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Ian Morris, Coral Expeditions interview: “We must interact with the land and its people”

We talk to Ian Morris, naturalist and expert guest lecturer for Coral Expeditions, about meeting the Aboriginal communities of Australasia 

Ian Morris

When it comes to exploring the farthest reaches of Australia, few companies can compete with Coral Expeditions. The line, which has been operating for 35 years, takes its intrepid customers around the continent and on to Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Whether it’s exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the wildlife or indigenous communities, these are tours that offer something very different to a week in the Mediterranean. Ian Morris, a naturalist so acclaimed that he’s helped Sir David Attenborough on his TV shows, was in London recently and sat down with cruise adviser to tell us about his work.

Cruise Adviser: Would you be able to tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to be working with Coral Expeditions?
Ian Morris: I trained as a zoologist and went into education. I love wildlife and ecology and natural landscapes, so I did an education degree in Canberra and became a science teacher. My first appointment was in Arnhem working with central indigenous students; Arnhem Land is probably Australia’s most intact indigenous community. 

I did that for a decade and was then asked by the federal government in Australia to become an indigenous ranger training officer because of a big project in the Northern Territory called Kakadu National Park, which hadn’t started at that stage. Now, it’s Australia’s premier park. I did seven years at university and I can hardly remember what they taught me. But I spent my teenage years with Aboriginal communities and that is my best education qualification. That’s why I’m employed these days. 

How did you come to be working for Coral Expeditions?
My knowledge of indigenous Australia. And it was all a free gift from these older people who are all gone now, so I felt an obligation to carry that on. Because they were the end of a dynasty and they’re gone, and their children and the grandchildren are different. Those old people who taught me wanted me to pass that on, so I do that in a lot of ways, but my main way these days is with Coral Expeditions with groups of passengers as we travel through northern Australia and we meet these people.

You also helped set up the itineraries?
Coral decided they would like to send one of their two vessels to the Kimberley region and that’s where they got on to me. I had been working in that area with film crews, national parks and the Navy. I said there are some fantastic places there: you can go safely in among mangroves with crocodiles; you can go sea turtle breeding areas. That means that even the most incapacitated passenger can come and get a first-hand look and if they want to go on land and go and see other things, well, that option is there. I just saw all these beautiful places with nobody there to appreciate them, so I thought if we had the right people in those places that’ll help the preservation. A few times a mining company has put a proposal into the government because nobody is using the land, whereas now people  go away with a big awareness of where they’ve been and know how good it is and to fight for it. That makes a difference to Australia and everywhere else – they become ambassadors.

What experiences can Coral Expeditions offer that other lines can’t compete with?
I don’t know of any other companies that can do what we do. I know a couple of companies that have tried it, but they don’t have the connections. No one was doing Arnhem Land before we came along. I speak about 18 languages and to go into these communities with a bit of language is fantastic, because I can explain a piece of artwork, for instance. If we’re lucky we sometimes get an Aboriginal guest lecturer on board, too.

Does tourism benefit the local communities?
The tourism industry requires us to interact with both the land and its people. They [Aboriginal communities] are very interpersonal people and having a link with those people when we take a group of guests ashore just opens up doors. It’s been very rewarding both ways. This kind of tourism has been very good for them because it’s at their pace and at a level where they can participate and enjoy. And the tourists get a great insight into who these people are and establish relationships, exchange emails and buy their arts and crafts, which is really beautiful stuff. 

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