

When I first visited John Brewer Reef after Tropical Cyclone Kirrily my stomach churned, wondering if this jewel-in-the-crown would become so infested with algae the corals would all be smothered.   Diving the reef again last Thursday, ten weeks after TC Kirrily, I can see that there is something different and special about this location.

There are large schools of algal-eating fish passing through, mowing the algae as one might mow grass.   And so, from the pieces of broken coral that have fallen from the reef crest, there is opportunity for new growth.

When we witness and acknowledge destruction, there is opportunity to also know that regeneration can follow.  We can know and remember that nature is cycles.

There is opportunity to become so much less susceptible to the propaganda that tends to either deny what is happening with weather and climate or to suggest it is unprecedented.

I have often wondered.  How can it be that the ‘experts’ tend to see ‘nothing’ or ‘catastrophe’.   How is it that the natural cycles of life escape them?

Then I realised this morning, after receiving the email from Stuart with the two photographs – if these experts have never been into nature, or if they have not been often enough, with their eyes properly open to the experience, and if they have not made their own observations, they will lack experience and they will lack context.

That is why it is so important going forward, that we begin to rely more on people who know something about the Great Barrier Reef from first-hand experience, from decades of experience getting into the water and seeing how it changes with their own eyes.  This is why we must begin to reject the false knowledge from academics who may actually know very little of real value and as a consequence their narrations may not actually be authentic.   When we are mislead, we lose resilience both as individuals and as a civilisation.

The reef crest at John Brewer some ten weeks after the cyclone.  It looked terrible, I felt terrible. But I know that there is already significant recovery. We need to know the death and destruction to understand that nature is cycles.  It is so important that we remember this, to know ourselves and to become resilient.



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By GIL