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Expedition to the Great Barrier Reef 1928-1929 - Part 1

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the contribution of one of the most influential figures in the history of marine science – Sir Charles Maurice Yonge – to our knowledge and appreciation of the Great Barrier Reef.

In July 1928, a group of British and Australian scientists embarked on an expedition to investigate the greatest coral reef in the world - the Great Barrier Reef - off the coast of Queensland. Jointly funded by Australian and British interests, the expedition sought to spend a year at Low Isles, near Port Douglas, investigating the biological and geological complexities of the reef. The expedition was primarily about discovering the conditions under which coral reefs existed and flourished, however it also had an economic objective: to investigate the commercial potential of the reef’s resources.
Members of the Great Barrier Reef Scientific Expedition departing England on the RMS Ormonde, May 1928. Photo: Russell Album 1, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection.

At this time, there was still much to learn about the Great Barrier Reef. Theories as to the origin of coral reefs, such as those put forward by Charles Darwin and Alexander Aggasiz, remained contested.[1] The work of others, including Joseph Beete Jukes, John MacGillivray, William Saville-Kent and Charles Hedley had shed some light on the mysteries of the Great Barrier Reef, but a comprehensive scientific investigation had not yet been attempted. The formation of the Great Barrier Reef Committee in Australia in 1922 marked the start of several years of agitation by Australian scientists and government officials who were eager to see Australia at the forefront of any future reef studies.

By 1926, plans for a biological study of the Great Barrier Reef were finally in progress, though it was to be led by a group of British researchers. A total of £8,580 in funding was secured from various interested groups and the following year Dr Charles Maurice Yonge, a “highly original comparative physiologist”[2] from Cambridge University, was selected as leader of the expedition. At 27 years of age, Yonge (pronounced Young) had two doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, had completed a research residency at the respected Plymouth Laboratory, and had co-authored a book entitled The Seas, with Plymouth colleague Frederick Russell. When Yonge secured the Balfour Studentship at Cambridge in 1927 (an endowment that allowed the holder to travel to undertake original research in Biology), it made him an ideal candidate to lead the Great Barrier Reef Expedition.
Maurice and Mattie Yonge, 1928. Photo: National Library of Australia.

After many months of meticulous planning and preparation, the core expedition party of ten departed Tilbury, England, on the R.M.S. Ormonde on 26 May 1928. There was an air of excitement about the expedition, both in England and Australia, and not least because of the youthfulness of the participants. The average age of expedition members was less than 30. Yonge was 27, his wife of less than a year, Mattie, was only 24. There was considerable interest from the media in Mattie, who was the expedition’s medical officer. The Yonges were still newlyweds, and here they were embarking on a trip halfway around the world, to live and work on a secluded tropical island for a year. To the press, it was the stuff of great romance. Indeed, Charles Barrett, an Australian journalist who wrote a series of syndicated articles on the expedition, described the Great Barrier Reef as “a realm of romance and of beauty,” with “white beaches and blue lagoons, turtles shouldering their way through the sea, and palm fronds sweeping the sky.”[3]

Low Isles - Far North Queensland
The site for the proposed research project - Low Isles - consists of two separate islands which share a common coral reef foundation. The smaller of the two - an oval-shaped sand cay - is known as Low Island. The larger island is called Woody Island, and is mainly formed of coral and mangrove. The sand cay Low Island was considered an ideal base for the research because it was a purely coral island surrounded by a large reef formation which formed an excellent harbour. Dunk and Fitzroy islands were considered unsuitable because they were largely comprised of rock. Green Island was a coral island, but was already a holiday destination, and since curious tourists might have interfered with the scientists’ work, it was ruled out. There was also a lighthouse on Low Island which was manned by three lightkeepers, all of whom turned out to be helpful to the expedition, providing practical assistance and allowing the use of the lighthouse boats. Importantly, Low Isles’ proximity to the mainland meant that provisions could easily be sourced regularly from Port Douglas and Cairns.
Low Isles, far north Queensland, 1928. Photo: Russell Album 1, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection.

For all its practical attributes, Yonge wrote that one of the “chief delights” of the Low Isles was the magnificent view of the mainland: 
“To the north the view was bounded by Cape Tribulation, from whence, till lost to view in the direction of Cairns, extended the majestic heights of the coastal range. Further south again jutted out the great promontory of Cape Grafton, and the circle of Trinity Bay was complete.”[4]

Trisha Fielding, Special Collections Library Officer
James Cook University Library

* Read more about the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection
** Browse the titles in the Sir C.M. Yonge Collection

[1] For further general reading on these theories, see Bowen, J. and Bowen, M., The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002; also Yonge, C.M., A Year on the Great Barrier Reef, Putnam, London, 1930.
[2] Morton, Brian, ‘Charles Maurice Yonge (1899-1986)’, Archives of Natural History, 1998, 25 (3), p. 436.
[3] Adelaide Register, 7 July 1928, p. 5.
[4] Yonge, C.M. A Year on the Great Barrier Reef, Putnam, London, 1930, p. 38.


Anonymous said…
Sand cay in 1928 looks similar size to sand cay today.

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