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Using Conservation Photography and Science to Save French Polynesia’s Coral Reefs

By Michele Westmorland, Photographer and iLCP Founding Fellow

For most, French Polynesia is a place to escape for a vacation or honeymoon to bask along the white sand beaches while sipping on umbrella drinks. Most people don’t even scratch the surface of the diverse ecosystem that surrounds these islands on their visits. I’ve traveled to the area many times to shoot everything from resort life to indigenous cultures. However, on my most recent visit as a photographer for a joint project between the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation (LOF) I was there to tell a different kind of story altogether.

Coral reefs are one of the most spectacular environments to photograph. While reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, they are critical habitat for about 25 percent of all marine life. They come in many bright colors from red to green and an enormous variety of shapes. The creatures housed within them are equally as brilliant. But over the last 20 years it has gotten harder and harder to find reefs to photograph that are truly healthy and vibrant. Scientists have observed this decline across the globe. More than 16 percent of the world’s reefs have been lost in that timeframe and almost all have shown measureable decline. The pressure comes from a wide variety of place-destructive fishing methods and overfishing, coastal development, and the numerous side effects of global warming.  One of these is the rate at which the ocean is acidifying due to carbon dioxide emissions. If it keeps its current pace, in just a few decades the ocean will be corroding reefs faster than they can grow. There are many such small changes that could be disastrous for coral reefs in the near future.

In 2011, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation began circumnavigating the globe as part of its Global Reef Expedition that was launched to study the planet’s coral belt and determine just how healthy these majestic underwater structures are. The Foundation has every possible tool for the job on board the research vessel M/Y Golden Shadow. The ship is equipped with a hyperbaric chamber for diving safety and a fully loaded scientific lab for the world-class scientists and researchers who come on board.  To push the frontiers of coral reef conservation and exploration further, the LOF invites a rotating cast of local researchers, teachers and scientists to conduct research from the vessel. I spent 15 days as a part of this team bringing the science to life through photos. Joining me as my assistant was Megan Cook, an Our World Underwater Rolex scholar.  Our journey was not to the more known island groups of Bora-Bora or Tahiti, but to the remote Southern Tuamotus and Gambiers.  Not only are these areas seldom visited, some atolls and reefs had never been dived before our arrival.

The Global Reef Expedition is about much more than just science as there is a heavy focus on education and giving back to the local communities where research is conducted. LOF uses all of the data it gathers to create habitat maps and conservation recommendations for the countries involved. They hit every level of involvement from national governments to local scientists to small villages. After information is gathered in a particular geographic area, LOF returns to the local communities to share their discoveries. The information is then spread through local outreach efforts with the videos and media that LOF creates. This sort of education is vital to get the reefs the protection they need. Time and time again, environmental groups looking to protect a certain corner of our globe have failed in the long run because of lack of support from the local communities. If the people who live near and are dependent on a reef ecosystem for their livelihoods fail to nurture it, no amount of outside intervention is going to make a difference.

In the two weeks I spent in the remote Gambier Islands, myself, Megan and the scientific team dived three times a day onto some of the most spectacular reefs I have seen. To find out what we saw, read part 2 of this blog coming up on Thursday!

To read more right now about the scientists’ work during the Tuamotu/Gambier segment of the expedition, go to the Recent Mission: French Polynesia page at www.livingoceansfoundation.org.