Meet Charlie Veron, the Godfather of Coral

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By Olivia Brodhurst, Coordinator, Whitsunday Climate Change Innovation Hub

To say that I was a little bit excited to interview Charlie Veron, the world renowned Godfather of Coral”, at this years Coast to Coast Conference is a huge understatement.

Charlie has spent over 6,000 hours underwater. He formerly worked as the Chief Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and is responsible for identifying over 20% of the world’s corals. During our chat we discussed his career highlights, his thoughts on climate change and his current and future projects.

To me being underwater is like being home. All ageing goes away and the 25-year-old me comes out again.”

What are you working on at the moment?

“Over the last five years I have been working on finishing our website Corals of the World”. The website is a hub of coral species and conservation tips and it will contain a module for coral ID that allows non-experts to accurately identify corals.”

Charlie is 77 and he sees the website as his legacy. He is currently mentoring over 30 students as they work towards finishing their master degrees but he is still one of the only people able to accurately ID all corals underwater. He is working tirelessly to transfer many clips of corals collected over his career to HTML format for the coral ID module on the website.

The Corals of the World website launched in 2016 at an international coral reef symposium. Nearly $500k has been invested into the project so far, however, a final $50K is required to finish the site. 

To help Charlie complete this very important project you can donate here.

“We’ve also been building a coral biobank which will enable us to keep every single species of coral alive in captivity forever. We’re collecting all of the species that live in the Great Barrier Reef first and then we’ll take on the rest of the world!”

Charlie believes over 15 coral species have already gone extinct. Despite this, no corals are listed under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Conservation Act. The biobank, a huge aquarium, will allow Charlie and his team to ensure the longevity of our coral species whilst simultaneously working on solutions to climate change and other environmental pressures.

Thinking back – what is your career highlight?

“Discovering the concept of reticulate evolution is my absolute career highlight.”

Reticulate evolution challenges Darwinian evolution. Reticulate evolution still recognises that Darwinian survival of the fittest has its place, however it focuses on the concept of nature and how it constantly evolves. This is explained with two key principles:

  1. That species are not units they are parts of continua linked together in time and space.
  2. Genetic connections between species are like a mesh; you don’t have a Darwinian tree you have a grapevine. Everything in nature is more inter-reliant than we initially realised - we did not kill off the Neanderthal man we interbred with them and every species is what is sometimes referred to as a “hybrid”.

What is your most interesting or surprising discovery? 

“Learning that the Great Barrier Reef is 20 to 25 million years old and not 600,000 years old.”

A past university drilling program documented the age of the reef as 600,000 years but this program concluded that what was at the bottom of their drill hole was the bottom of the reef. They also assumed that corals move via tectonic drift and we now know that coral are actually moved by their larvae drifting. The corals you see on the Great Barrier Reef today travelled down from very old Indonesian reefs and colonised themselves down Australia’s east coast.

You have seen the reef change over your career.  What are the main changes you have noticed, if any? 

"When I first started diving on the reef, I realised that the Aboriginals had homes on the reef, they walked all over it, and the sea has since risen. Exploring the world of corals was a blank slate, I had to talk out the taxonomy first. It took me 8 years to classify all the corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Then I went on 67 expeditions worldwide to study other reefs.”

Charlies primary research field is taxonomy; the classification of coral species. He considers which corals are from the same species and he passionately explains that a species is not what is seen on a museum shelf; coral species have huge variety and adapt and evolve with environmental changes. He’s continuously working to understand the biogeographic background of each coral species.

UNESCO have deferred the listing of the GBRMPA as in danger” for one year. What would your message be to them?

“We do have the best managed reef ridge in the world and this is why the Australian Government continue to get away with inaction. The GBRMPA Reef Outlook Report has said the condition of the reef has gone from poor to very poor.”

Charlie goes on to explain that he believes that the Australian Government is one of the most unprogressive when compared to the rest of the world. Australia is not willing to confront issues on the Great Barrier Reef and this all stems from politics.

“With inaction on climate change, the longer you delay action, the worse the problem gets and the harder it is to fix. If we had listened and responded years ago, the reef would not look like it does now.”

The Whitsundays has recently embarked on a sustainable destination accreditation and is working to decarbonise, starting with the tourism sector. If you could say one thing to our Council, our community and tourism sector, what would it be?

“You are going to be an example of how the rest of the country should be operating. According to my records, the Whitsundays has some of the highest coral diversity in the central Great Barrier Reef.”

Charlie acknowledges that our reef is still recovering from Cyclone Debbie and has seen reefs go through three cycles in his lifetime from vibrant biodiverse reef to rubble and back again. He encourages us to keep looking to the long term; short-term recovery isn’t the answer. We need to keep doing everything that we can to sustain the reef, with the hope that technology is being developed to help us further down the line.

“It is also worth considering that the cyclone affected the reefs in only one area, while bleaching could happen to the full reef in one go.”

The northern parts of the reef have not recovered well from past bleaching events, it can take as long as 10 years for recovery to get underway. That’s why our reef outlook is currently classified as “Very Poor”.

Do you have any other comments?

“Climate sceptics are mostly quiet now. Scientist should not shut up.  All scientists need to talk to the public, tailoring their presentations to their audience.”

Charlie has featured in 13 documentaries and has written a few books:

  • Biography – A Life Underwater
  • A Reef in Time – The Great Barrier Reef from beginning to end, caused a meeting of the royal society in the UK chaired by David Attenborough.

Visit the Corals of the World or the Coral Biobank websites and help keep Charlie’s legacy alive.