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Terrie Ridgway and Fellowship Beginnings

By Associate Professor Kerrie Foxwell-Norton - 2020 John Oxley Library Fellows | 11 March 2021

Guest blogger: Associate Professor Kerrie Foxwell-Norton - 2020 John Oxley Library Fellows

Terrie Ridgway

Portrait of Terrie Ridgway from her personal collection.

In the mid 1960s, nineteen-year-old Terrie Ridgway put a mask and snorkel on for the first time and dived into the Great Barrier Reef. She recalls the day clearly:

... and that was it. Love affair. Never looked back ... They had to drag me backwards out of the water at some point close on dusk because it was just mesmerising.
Terrie Ridgway

Terrie is the genesis for our John Oxley Library Fellowship, The Women of the Great Barrier Reef: The Untold Stories of Environmental Conservation in Queensland.  I came across her story fortuitously in a 1967 news article written by Australian journalist, Barry Wain (dec.) that was published, oddly enough, in a string of regional USA newspapers.

At that time, Terrie was living alone on North West Island in the southern regions of the Reef, not far from Heron Island.  She was there to ‘think and study fish’.  Discovery of Wain’s story about Terrie prompted the question, ‘Who is Terrie Ridgway?’  which was quickly followed by, ‘And who are our other women of the Reef?’

With my co-fellow, Dr Deb Anderson (Monash University), we are collecting stories like Terrie’s and collating existing John Oxley Library resources to contribute to a retelling of women’s contribution to the conservation and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.  We have longer-term plans to develop a larger collection that showcases environmental conservation in Queensland. 

Terrie Ridgway is certainly a colourful and welcome place to start our project.  When I finally meet her after six years of searching, we are a fair distance from the ocean and reefs where Terrie spent over twenty years of her life sailing the high seas, living a life of study and adventure with its fair share of hardship and heartbreak.

She began her ocean encounter as a young woman living in Queensland, leaving the city to head north having abandoned the folly of riding 50cc motorbikes across the Nullarbor with her friend, Gillian Warry:

There was a research station that shared the island and all the boys and girls over at the research station were just fabulous and I used to go out with them when they were specimen collecting and I just hung on every word and every little thing I could learn. I used to also go out with all the boys ... and get fresh fish for the table for the resort and so I had every excuse to go in the water ... I learned a lot from both the researchers and the divers I worked with at the resort but seeing as how I didn't get off shift in the bar until about 2am, my friend would leave one of the windows open in the research station so I could climb in window and go into the library and I'd just sit there after my shift and just read and read and read ...
Terrie Ridgway

Terrie now scoffs at the news article that bought her international attention – after its publication, her quiet existence was lost as she became a tourist attraction, and worse, received bags of mail from American soldiers in Vietnam who had read Wain’s article, with many a decent (and not) proposal.  On the upside, the story brought her to me and inspired our John Oxley Library fellowship.

I ask her how she felt about being called ‘Tarzan Terrie’ - a reference to her pursuit of solitude on North West Island:

From friends I would tolerate it as being an effort to get a rise out of me, because it would be done with humour and the best of intentions ... From everybody else, I would find it both patronising and infuriating. How dare they try to define me by a tits-and-bums basic definition. Ridiculous. Ask me an important question. Ask me about something that matters. Ask me about what I am reading at the time. What was my music? What sort of art did I like? Who did I emulate? Who were my heroes? Ask me something important.
Terrie Ridgway

From Terrie’s story (and there’s much more to tell), we have begun to collect other Women of the Great Barrier Reef and ask them important questions about their lives and their ideas, about the history and the future of this local and global nature superstar.

From naturalists and scientists, to activists, artists and authors, politicians and bureaucrats, to First Nations and reef communities, our project will produce powerful stories about women as role models of environmental leadership and authority. 

The consequence of these stories include and are well beyond the reef itself.  In these diverse voices, we find inspiration for a new generation, due celebration of women’s achievements and powerful, passionate voices to guide us as the Great Barrier Reef  and ecologies everywhere face enormous challenges and threats.

Both Deb and I look forward to sharing more stories of our Women of the Great Barrier Reef and creating a collection that will serve the John Oxley Library and its community of researchers for many years to come.

Related media coverage:

Related collections:

The 2020 John Oxley Library Fellows, Dr Deb Anderson and Associate Professor Kerrie Foxwell-Norton produced these digital stories summerising the work of their Fellowship. 


The Women of the Great Barrier Reef.

By learning from, and adding to, the collection of original materials within the John Oxley Library, the 2020 John Oxley Library Fellows project seeked to discover and share the untold stories of women from all walks of life who have advanced our knowledge of the Reef and its protection. Importantly, the project laid the foundations for a landmark catalogue of cultural memory and heritage relating to environmental conservation in Queensland, raising awareness of the Library’s holdings and forming a vital tool for future research.

The Terry Ridgway Story.

In 1966, Terry Ridgway quit her typing-pool job in Brisbane and moved to a remote island in the Great Barrier Reef. Aged 19, she became ‘the girl Robinson Crusoe’, living solo and spending her time studying marine life, aiming to identify the more than 1,500 species of Reef fish. Except for a brief Sunday feature in an American newspaper, penned by the late Australian journalist Barry Wain, Ridgway’s story remains largely untold. Deb and Kerrie's fellowship explored what became of Terry's quest to advance our understanding of the largest living structure on Earth.

7432/3 A visit to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef home movie, Sylvia Brown Films, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

This video, 7432/3 A visit to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef home movie, ca. 1948 from the 7432 Sylvia Brown Films collection gives an example of what types of amazing sea life and coral Terrie Ridgway would have encountered off the Great Barrier Reef's North West Island.




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