Connection to country

Great Southern Reef (GSR) engages young people in connecting Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to country. They want young people to become the connection between the sea country and its people; to have youth invite old and young to come together and celebrate the stories, the dances and the foods that have sustained Indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians. [1]

A literature review written for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in 2011 outlines the benefits of caring for country. The authors detail benefits to health and well-being; cultural, socio-political, economic and environmental benefits. [2]

Figure 1

Map of Indigenous Australia

note. From Map of Indigenous Australia, by AIATSIS 1996.


Copyright 1996 by D. Horton.

Fin and Bone publishing

The community publishing organisation Fin and Bone will be an ongoing project that engages young people in reef custodianship through the arts. A series of writing competitions will be held which invite the creative interpretation of reef characters. Selected works will then be published as anthologies.

Young people will have the opportunity to contribute to the future of the reef in a meaningful and creative way. Profits from the sale of Fin and Bone publications will support further research on reef conversation.

Sea country

Scientists only recently identified and named the GSR, but Indigenous Australians have cared for sea country for thousands of years:

‘Sea country is very important to Aboriginal people. Sacred sites and songlines in the sea carry the same cultural importance as those on land.’[3]

In conversation with an AIATSIS representative, they suggested that land councils associated with each tribe would be the best place to start learning the history of connection to sea country. [4]

Figure 2

Elder Wayne Webb and son Issac teaching youth about connecting with sea country. Wayne and Issac are partners in the Great Southern Reef project.

Note. From Wadandi Surfing Academy, by Undalup Association, 2020


Copyright by Undalup 2021.

The special power of young people

In 2018 a group of young Australians organised a Youth Summit sponsored by ABC Heywire. The group of young leaders wanted to ‘bring generations together to celebrate indigenous culture.’ [5] They were looking for ways to reconnect with their Elders—to learn from their community leaders. What they came up with was a festival for all Australians to come together.

A young man named Michael James from Huskisson, on the coast of New South Wales, shares the young leaders’ solution:

‘We have decided to throw a party! This will be entertaining, fun, but also educational; [a] festival for all Australians—indigenous and non-indigenous people—to attend and embrace each other. This will be called the C2C – Connection to Country.’

Figure 3

The Connecting to Culture group at work on their project on the Heywire Summit in Canberra, February 2018

Note. From Connecting to culture, ABC Heywire, 2018.


Copyright 2018 by ABC Heywire.

Young leaders told stories about experiences that created a desire to connect to country. They describe bonding with older people while cooking traditional food; sharing stories, music and dance. Michael projected that he would one day be an Indigenous Elder in his community and hoped that he would help young people connect to country. The ABC Heywire article closed with an invitation for other Indigenous communities to adopt their idea.

Michael lives in a coastal region bordered by the GSR. Michael may know little about ecosystems and unique ocean species that swim past his country on their way past forty other Indigenous tribes that line Australia’s shores (Horton, 1996), but Michael’s invitation to engage young people in connecting to country supports GSR’s first core theme, ‘Indigenous Cultures and connection to country’. Phase 1 of GSR’s plan produced The GSR Educational Resource Teacher Guide. [6]

The guide is aligned to the Australian National Curriculum and a National Geographic Learning Framework. Each unit in the guide helps young people engage in the GSR. Teachers have young people interact with information about the reef by drawing maps, creating adverts, constructing food chains and conducting scientific inquiries into current research and information on the GSR. They invite students to view news stories and write news headlines that would draw attention to the issues faced by the GSR.

Young people create videos or posters that show what they have learned about the GSR—to tell the story of connection to sea country (“PLACES | Great Southern Reef”, 2021). Phase 2 is well underway with the creation of short films aimed at introducing Australian’s and others to people who love and care for the GSR. Close to 16 million Australians live within 50 kilometres of the reef and know little or nothing about it. [7]

The Great Southern Reef has an image problem

The GSR has an image problem. The problem is that the water along Australia’s southern oceans is cold! Putting that into perspective, the waters along the southern coastline of Australia are colder than the Great Barrier Reef waters.

