Captain Cook discovered Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 1770, when his ship smashed into it “and stuck fast,” as he put it in his journal. The seven-week layover that followed gave Cook’s men glimpses of a strange menagerie.
Mostly, it was the reef’s teeming fish they came to know. “We see them in plenty jumping about the harbour,” Cook wrote. Soon, his men were hauling them in.
Today that underwater idyll of old is suffering from the scourge of ultraviolet radiation, leaving Cook’s fish to suffer from skin cancer, of all things. Scientists with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Newcastle say that 15 per cent of the reef’s coral trout have lesions on their scales — melanoma-like tumours on their orange skins. The findings came out last week in the science journal PLoS One.
Australia lies beneath a great ozone hole, the Earth’s largest, which likely has something to do with the rate of skin cancer there — two out of three Australians get it by age 70. Now the country’s coral trout have become the first wild fish ever to hear similarly bad news.