Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Reef Research from a Small Boat: The Challenges and Opportunities

Alaria on station tucked behind a coral reef in Antigua
We need a bigger boat” utters the marine biologist (played by Richard Dryfuss) after he sees the huge great white shark in the movie Jaws.  I’ve heard that phrase dozens of times on this expedition once we saw the huge tasks before us. 

However, bigger boats need deeper water and we have the perfect tool for slipping behind a coral reef, anchoring in the sand and waiting for weather that will allow us to study our target coral reefs.

Alaria's locations around the eastern coral reefs of Antigua
Getting to those perfect anchorages means waiting for good light, no sun glare and a person poised on the bow of the boat with hand signals that tells me where to go and when to stop.

Paul spotting coral heads for us to steer around
Getting to a site to do research involves lots of preparation.  I’ve targeted coral reef sites along eastern shores where coral reefs grow best.  We use a WiFi booster to get on line so I can go over Google Earth images of the reef and the channels that allow us to access them. 

On the foredeck is our dive staging area.  There we have a small portable compressor that fills a scuba tank in 20 minutes. We store the tanks and our dive gear there.  We have a fish tote filled with water to wash down our regulators and buoyancy compensators.

Scuba tanks being filled by our compressor
Foredeck with fish tote for rinsing scuba gear after dives
After we quantify the corals, algae, sea urchins and all reef fishes on our transects, we transcribe them onto our computers and conduct simple analyses.

George doing fish transects.  Note GoPro video camera on his head, writing cylinder on his right arm, dive computer on his left arm

Bob placing a transect line
Returning to the Zodiac after the dive
So, Alaria is functioning as a floating marine lab.  However, our work is not just confined to my group and the partners we work with on the various islands,  We are also collaborating with several other researchers on various topics. 

For example, we have also been collaborating with Liz Madin in Sydney Australia.  She’s using satellite images to find halos around reefs where no seagrass grows.  We are wondering why halos occurs so she sends me images, I check them out.

Halo around a patch reef (note clear area around mark)
Alaria's location to examine the halo site
Another collaboration is with Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Manuel Rivero (from the University of Queensland, Brisbane Australia) who are using a state of the art camera imaging system to develop three dimensional models of the coral reefs.  On reefs where we both work, we can supply fish and coral community composition.

When I think back to the last time I was in this area of the Caribbean in 1973 and 1974, we had a boat, a compressor and lab but no ability to communicate or network with other scientists in the field.  Our electronic revolution connects us easily.  What is hard, is actually getting out to the field to see what’s going on.  THAT is what tiny Alaria can do very well.

Alaria on station in Antigua

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