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Our Living World is Dying

Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow



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Date: September 4, 2006

To: Undisclosed recipients

Re: Under the Sea, with Scientific Spectacles


Chew on this (appetizing facts):

  • Coral reefs have existed for about 450 million years and are thought to be our planet's oldest ecosystem.
  • The extinction of the dinosaurs was concurrent with the extinction of approximately one third of all families of living organisms and nearly two-thirds of all living coral species.
  • Corals are the biggest structures made by living organisms and the only living structures which can be seen from space. The Great Barrier Reef has taken 8 million years to grow to its current size of 1,400 miles long.
  • Coral Reefs occupy less than one quarter of 1% of the marine environments, yet are home to more than 25% of all known marine fish species. And even though they cover less than one percent of our earth's surface, it has been estimated that they provide goods and services worth around $375 billion dollars a year!

Before I stepped onboard, I had never even seen a coral reef (for that matter, I had never even seen a colorful and lively underwater scene). But in two months, I transformed from someone who could literally only distinguish a "fish" from a "coral" --into a person who can now identify and name different families of fish and different genera's of corals. Being the chemistry enthusiast that I am, I had never really fancied biology very much; it always struck me as a subject full of irrelevant memorizations (no offense anyone!). But it seems as if my world view has been altered after this experiential and applied learning experience; I have re-concluded that, perhaps, it's not such a terrible subject after all!

I vividly remember my first few snorkels/dives on the Great Barrier Reef ; I was in awe of all the colors and struck by the bustling life. It was as if I had been dropped into one of those tanks in the Baltimore Aquarium (a place my parents often took my brother, sister, and I as we were growing up), except well...this was real . I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, places like this really do exist!" Of course I had seen pictures and heard stories, but there's something about being there and seeing it with your own two simply takes your breath away (but keep breathing, it's one of the most important scuba rules).

So my initial encounters with a coral reef ecosystem evoked many superficial observations like "Beautiful" "Amazing" and "Wowzers". But that quickly changed because looking at a coral reef with scientific eyes is much different than looking at a coral reef as a recreational diver.....when looking at a coral reef as a scientist, you need to know exactly what "it" is that you are looking at, requiring you to get up close and personal with the underwater community.

A couple problems I initially encountered when trying to get up close and personal with the underwater community:

  • I was very timid about getting too close to anything. Two main reasons: 1) I knew that coral reefs were battlegrounds for intense chemical warfare. I didn't want to be poisoned and have to use my insurance benefits this early in my travels. 2) I had read various materials stating that divers are very harmful to reefs (and yes, careless ones are) and that they should look but not touch (like in museums).
  • It's very hard to write underwater on a slate when you are early into your scuba-diving career! When I first started, I could barely control my buoyancy and the situation often got out-of-control....I'd kick up sand and completely ruin our nice clear visibility! Oops! I guess we'll just have to swim to another part of the reef, sorry guys!

But like with everything, it is just a matter of practice! And I quickly got the hang of it. And once over those humps, I still found myself overwhelmed by the idea of having to look at corals and saying, "That coral is acropora and that one is porites . And that guy over there is montipora , the one to the left of him is favites and on the other side is galaxea ." Do they really look that different?!

My stay coincided with two new apprentices joining PCRF for their 9-month seamanship training program and three graduates departing. Needless to say, a huge focus at the time happened to involve training and the transference of knowledge. We'd spend some time in Nemos (the onboard library) with textbooks learning about corals (i.e. the different parts, the different genera, the different shapes, etc.). We'd then jump into the real classroom surrounding us! We'd then meet again to discuss, re-cap, and solidify various points and concepts! Then we'd repeat the cycle again before lunchtime!

Learning was a continual process. I first started noticing that all corals do not look the same and my eyes tuned into their differences. Then there was this stage where, I could remember the names of a few types of corals and I could usually identify them accurately. And so I would scan the underwater scene in search of them and be very pleased with myself when I actually found them! But when I got more comfortable with that, my eyes started getting bored. They'd start noticing the other types of corals and wondering what they were too. So my underwater search shifted away from being this search for the familiar and towards this search for the foreign. What I didn't know began jumping out at me. And so slowly, adding just a little more each dive, my internal coral database grew. In short, I guess you could say what happened was this vicious, vicious cycle of never ending learning (And I thought I was taking a break from school, ha!) (And so it went for learning the different fish and invertebrates as well).

I once read that it is believed that scientists haven't even begun discovering many of the different species that live on coral reefs. Now of course, this was in my mind every single dive I did. And every single dive, I'd come back to the boat thinking that I had discovered one of those new species. And I'd go into the library and reference one of the textbook, only to find that someone else had discovered my new species before me. Ah well, maybe some day.

Because there is so much to learn and all of it is gradually acquired...I wasn't able to become a full-fledged PCRF scientist during my atypical short-term stay. I was only onboard for one scientific study and I couldn't hone my skills quickly enough to gather data for the many different aspects of it...but I learned enough so that I could be of some help! I was able to help with a methodology called Vitareef that is used to analyze the health and vitality of individual coral colonies. (Vitality refers to a coral's capacity to carry out its natural life functions (i.e. growth and reproduction). If a colony is expending energy to cope with an affliction, it will have less energy to use for growth and reproduction. Therefore, not only is the coral itself affected, but so is the future population of the reef).

In the most basic terms, this involved playing "Doctor, Doctor" and using numeric codes to identify the condition (unblemished, bleaching, fish bites, edge damage, invertebrate overgrowth, macro-algae, sedimentation, etc.) of different colonies. Not only did I need to be able to identify different generas of corals, but I needed to be able to make judgments regarding their health. Particularly, was the coral's affliction causing it to suffer and be reduced in size or -- was the coral healing and growing back?

As a group, we sampled 1,000 different coral colonies in two different depth zones in order to analyze the results (sample size! statistics suddenly seems real too!). Sequential studies, spaced years apart, successfully document any changes in the state of the reef's health.

" While there are numerous personal accounts of reef ecosystem decline, there are few long-term coral reef monitoring programs in place today that are more than 15 years old. Monitoring is about detecting change. The goal is to monitor for population-level change and then attempt to partition the stresses into identifiable components." (Source: Philip Dustan, Coral Reefs Under Stress: Sources of Mortality in the Florida Keys. Philip Dustan from the College of Charleston, developed the Vitareef methodology)

As a related aside, the invention of the aqualung occurred only about a half century ago, meaning that reef research is still in its infancy! There's still so much that we do not know, and it's all slipping away fast. As science usually precedes action and policy, coral reef conservation efforts involve a race against time!

That's a wrap for today, more still to follow....





September 3, 2006, Off the Ship...

August 8, 2006, Back on land, but not for long...

June 24, 2006, Our maiden voyage(s)....

June 19, 2006, Not another mass email.....