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Great Barrier Reef

Supporting conservation by bootstrapping science

The Visible Seas Great Barrier Reef special initiative aims to directly support the great science being done to help conserve the Great Barrier Reef. The initiative works by sponsoring research field trips to the Reef for exceptionally innovative and captivating research PhD students.


Science that plugs into the broader community

During the trips groups of marine science students and volunteers collaborate to collect measurements for the students’ research PhDs. The volunteers create social media stories around the experience to raise attention about the state of the Reef and to engage the broader public with reef conservation. To maximise the scientific value of the trips, the students maintain full control over the itinerary and onboard procedures. In some projects students also train up volunteers to assist in field measurement.

The initiative also hopes to engage commercial organisations in partnership opportunities that can readily expand organisations’ corporate social responsibility footprints in ocean conservation.

Science that captivates

Our science partners work on research that has the potential to improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The research also has the potential to excite the public about reef conservation work. Things we consider:

Innovative tech

Uses innovative technologies and approaches that have a popular appeal with wider audiences (A.I., drones, robots...etc)

Visually captivating

Offers the opportunity for visually captivating and awe-inspiring video footage (marine life or nature phenomena).


Engaging story & globally relatable

Contains a human “feel good” story (a personal, emotive or engaging message).

Links with other popular or current world events or trends.

Connecting people

Has the potential to connect many different people together.

Past projects

Divers bootstrap science for coral reefs

In the vast open ocean, 50 km (30mi) from the nearest land, sits a tiny and curious-looking scientific laboratory. The laboratory, affectionately nicknamed the “donut” by its scientific collaborators, is an improvised assembly of scientific equipment and common household swimming accessories – a boogie board, a pair of swimming noodles and an inflatable beach donut. Yet despite its comical appearance, the science being conducted on the donut is cutting-edge and may contribute to the future preservation of coral reefs.

“On-board” the donut, a marine science researcher from James Cook University, is conducting a biopsy of an alien-looking creature called the crown-of-thorns starfish – CoT starfish for short. By harvesting samples from CoT starfish and learning about their behaviour, he hopes his research will one day inform better conservation management of the Great Barrier Reef.

Volunteers with non-marine backgrounds

Floating alongside the donut is Visible Seas volunteer. The pair take their final breath and begin a slow dive to the coral reef below. They pass sharks and multicoloured tropical fish on their descent down. The donut's shadow has attracted numerous schools of fish by this point in the day.

The pair approach the coral reef below and quickly notice something is not right. The tropical oasis of colour and vibrant life present on corals only metres away is not present here. Instead he is met with a barren outcrop of dead corals covered in brown algae. This is the site of a CoT starfish outbreak. Our marine researcher had earlier located this outbreak site by spotting the characteristic of damaged corals typical of CoT starfish feeding.


With only a single breath-hold of air in his lungs, our volunteer swiftly gets to work. He glides over the reef outcrop and quickly spots the distinct barbs of a CoT starfish. The CoT starfish he has spotted is occupied eating the little remaining live coral present here. Its translucent skin, irregular sharp and poisonous barbs resemble something more at home in a sci-fi movie. Using a high-tech scientific apparatus, aka BBQ tongs, he delicately grips the CoT starfish. With some finesse, he loosens its suction hold on the coral and pyres it off. With the CoT starfish firmly secured, he takes one last look at the destroyed coral around him – all the work of CoT starfish – and begins his ascent to the donut on the surface above.


A coral-eating starfish outbreak damaging reefs

In recent years, CoT starfish population controls have been introduced as one of several coral reef conservation management tools. Many conservationists believe that local conservation management tools such as CoT starfish control can be used to extend the life of coral reefs.


Climate change remains the biggest problem

Climate change remains the biggest threat to coral reefs. Climate change increases the frequency of marine heatwaves, which cause corals to expel their life-giving algae. A process named coral-bleaching because it leaves the corals bright white in colour. If water temperatures remain too high for too long, then these life-giving algae don’t return and the corals die.

Eventually, when water temperatures return to tolerable levels any corals left alive are able to repopulate the reef. The critical point here is the “left alive” part. Coral reefs have the ability to regrow and rebuild themselves – it’s how they have managed to survive for millions of years – but to do so they need numbers and recovery time between coral-bleaching events.

Climate change is reducing the recovery time between coral-bleaching events. This has placed coral reefs into a state of crisis. In 2016 and then again in 2017 the Great Barrier Reef experienced two marine heatwaves that devastated coral reef cover. So, the silver bullet to saving coral reefs in the long term will be to address climate change.


Complementing alternative conservation methods with climate change

Sadly, to date our action on climate change has been slow and many conservationists are working on interim solutions. This where the “numbers” part of the equation comes in. If recovery times for corals are shortening, the number of surviving corals following a coral-bleaching event must be increased. If not, coral reefs will not be able to repopulate and face extinction. This is where alternative coral reef conservation management tools focus.

The research conducted on the donut will help future conservationists understand how CoT starfish can be best managed to give surviving corals the best chance of survival. In doing so, hopefully maintain enough coral repopulation on the Great Barrier Reef until climate change policies stabilise global temperatures.


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