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Roger M. Hocking
Roger M. Hocking
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Anthony E. Cockbain
Anthony E. Cockbain
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January 01, 2017
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Phil Playford was introduced to the Devonian reef complexes of the Canning Basin, Western Australia (WA) in 1956, at the age of 25 while working for West Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd (WAPET), the discoverers of the first oil field in WA, at Rough Range. Thus began a life-long love affair with these superbly exposed rocks. The Aboriginal cave paintings in the limestone ranges sparked a parallel interest in the significance of the land’s heritage and the mapping of tribal boundaries in the Kimberley.

WAPET was keen to rehire Phil after he completed a PhD at Stanford on the Egan Range in eastern Nevada in 1959–1960 and had returned to WA, but he saw fieldwork had slid to a lower priority. He instead joined the Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA) in 1962, as Supervising Geologist of the Sedimentary (Oil) Division, and resumed field work on the reef complexes. This resulted in GSWA Bulletin 118, Devonian Reef Complexes of the Canning Basin, Western Australia, published in 1966. Phil was immensely proud that Bulletin 118 was a recommended university-level textbook in the United States and sold out as a result, but it was clear that he thought of it more as a beginning than the final word on the reefs. Fieldwork continued each winter in the Canning, along with papers on the various aspects of the field geology with various coauthors, throughout Phil’s professional career with the GSWA. Periodic field excursions to show the many facets of the reefs were always popular, the earliest ones usually including overflights for spectacular views of the exhumed paleogeography. The Canning reef complexes were the subject of lecture tours in the United States and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, and Phil visited many ancient reefal outcrops overseas.

After a stint as Assistant Director General of the GSWA’s parent body, the Department of Mines and Energy, Phil became Director of the GSWA in 1986, fulfilling a career-long ambition. One of his conditions of acceptance of all administrative positions was that he be allowed to devote time each year to geological research, meaning an annual excursion to the reef complexes, often with side trips to other localities such as Shark Bay, the Zuytdorp Cliffs, and Rottnest Island. He retired in 1992, but “retirement” was merely the start of a renewed phase of research on the Canning exposures, together with work on his many other interests, including Quaternary geology of Shark Bay and Rottnest Island, early voyages around Western Australia, Dutch shipwrecks, and possible megatsunamis.

From this work came:

  • Carpet of Silver (1996), which detailed his research on the Zuytdorp wreck

  • Voyage of Discovery to Terra Australis: by Willem De Vlamingh, 1696–97 (1998), following Phil’s discovery of de Vlamingh’s personal journal

  • GSWA Bulletin 145 (2009) on the reef complexes, which covered not only the Devonian field geology, but also Permian glaciation and its imprint on the reefs; the maps included with the Bulletin identify all the Aboriginal place names recorded during decades of field work

  • GSWA Bulletin 146 (2013) on the geology of Shark Bay, which covered not only the Quaternary geology and remarkable stromatolites, but also included much of the history of the Shark Bay region extending back to the early Dutch explorers, and topics arising from the Shark Bay research, particularly possible records of tsunamis along Western Australia’s coastline, and Quaternary geology and tectonism along the western margin; and

  • The Life and Times of Dirk Hartog, which he coedited, to mark the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s landing on the island that bears his name.

Sadly, Phil was diagnosed with cancer late in 2015, and passed away amongst family in July 2017. He was unable to complete his synthesis of the geology of Rottnest Island, intended to be GSWA Bulletin 147 and the finale to a trilogy of bulletins.

Phil was always a field geologist first and foremost. He stressed the importance to “go bush” and reinforced to geologists of all ages that there is no substitute for walking on the rocks. He has lived by, and frequently expressed, H.H. Read's words, “the best geologist is he who has seen the most rocks”, with the qualifier, “and appreciated the most rocks.” He will be sorely missed by his many friends, colleagues, and protégés both in Australia and overseas.

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Society for Sedimentary Geology


Society for Sedimentary Geology
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Publication date:
January 01, 2017




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