Charlie Veron - A Life Underwater

Many involved in marine science regard Charlie Veron as a hero, one who has made a great difference in the understanding of life in the sea through incredible feats of individual endeavour. I am also of that view, not just from reading his work, but also from having the privilege of once being in the field with him. He has just published an autobiography: Charlie Veron A Life Underwater (Penguin Viking). This work captures the story of a biologist dedicated to coral research in Australia and elsewhere. It is a personal history full of many trials and tribulations both in family life and professionally.

Charlie’s passion for coral studies and his contributions are summarised in this well illustrated book which contains a wonderful index and a bibliography of many of his publications, including reference to his website, coralsoftheworld.org. It is without doubt that he has transformed our understanding of corals and made us ever more aware of the threats to coral reef ecosystems from climate change. His 2008 book, A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End, was a wakeup call to all of us, especially governments, of what we are losing; his arguments were based on what he had been observing over several decades of diving in some of the most beautiful and biodiverse places on Earth.

As a scientist who has spent over 6000 hours underwater visiting most of the reef regions of the planet, Charlie demonstrated the power of field observation. He reminds us of the need to persistently revisit sites that are subject to natural and human forces. While he has made enormous contributions to taxonomy (he has named more coral species than anyone else), I have been most enthralled by his work in biogeography and how geographical factors at different scales have influenced coral evolution and distribution. Such studies have greatly assisted efforts to conserve different reef habitats and reinforced his arguments over the urgent need to address causes of reef decline. As pointed out by the historian Iain McCalman, Charlie’s “gritty, inspiring and thrilling life symbolises why we must all work to save our planet’s most spectacular marine environment”.

For much of his professional career, John Edward Norwood Veron, nicknamed as a youth Charlie, was employed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) located outside of Townsville. He rose to the position of Chief Scientist, and was amongst the first batch of scientists to be employed by AIMS. I first met him in 1973 on board the MV Marco Polo, the venue of a Coral Reef Symposium that traversed the GBR. Later that year he was a member of the Royal Society-University of Queensland expedition to the northern GBR, an expedition that lasted several months and was led by the great reef geographer from Cambridge, David Stoddart. I was briefly a member of that expedition and at one point served as bagman to Charlie on one of his numerous dives to collect corals. What an experience! He pays tribute to what must have been his many bagmen in the book while noting how important it was to dive alone!

There is so much of Charlie’s life that I could mention. However, I will comment on an aspect that resonates deeply with me. The cover of the book refers to him as a “maverick Australian”. This attribute comes to the fore at different times in his career, in particular in his dealings with bureaucracy. Having been both a coastal scientist and a university administrator, I can readily sense his frustrations in the past as well as his concerns about future field-based science. On page 252 he recounts the circumstances of his departure from AIMS in 2007: “I left because the bureaucrats had won and AIMS had become just a building… I had no intention of working in a place where bean counters and an electronic key to doors controlled my life”. This is a sad reflection on the way institutional science had evolved; he notes he can’t think of a better way to kill off creativity than telling a creative person what to work on, where to work and when to work. Sadly he saw that beginners seemed to think this is the norm, but for him “ it certainly wasn’t”. He reflects on page 289 how he would not thrive in today’s “funding fixated, ResearchGate-scoring, occupational health and safety-obsessed, time-tracked, committee-controlled, paper counting, regulation-saturated, supervised academia”. I also enjoyed for a time the freedom of such a system that did not require many of the demands placed on research scientists today. We should ponder on what we are now forsaking in order to comply with demands that detract from precious time and freedoms that Charlie and others once enjoyed. This book is a testimony to such times in the history of Australian marine science and field sciences in general.


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 28 July 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org

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