Shane Gould, Olympic swimming medalist and one of GSR’s ‘people’ swims daily in the waters near her home in Bicheno, Tasmania. Shane is part of an international movement of people who enjoy swimming in natural environments. She describes being ‘embraced’ by the cold and being ‘one with the water.’ [8]

Creating an image filled with hope

In December 2019, the GSR became the newest ‘Hope Spot’ for an organisation called Mission Blue. [9] The announcement focussed global attention on the GSR. Kangaroo Island was awarded the Mission Blue Hope Spot in 2020. The north coast of the island is part of the GSR. This global attention has helped more people know about the reef, but how do we sustain interest in the long term.

In 2021, a new Hope Spot will gain global attention. GSR looks to young people to maintain a steady increase in awareness and interest in sea country. Youth who have a passion for the ocean and its mysteries. Youth who will tell stories that captivate and transform; stories that impact the hearts of Australians; stories that will transform knowledge into action.

Engaging young people as future marine researchers, business owners and scientists require getting them in and around the water; fishing, diving, surfing and visiting the GSR. Up and coming social entrepreneurs can create eco-tourism opportunities geared to connecting Australians to country. [10]

Figure 4

Humpback whale north cape

Note. From Kangaroo Island North Coast Hope Spot, by Mission Blue, 2020.


Copyright 2020 by Sophie Nyburg.

What is a totem?

The Indigenous perspective on adopting a ‘Totem’ involves ‘caring for a designated species and its habitat’—a responsibility or stewardship for the plant or animal’s physical and spiritual care. GSR has identified marine life that can be adopted as a totem. [11] Among the ‘fast facts’ listed in the profiles for each sea creature is a ‘Special power’.

Special powers come in the form of things like the body morphing and super suction of Sponges or the inbuilt night-light of the Southern Dumpling Squid. Skeleton Shrimp have a cloak of invisibility, and the Spotted Wobbegong can sense the electric fields of animals nearby—that is called ‘electrolocation’.

What is your special power?

As a Phase 3 impact campaign, GSR wants to encourage community action by launching a publishing project for young authors to tell a story from their sea country’s perspective. Young Indigenous and non-indigenous writers can connect to sea country by adopting a totem and using its special power as inspiration for characters and narratives. These stories will encourage current and emerging generations to care for country.

‘There is a lot that we still don’t know about [the GSR]. Some parts are extremely remote, they’re hard to get to, but there’s an entire stretch of coastline where we don’t know what species are there. I’m sure there are a lot of species that remain to be discovered … The truth is, you can’t really care or look after something if you don’t even know it exists, right?’ [12]

There is much to learn about the GSR—plenty of unknowns to discover. Young people have the future of the GSR to cut their publishing teeth on; to build on the three phase project to ‘educate, celebrate and advocate for one of Australia, and the world’s, most precious environments.’ [13]

Figure 5

Creature of the sea

Note. From Sea creatures, by Earth Sea Star, 2020.


Copyright 2020 by Jinni Wilson.

[1] Great Southern Reef, About, 2021.

[2] Weir et al., 2011.

[3] Sea country rights | Northern Land Council, 2021.

[4] AIATSIS representative, personal communication, 8 April 2021.

[5] Connecting to culture: Engaging young Australians with Indigenous culture, Heywire, 2018.

[6] GSR Educational Resource Teacher Guide compressed, 2020.

[7] PLACES | Great Southern Reef, 2021.

[8] Great Southern Reef, Shane Gould: wandering, 2020.

[9] The Great Southern Reef of Australia Honored as New Hope Spot – Mission Blue, 2019.

[10] 4 Types of Entrepreneurship: Tips for Women in Business, 2021. [1] MARINE LIFE | Great Southern Reef, 2021.

[11] MARINE LIFE | Great Southern Reef, 2021.

[12] Great Southern Reef, Golden Kelp, 2021.

[13] Great Southern Reef, Great Southern Reef: the film, 2021.

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