Magical Mystery Tour: Citizen Science On The Reef

31 May, 2016

Listen up science fans: the world's most famous naturalist, the inimitable Sir David Attenborough, has ticked off his ultimate “bucket list” documentary, returning to the Great Barrier Reef almost 60 years after his first expedition; this time aboard one of the world's most advanced research vessels, complete with its own Triton submersible. He may have set the bar high, but there are plenty of opportunities to follow in his footsteps.

Citizen science projects offer something for everyone on the Great Barrier Reef, with opportunities aplenty to (wet)suit or snorkel up to help safeguard one of the world's most complex and uniquely diverse ecosystems. So incredible, in fact, that UNESCO noted: “If only one coral reef site in the world were to be chosen for the World Heritage List, the Great Barrier Reef is that site.” It joined the list in 1981.

Eyes wide open: join the Eye on the Reef program – the brainchild of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) – this environmental monitoring and assessment program enables anyone who visits the reef to play an active part in its long-term protection. All assistance is invaluable – whether you have five minutes to spare or can commit to regular surveys – to help build a broader picture of reef-wide ecosystem health and resilience. For those with more time on their hands, online training packages have been developed for Rapid Monitoring Survey and Reef Health and Impact Surveys. Alternatively, simply download a smartphone app to send in real-time sightings of marine animals, reef health and incidents.

Dive right in: Reef Check Australia, a not-for-profit organisation, works to protect reefs and oceans by empowering and engaging the community in hands-on research and education. Volunteers can literally dive in and train to become a coral reef surveyor (snorkelling or diving).

Manta magic: citizen scientists play a vital role in Project Manta, a University of Queensland-led multidisciplinary study of the ecology and biology of manta rays. Photos and videos of the underside of these graceful giants are needed for the project's success in tracking and protecting two endangered species in Australian and Indonesian waters. Anyone can share photos on Project Manta's Facebook page or get in contact with the research team at project.manta@uq.edu.au. Plus, if a new manta is identified, the photographer has naming rights.

Did you know? Project Manta has revealed some of the mysteries of these magical creatures – where they eat, cruise and even visit 'cleaning stations' (where smaller fish exfoliate their dead skin and parasites). It found mantas are also more likely to gather together under either a new or full moon.

Keen to check them out? PADI recently named Lady Elliot Island, located at the Great Barrier Reef's southernmost tip, as one of the “Top 5” locations on the planet to dive with manta rays. For the eco-conscious, Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort is also as close as you'll get to a carbon-neutral model, even offering behind-the-scenes tours of its uber “green” infrastructure.

Whale of a time: in 2003, GBRMPA joined forces with researchers and tourism operators to better understand the biology and behaviour of dwarf minke whales which visit the northern Great Barrier Reef in winter months. As part of this, tourists who join operators endorsed to conduct swim-with-whales encounters automatically moonlight as citizen scientists, with each operator required to provide data to the Minke Whale Project (James Cook University).

Look no further: the Great Barrier Reef Citizen Science Alliance can help take the leg work out of finding the right project on land or underwater, mapping opportunities across northern, central or southern stretches of the reef and throughout south-east Queensland. The alliance emerged from a 2012 study by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, which identified the desire for “greater exposure, engagement and collaboration between citizen science groups and stakeholders”.

The foundation is gearing up to launch its third annual ReefBlitz event. In 2015, more than 1,400 volunteers recorded 226 species in Townsville and on Magnetic Island (where snorkel surveys recorded over 50 mollusc species, including the rediscovery of Peasiella roepstorffiana snails which haven't been observed for a decade, and more than 50 fish species).

Calling intrepid explorers: international environmental charity, Earthwatch, connects individuals from all walks of life with world-class scientists. In 2016, Recovery of the Great Barrier Reef expeditions are scheduled to help scientists unravel the mystery of coral reef disease, based on Orpheus Island.

