“History's not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be? They never get around the conference table. In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers, then gracefully retired. . .. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket. And I'm not asking you to espouse this point of view, but the occasional nod in its direction can do you no harm.” The History Boys, Alan Bennett

The 1928–29 Expedition to the Great Barrier Reef had a profound effect on modern coral reef science. A group of British and Australian scientists based themselves for just over 12 months at Low Isles on the northern Great Barrier Reef. Here, they undertook the most thorough field observations and experiments ever taken at a reef locality, significantly advancing our understanding of corals, particularly their nutrition, growth, reproduction, how they respond to elevated temperatures, and how they form distinctive, zoned patterns across reefs. This book compiles Sidnie Manton's letters home and diary entries, written during the time she spent as a member of the Expedition and posthumously transcribed almost a century later by her daughter and granddaughter.

Twenty-six-year old Manton from the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University joined the Expedition on Low Isles for 4 months as part of a trip that saw her away from home for 9 months in total. She travelled alone, mostly by ocean liner and train. Manton spent 5 weeks in Tasmania collecting the Anaspides mountain shrimp before her visit to the reef, returning to England through Bali, Java, and Sumatra. This is a formidable trip for anybody to have taken alone, particularly a relatively young woman in the 1920s. It is no surprise, therefore, that Manton is described by her family as a woman of great determination and academic brilliance. Both of these qualities shine through this account of what is now widely viewed as a legendary historical coral reef science expedition.

As Manton arrived on Low Isles at the end of March 1929, she observed:

“The amount they've done and the bright and intelligent things they're at is astonishing, and a little overpowering at first when you plunge into the middle of it armed with abysmal ignorance. They work jolly hard too. . .”

One can well imagine Manton rolling up her sleeves, looking for an opportunity to get stuck in as soon as her feet touched the sand. It didn't take long for that opportunity to arise.

Working as a member of the shore party led by Thomas (Alan) Stephenson, Sidnie Manton performed quantitative ecological surveys along three major traverses across the reef flat, continuing one down to a depth of approximately 5 m underwater with the help of a dive helmet. She examined the reef surface through a rectangular wooden frame measuring 0.9 × 1.8 m. This frame was subdivided into smaller squares, inside each of which she counted and measured corals colonies. For the first time, Manton's measurements enabled the zonation patterns of corals to be better understood, both relative to water levels and more broadly across reef platforms. Working alongside others, Manton helped to produce several large-scale, exceptionally detailed maps of different reef habitats. These featured prominent landforms of the Low Isles complex, including two shingle ridges on the windward side of the reef; a small sand cay on the leeward side of the reef and an extensive reef-top flat, part of which is occupied by mangroves. Manton was in no doubt as to the value of this work, noting that nobody had ever made such a handsome, detailed section of a reef edge before. The long cartographic record at Low Isles has provided a baseline that scientists have returned to resurvey 90 years later, evaluating changes to both reef top landforms, including sand cays and mangrove forests, as well as finer scale ecological changes in the coral reef communities.

The work would have been physically gruelling, particularly carrying the frame, pencils, bucket, hammer, and samples across the reef flat, moat, boulder tract, beaches, outer rampart, and the seaward reef slopes. The familiar feeling of being overloaded and uncoordinated while working underwater is entertainingly described by Manton, who accompanies her text with a sketch of herself surveying underwater, struggling to carry all of her equipment while wearing the heavy dive helmet, tethered to the boat:

“I set out in the flattie with diving helmet—2 square yard frame with weights at the corners—pail full of hammer, chisel, slates, pencils, opal glass sheets, big water telescope. . .once down there I floundered about and managed to find the upper edge of the coral zone where the traverse had been left. . . I staggered back to where I started and hauled along the frame and planted it over the line—lurching accidentally into the most spinuous bush of coral I've ever met. Swarms of fish of every hue came around to see the fun, I got out a piece of opal glass to write down the contents of the first square yard—my pencil tied to my belt I just could not find (you can't look down at your middle in a helmet), finally I saw it floating under my chin in the water surface inside the helmet!... I had great difficulty in manipulating the frame once, and just as I was getting put—slowly and surely my feet left the bottom and I became suspended in space—I cursed and swore inside the helmet, quite powerless.”

