What’s in a Name?

Great barrier Reef Helicopter TourEveryone has heard of the Great Barrier Reef, but what of the names of the almost 3,000 individual reefs that make up this magnificent natural wonder? Just how are they identified and how do they get their names?
Story Lee Atkinson, Photography courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Dick Sweeney

There are no prizes for guessing how the Great Barrier Reef got its name. It is, after all, the largest coral barrier reef in the world. But what about Cowboy Reef, Plum Pudding Reef, Perseverance Reef, Sandshoe and Knuckle Reefs, or even Hook,Line and Sinker Reefs? Just how did these reefs come by their slightly wacky names, and who decides what they should be called?

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs – only around half have names, while the others are known simply by a five-digit number.

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs – only around half have names, while the others are known simply by a five-digit number.

Stretching for more than 2,000 kilometres and between 60 and 250 kilometres wide, the Great Barrier Reef covers an area of 344,000 square kilometres. But it’s not just one long wall of coral; the reef is actually 2,900 individual reefs (plus 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays) that together form the world’s largest coral structure. Of those, only half are officially named. The others are known on charts only by a five-digit number.

The first European to chart sections of the reef was Captain Cook in the Endeavour in 1770, and he named a number of landmarks along the way, including Endeavour Reef near modern-day Cooktown, which he struck on 11 June 1770. But the overall reef itself remained unnamed until Matthew Flinders mapped it on his epic round Australia voyage in 1802 and labelled it on his chart as an ‘Extensive Barrier Reef’, which soon became known as the Great Barrier Reef. He was also one of the first to name some of the individual reefs, such as Wreck Reef, where he was shipwrecked during a second voyage in the Porpoise in 1803, although most of his reef names, which were alpha-numeric, were rather less
imaginative.

Other reefs, such as Bligh Reef, (charted by William Bligh on his way to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty) are named for the people who found them, or the hydrographers who mapped them, or the ships they sailed in, or their friends, families, relatives, even politicians, financiers and patrons. Sometimes, it was just because of their shape, such as the famous heartshaped Heart Reef in the Whitsundays. And while the reasoning behind the naming of Crescent, Ribbon and Long Reefs are fairly self-explanatory, others are little more obscure; Plum Pudding Reef near Hamilton Island got its name from the nearby island, which apparently (if you squint) has a shape a bit like a plum pudding. A favourite story concerns Mystery Reef, part of Swains Reef off the Capricorn Coast south of the Whitsundays. It was named by fisherman, charter boat operator and modern day explorer, Wally Muller, who named many of the reefs in the area in the 1960s. The story goes that one day, after Muller had finished mapping the Swain Reef area for the Government, he was enjoying some quiet time sailing around the area. Suddenly, he ran into a reef that was not mapped and Muller didn’t even know was there. He said “Where did that reef come from?… it’s a bloody mystery that one!” and that’s how Mystery Reef was named.

Back then, whoever was drawing the map or marking up the chart decided on a name and once it was on the map, it pretty much stuck.

Reef Flights

Reef Flights

These days the maps are mostly complete, and the chances of stumbling across a hitherto unknown reef and giving it a name are fairly slim. And choosing a name for one of those hundreds of unnamed reefs is a little bit more complicated and a lot more bureaucratic than it was back in the ’60s.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) is the main naming authority for all the reefs and features below low water in the marine park, but any new names are done in consultation with the Royal Australian Navy’s Australian Hydrographic Office, the Department of Environment and Resource Management and a host of other stakeholders, and in order to name a reef, you have to present a pretty strong case for it. In fact so long and convoluted is the process (it takes at least three months) that there is seldom more than one reef naming each year. And they don’t just go to anyone. In most cases, the naming honours are reserved for marine scientists and biologists whose contribution towards understanding or conserving the reef is generally regarded as outstanding. People like Wally Muller, who had a reef named after him, Mullers Reef, in November 2007 or the late Hon Dr Virginia Chadwick AO, the first female chairman of GBRMPA, in April 2010. Typically, the honour is bestowed after a person’s death.

Usually, but not always. In 2005 GBRMPA was so impressed with the North Queensland rugby league team that they named a reef after them. They may have lost the grand final that year, but at least they found lasting fame on the reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs – only around half have names, while the others are known simply by a five-digit number.


The Above Article was originally published in the July 2011 Edition of REEF Magazine