Back in October, 16 women spent a week on a boat together, surverying the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Great Reef Census. Diver, photographer, and all-round legend Harriet Spark was on board and shares with us her experience of surveying the reef.
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which this adventure takes place who have occupied and cared for this land and water for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend just how massive the Great Barrier Reef is. It’s the world’s largest living ecosystem and stretches for 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coastline. To put it in perspective, the Reef is bigger than Victoria and Tassie combined.
Understandably, monitoring the health of an ecosystem this size is no easy gig. Only 5 – 10% of some 3,000 individual reefs are regularly surveyed. As pressures like climate change continue to mount, collecting up-to-date info on how the Reef is coping has never been more critical.
The Great Reef Census
The Census hopes to provide a snapshot of the current state of the Reef using the folks who are out there every day, like tour operators, yachties, tourists, divers and in this case, women of the Reef.
Read more: Explore the World with Citizen Science
I photographed a week-long expedition with a bunch of female scientists to survey the Reef’s in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef as part of this year’s Census. The trip was a collaboration with James Cook University, and our team of 16 women included scientists, local tourism industry crew, photographers, and Indigenous Rangers.
There are a large number of women working in marine research. However, when it gets to the leadership levels, there’s a significant gap between men and women. While the representation of women in coral reef research has increased over the past 16 years from 18% to 33%, women are still vastly underrepresented. This trip was a chance for a team of female researchers to collaborate and share knowledge.
We explored sites scattered along the Ribbon Reefs – a 120-kilometre string of ten individual reefs to the north of Cairns. On this expedition, we had more on our to-do list than just completing censuses.
Dr Katie Chartrand is responsible for the science side of things at Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and wants to test if the Census model can collect other kinds of data, particularly surrounding seagrass and sea cucumbers.
Sea Cucumbers: The Real Ocean Heroes
Sea cucumbers are down there with some of the least charismatic of the Reef creatures. But let me make my case for the humble sea cuke. Firstly, they breathe and poop through the same hole. Amazing. Secondly, sea cucumbers play a vital role in the Reef ecosystem, as the ‘vacuum cleaners of the sea’.
When they suck up sand, they filter out dead material, which helps cycle nutrients around the sea floor. Katie says this could be potentially buffering some of the ocean acidification caused by climate change. So yeah, I reckon these bonafide butt breathers deserve a little more of our time.
Sea cucumbers are good eating in some cultures, and on the Great Barrier Reef, there’s a large sea cucumber fishery. However, no one knows how many the fishery takes from the Reef annually and what impact this is having on the ecosystem, which is why Katie and the team are piloting new techniques to monitor sea cucumber populations.
After the first day of the trip, we had our operation running like a well-oiled machine.
Each morning, one team of women headed over to ‘Allure’, a smaller, speedy vessel that zips around the Reef so the crew could complete census surveys on as many sites as possible. The rest of the team stayed on board the mothership and spent the day conducting sea cucumber surveys both in-water and from above, using drones.
Mapping the Reef From the Sky
Heading up the drone operations was Dr Karen Joyce, a researcher at James Cook Uni whose work focuses on mapping ecosystems from the sky using drones and satellites.
Women make up only about 5% of the drone industry in Australia, so Karen has founded ‘She Maps‘, an organisation that runs drone programs for girls to bring much-needed diversity and support to STEM.
‘When we’re only really looking at 50% of the population, we’re not bringing everyone along. It’s really important that we get a diverse range of viewpoints in the work that we’re doing,’ Karen says.
Traditional Owners and Rangers from the Torres Strait, Madeina David and Lency Naawi joined Karen to practice flying drones each day. Madeina and Lency monitor sea cucumber populations in the Torres Strait and swapped knowledge of their reef ecosystems with the other researchers onboard.
Every day, we’d snorkel and count the sea cucumbers dotted along the seafloor and fly over the same area with a drone. Karen and the team compare which method delivers the most accurate results.
Karen showed me some of her drone imagery, which she stitched together to create a map of the Reef. Each pixel represents half a centimetre, and I can zoom in on individual corals and spot sea cucumbers. In comparison, a single pixel on a satellite represents 30 square metres, so the detail the drones can provide is incredible.
An Ecosystem Under Threat
Over the week, we visited 120 sites on 45 Reefs. We snapped over 11,000 reef census photos which we uploaded to the census database each night. The health of the Reefs we visited was widely varied. Some sites were vibrant and healthy, and some were utterly devoid of life.
After photographing the team surveying sea cucumbers during a snorkel, I swam off to check out the surrounding reef. There was a looming black shape in front of me, and as I got closer, I saw it was essentially a coral graveyard.
What was once a field of thick staghorn coral is now just decimated skeletons, most likely destroyed after bleaching or a cyclone. I’ve been diving on the Great Barrier Reef for ten years, and the sight of a devastated Reef is one I still find hard to stomach.
The Great Barrier Reef is the poster child for the impacts of climate change on the living world. The debate around the health of the Reef can be polarising, particularly in the media. However, the truth is that the Reef is neither dying nor is it okay.
Multiple coral restoration projects are underway. However, this currently only works on a small scale. The Reef remains a mind-blowing place, but it needs urgent climate action and for us as a society to move away from fossil fuels. Seeing devastated reefs like the one in front of me are always a powerful reminder of this.
Searching for Seagrass
Over on ‘Allure’, Dr Katie Chartrand and Dr Abbi Scott used a deep water camera to find another underrated Reef feature – seagrass. Like sea cucumbers, seagrass puts in some solid effort supporting the Reef ecosystem. Seagrass meadows are carbon sinks, so they’re vital in the fight against climate change.
They also trap sediment, which helps protect coastlines from flooding, and are an essential food source for much-loved animals like turtles and dugongs. We used a custom made drop-down camera to look for seagrass in deeper water. Seagrass meadows cover more of the Reef than coral does, yet we know relatively little about these habitats.
Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef is big on collaboration, and Abbi believes it’s crucial for scientists to work with everyday people and tourism operators.
‘The Great Reef Census is an excellent example of people power. Everybody can collect really important information to answer some of the questions that as scientists, we don’t always have the funds or the capacity to be able to answer.’ Abbi explains.
Dr Karen Joyce agrees that the Reef is, ‘not something that’s just for scientists to protect and study. It’s not just for politicians to look at and make rules about. It’s the home of all of us’.
We’re all citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, and we can all contribute to the long-term protection of this phenomenal place. Empowering women to step up into leadership roles and utilise their skills and knowledge to lead this change will benefit us all.