January 13, 2014

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Written by Alison Barrat

Three years into a six-year research project, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation has already travelled half way around the world. Known as the ‘Global Reef Expedition’ the project is the largest coral reef survey of its kind and the most extensive coral reef mapping project ever conducted.

The scientists taking part in the project come from all round the world. At each stop on the expedition they join forces with local scientists and conduct hundreds of dives to collect data about the reefs.

Scientist Joao Moneiro swims over a reef

Scientist Joao Moneiro swims over a reef (c) Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

The research team uses a standard survey in each place, this allows them to compare results and build up a global picture of how the worlds’ reefs are faring. They identify species of corals, fish, invertebrates and plants and note the population numbers and health of various species. In addition to these biological surveys the scientists record oceanographic data like sea currents, temperature, and amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide, this gives a measure of how the ocean changes from place to place.

Mapping is the final part of the Global Reef Expedition. Many remote atolls around the world have never been mapped before so the Foundation uses a combination of satellite imagery and human observation of the seafloor to create extremely high resolution habitat maps of each area.

Eventually the foundation compiles all this data into one comprehensive report and gives it to each local government to help them make decisions about how they can protect their reefs.

School kids from Rikitea, French Polynesia, visit the Golden Shadow

School kids from Rikitea, French Polynesia, visit the Golden Shadow (c) Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

The Foundation understands that long-term reef conservation depends on more than local government protection and so it also has a robust education and outreach program. Scientists working onboard the ship M/Y Golden Shadow are frequently joined by teachers, educators, photographers and filmmakers.

In 2013 the education team held student and teacher workshops throughout the islands of Fiji and Tonga. The Foundation also hosted marine photography exhibits and film screenings, in the USA and across the Pacific region, and produced a daily science blog from the research ship. Combined these outreach efforts have reached thousands of people informing and inspiring them toward greater reef protection.

An eagle ray swoops among thousands of fish in the Galapagos

An eagle ray swoops among thousands of fish in the Galapagos (c) Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

In 2014 the Foundation will continue research in the Pacific before heading into the Indian Ocean. Photos, films, and story blogs are all hosted on the Foundation’s web site, www.livingoceansfoundation.org and can be delivered directly by email by signing up for updates.  Here’s one story that captured some attention from research in New Caledonia in 2013.

“While it is widely known that tropical corals have the ability to grow and prosper thanks to the small algae (zooxanthellae) present in their tissue, corals are also voracious predators that feed on plankton and organic matter.  

One theory is that species that rely more on plankton may actually be more resistant to temperature increase predicted for the future.  One of our researchers on our New Caledonia mission, Fanny Houlbreque, seeks to find out which coral species eat the most plankton!

School children learn about survey tools onbaord the Golden Shadow

School children learn about survey tools onboard the Golden Shadow (c) Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

Fanny collects a group of coral species at each survey location and takes samples of the surrounding seawater. She filters the seawater to collect and identify the plankton. By comparing the composition of plankton in the corals with the plankton found in the sea, she can determine the diet of each species.  She also compares the isotopic signature of organic matter found in the water to the signatures found in coral tissue to find out how that may benefit the coral too.

These studies are especially relevant when examining corals that live close to human populations. These corals receive much higher levels of organic matter than those from remote locations.  The knowledge of the preferred menu of each coral could give us an idea which corals might do better under these conditions. That’s important because these could be the most resistant species that might be predominant in tomorrow’s reefs.”

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  • Alison Barrat says:

    Thanks Marcia. We will not be in the GBR, but will be concentrating our research further offshore.

  • Marcia Salmond says:

    This long overdue and I am extremely grateful for everyone’s work.I am most concerned that the Abbott government is going to desroy the GBR it will not withstand the dredging let alone the actual coal port.Is there any means to make an appeal to the United Nations as this action will affect the food source for many people.
    Have you done a study of GBR?

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