The Great Barrier Reef is the largest system of reefs in the world. In fact, it is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world*: unique, fragile and irreplaceable**.
In a strict no-go zone for certain kinds of ships, such as giant coal tankers, the fact that a ship managed to “take a shortcut”, get stranded and damaged, so that at any moment oil could leak out of its tanks, should be intensely embarrassing to our coast guard and navy. Admittedly, the reef encompasses some 344,400 square kilometres, which makes it difficult to survey and monitor. However, it is their job to protect our waters from any threat to Australia. A potential oil spill which would severely damage the Great Barrier Reef IS such a threat.
The captain of said ship is more concerned that his crew might be running out of food and water (as he will now be feeding the rescue crew) rather than any remorse about any damage his disregard for Australian maritime law might cause.
The fine the owners of the boat, Chinese owned Cosco***, face is a sum up to $1 million. The captain himself may be fined up to $250,000. These fines are ridiculously small considering the scale of this company, and how much it is costing rescue and salvage crews to deal with the situation. Then there is the small matter that the Great Barrier Reef itself couldn't be replaced for any amount of money. There is no doubt in my mind to how the Chinese would react to having someone accidentally almost destroy the Great Wall of China, or the Forbidden Palace.
Premier Anna Bligh has spoken out against the captain, for failing to understand the seriousness of the incident. Senator Bob Brown has requested a royal commission be launched to investigate further, since this seems to be far from an isolated incident; many foreign ships take such "shortcuts" through our protected waters. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also mentioned that the laws may have to be changed. So at least the Government seems to be taking it seriously.
The Great Barrier Reef as we know it today took over 20,000 years to form. Not only that, but it has formed itself on top of the remains of coral reefs that themselves started forming 600,000 years ago. The time the captain's "short-cut" would have saved: one hour.
* The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage values
** Well, it's replaceable if you don't mind waiting around a few million years.
*** This company is seriously huge!