CoTS-what? Since 2010, the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) has been working with unemployed youth, training them as recreational dive supervisors in the Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS) control program (operated through a contractual agreement with GBRMPA). The association also trains tourism operators and community-based organisations to search and lethally inject the coral-eating starfish, responsible for an estimated 40 per cent of the reef's total decline in coral cover.

Did you know? QUT roboticists are close to completing work on a world-first autonomous marine robot – aptly named COTSbot – designed to cruise the Great Barrier Reef with one purpose: to seek out and control infestations of the Crown of Thorns Starfish. It commenced trials in September 2015.

Learn from the best: the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is home to a network of internationally-acclaimed research stations. Opportunities exist to volunteer and/or tour facilities, offering a rare peek behind the scenes and interaction with some of the world's leading scientists:

  • The Australian Museum owns and operates Lizard Island Research Station, which features in Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough. Each year, the research station accommodates around 350 researchers from Australia and the world. Its doors are open to visitors who want to join the station volunteer program, assisting with general maintenance. Alternatively, guests at the neighbouring luxury Lizard Island Resort can enjoy a special $65 tour, with funds donated directly to the station.
  • The University of Queensland's Heron Island Research Station, the largest island research centre in the southern hemisphere (which also welcomed Attenborough's film crew) does not run an active volunteer program. However, guests at Heron Island Resort can undertake a complimentary tour of the facility which also hosts an annual open day, complete with citizen science projects.
  • Orpheus Island Research Station, operated by James Cook University, seeks volunteers to assist with station duties. The island is also home to the luxury Orpheus Island Resort, with resort guests and other visitors able to pre-arrange tours of the research station. In 2016, the research station will double as the base for Earthwatch's “Recovery of the Great Barrier Reef” expeditions.

Chip off the old block: an army of about 140 volunteers are integral to the success of Townsville's Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, GBRMPA's state-of-the-art education centre, which turns 28 in 2016. The centre is home to the world's largest living coral reef aquarium, which spawns like the real thing. About 40 volunteers are inducted every year, primarily to educate and engage with visitors.

“Some people love it so much they stay forever – our oldest volunteer is about to turn 90,” says Reef HQ director Fred Nucifora.

Education at the centre does not stop at encouraging responsible behaviour on the reef. Importantly, it advocates eco-friendly behavioural change in everyday life. And here, Reef HQ's turtle hospital has made some major inroads. Since opening in 2009, the facility has rehabilitated and released more than 70 sick and injured turtles back into the Great Barrier Reef (home to six of the world's seven species of marine turtle).

“But the power of our turtle hospital is not in the number of turtles we rehabilitate and release,” says Fred. “I've seen big, burly men reduced to tears in the turtle hospital; that 'A-ha' moment when they make a connection with these creatures, understand how their behaviours, like littering, have an impact and you know they're going to go away and do things a bit differently.”

Encouragingly, as detailed in a James Cook University study into the lethal impact of plastics pollution on marine animals and corresponding behavioural change in visitors to the turtle hospital, participants committed to reducing single-use plastics; joining marine debris clean-up days; improving water quality (ensuring anything that goes down household drains is environmentally friendly); becoming more energy conscious; and, when fishing, properly disposing of bait bags and discarded fishing line.

Did you know? A World Economic Forum report, released January 2016, estimates the ocean currently holds more than 150 million tonnes of plastics and warns that in a business-as-usual scenario it will contain more plastics than fish by 2050. The theme for World Oceans Day 2016 (8 June) is preventing plastics pollution.

Roll up your sleeves: Tangaroa Blue Foundation coordinates the Australian Marine Debris Initiative, offering plenty of opportunities to join beach clean-ups. Plus, Nature Wise Eco Escapes, a not-for-profit tour operator owned by Conservation Volunteers Australia, runs marine debris voluntours.

Turtle power: November to March is turtle nesting and hatchling season – the perfect time to join a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger-guided turtle encounter at Mon Repos Turtle Centre, near Bundaberg. Mon Repos beach supports the most significant population of endangered loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific. Each season, volunteers are needed to help the rangers.

Editor's Notes:

Word Count: 1488 
Author: Shelley Thomas

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