Coastal Incidents

Main Image

When will I get into the field to test all of this!

Since I started wandering around beaches, cliffs, swamps and waterways just on 60 years ago, I have encountered any number of incidents that are memorable. The thrill of field work and the opportunity to visit and learn about different coastal environments has been a great privilege. I wish to thank all who have encouraged and participated in these studies and especially those who put their trust in me and put up with my idiosyncrasies. But at times there have been occasions when things got a little tricky, and in the world of the contemporary university I ask whether or not certain risks should have been allowed.

But first I must mention that during my really active field work years (1959 to 1989) there was little in the way of rules that constrained field research. The individual was trusted to manage his or her risk. The Head of Department, or the graduate supervisor, was generally informed of plans, but you were expected act responsibly in order to look after yourself and colleagues in undertaking field work.  Similarly, in running field excursions with students, the expectation would be to take due care and enjoy the opportunity to teach and learn. There were no forms to fill in (or I don’t ever recall filling any in) and no OH&S procedures to follow. In a nutshell, I doubt that many things I did by myself, or with colleagues and students, would be permitted under today’s workplace conditions. However, I suspect now there are geomorphologists, geologists and geographers who have limitations placed upon them restricting chances of doing certain types field work that I was able to do with relative freedom.

Yes times change, and I accept that administrators have reasons for introducing existing rules. These may appear extremely officious and legalistic adding to transaction costs of doing field work. Have there been so many accidents or other incidents in recent years that warrant such caution? I once served as the Director of McGill University Sub-Arctic Research Laboratory at Schefferville in Northern Quebec. Before my time as Director one student died and his body never recovered doing his MSc research project. This was an horrendous tragedy and it made me alert to the hazards and risks facing all working in that harsh land. But the University trusted me to offer advice and then expect students to take care; there were no extra limits placed on the opportunity to undertake field work. While at Schefferville there were times I felt my life was in danger; fortunately I found ways to overcome the threats.

It has been possible to work with teams in various coastal places in Australia and elsewhere.  Their success required understanding field operational conditions, and in using common sense. One gets to quickly know the capacity of colleagues and yourself. I learnt to trust these colleagues and in doing so take risks. In this connection there are many stories to tell about work in difficult circumstances. You learn lessons quickly. While receiving scuba diving instruction from Peter Cullen at Jervis Bay in 1972, we heard that nearby a woman diver had gone missing. As students, Peter insisted we serve as land spotters and stay out of the water. Later we heard her dive buddy had exited the water over a rock platform edge before her; he never saw her alive again. Diving with a colleague at Avalon a few years later, I realised he was in trouble and knew my job was to get him out before me. A simple but valuable lesson that showed a way to manage risk on later diving expeditions to the GBR and off Darwin on the Cootamundra Shoals.

I have an aversion to guns. Under no circumstances would I willingly work in the field where colleagues had guns. I was appalled in 1966 in doing field work in South Carolina with the then State Geologist who was an ex-Marine. Time for some shooting practice, he declared. Out came a pistol from the glove compartment and a target was set up. I knew this was the USA! In 1971, Don Wright and I had to remove ourselves from being anywhere near our barge owner on the Ord as he wanted us to drag a net through a tidal poll so he could shoot a crocodile. I was going to be in the line of sight at some point! So when ANU in 1984 demanded we be equipped with guns for our work at Kakadu I said no way; I was not prepared to take the risk of being shot!

Many of my contemporaries commenced their careers as geomorphologists alone in the field. For months on end we would wander around our field sites exploring and thinking about the nature of landforms. John Chappell is the classic example with his work in PNG in the 60s. In 1960, I spent 3 months as an honours student in the Myall Lakes armed with air photos and a spade in areas that today are much more accessible. This proved a golden opportunity to find my way into a new life. Nobody asked me what I was doing and even bothered to check on me; that was not how it was done. Yes there were risks, but I quickly learnt a range of field skills and responsibilities that were very helpful to me and some of my students in later life.

Today I lament the lack of trust in our institutions to provide more scope to do things that we used to do without question. OK we live in a risk averse society. So many of us of an older generation worry about how children are constrained. In field science this attitude is a potential threat to new discoveries. I am glad my research life was not hampered in ways that I observe today and only hope that the present generation can make it clear to administrators the costs of these constraints.


Bruce Thom  

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019, for correspondence about this blog post please email