On a short trip to nearby Escape Reef, she slept alongside two other junior researchers on the hatch roof of their boat. They lashed a groundsheet over the three of them to keep them from falling off as the boat rolled. Of what sounds like a harrowing night, she simply writes “slept partially.” Such characteristic understatement of expedition hardship throughout reminds us that the account was written just a decade after World War I. This was a time before James Cook University and many of the bastions of contemporary Australian coral reef science existed. As with any historic account, the diaries are an informative record of the relationship that the scientists, and people more generally, had with coral reefs at the time. The habit of Expedition members to walk about the reef flat with a rock hammer in hand, chipping away at the bits that looked interesting, comes as a surprise to the modern, conservation-minded, reader.

Descriptions of their days at Low Isles likely resonate with the experience of anyone who has worked in the field. The cast of characters (described candidly in diary entries that Manton did not intend to publish) includes a lazy companion who didn't pull their weight, someone with a budding abscess on their leg and a boatman struggling with a troublesome outboard engine. All very familiar. What is striking about Manton's account is that she rarely seems to stop, waking before sunrise to work sections of a traverse in the right tidal conditions and mapping on days when the sea was rough. Manton's detailed study of Pocillopora coral growth revealed how coral colonies develop and form after settlement, while their group's observations were the first published account of the lunar periodicity of coral spawning, with larvae being released on the new and full moons. The diary entries allow the reader to connect the daily grind of collecting, maintaining, labelling, and cataloguing corals, endlessly developing the photographic negatives with the excitement of genuine scientific discovery. This makes it an inspiring read for young scientists.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions made by this book is its subversion of the conspicuous absence of women from much of the global history of coral reef science. The Expedition was organised through the Great Barrier Reef Committee. In the opening chapter of Dorothy Hill's historical account of the dealings of this committee, we learn that Sir Matthew Nathan was elected Chairman and that they held their first meeting in Brisbane on 12 September 1928. Miss H.F. Todd was appointed to the position of Assistant Secretary, in which she was allowed to take notes, subject to receiving permission from G.H. Knibbs, Director of the Queensland Office of the Institute of Science and Industry. The permission was duly received and, in the decades that followed, the notes were characteristically penned by women, saying little about women.

The Expedition was described as ahead of its time for including so many women in its research party and a “catalyst for greater involvement of women in scientific research in Australia.” Six of the 18 scientists who took part were women, and three were the wives of the Expedition Leader, Second in command, and Leader of the shore party, respectively. They were genuine collaborators in the scientific activities, contributing much more than might be assumed from the available records. In the seven published volumes of Scientific Reports of the Great Barrier Reef Expedition, 1928–1929, 13 out of 63 papers included a female coauthor. Much of the women's labour was overlooked and rarely was their work acknowledged. The publication of these diaries and letters reflects both an appreciation for the legacy of the Expedition and the changing cultural attitudes toward what work is valued in the massive endeavour we call “science.”

There is tension among the ranks and a collective jostle over who gets to go on an exciting jaunt to nearby Lizard Island. Manton uses grant money to haggle herself on board the coastal mail boat, displaying at once the nose for adventure and tenacity that would support her to become a legendary zoologist in her later career. The account serves as readable appreciation of the joys of life in the field. Manton continually remarks on her health, “never have I flourished so exceedingly as here” and describes a trip to the outer reef as the best day of her life. Collectively, these letters and diaries build a picture of a hardworking, driven group of people whose brilliant minds would set the coral reef research agenda for the decades that followed. At a time when coral reef scientists could benefit from an inspiring tale, this account is an entertaining and enjoyable must.