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Life in the Great Barrier Reef

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Jürgen Freund on expedition with iLCP partner, The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation.

Onboard the M/Y Golden Shadow, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is circumnavigating the globe to survey some of the most remote reefs on the planet.  I recently joined their Global Reef Expedition, as a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). My job was to take images to aid the science team as they surveyed the Great Barrier Reef (GBR)– the most well-known reef in the world.

I noticed a quite curious, but not unexpected, difference between how reef creatures behave when swimming among divers from a tourist dive boat versus the scientists from the M/Y Golden Shadow. Tourist vessels have dedicated moorings on reef which are dived several times a day, almost everyday, all year round by lots of divers. There, the fish are generally very friendly and obliging to photographers.

Archival image of a potato cod (Epinephelus tukula) with a diver to scale, taken in the famous much dived Cod Hole. Used to divers, many big cheeky Potato cods follow divers to check them out. The Cod Hole is the very reef where the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park originated.
Archival image of a potato cod (Epinephelus tukula) with a diver to scale, taken in the famous much dived Cod Hole. Used to divers, many large Potato cods follow divers to check them out. The Cod Hole is the very reef where the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park originated.

Diving with 15 coral, fish, and shark scientists to survey the GBR for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation we visited reefs no dive tourist will ever get to see. In stark contrast to the highly visited reefs, the fish were often alarmed by the vibrations divers produced as they exhaled. And as they do, they swam away.

Here are some more obliging critters that didn’t swim away from my monster camera.

Pink anemone fish (Amphiprion perideraion) temporarily locked out of its anemone, which balls itself up for a short period during the day. The anemone fish can still hide within the few tentacles sticking out.
Pink anemone fish (Amphiprion perideraion) temporarily locked out of its anemone, which balls itself up for a short period during the day. The anemone fish can still hide within the few tentacles sticking out.
School of longfin spadefish/batfish (Platax teira) swimming over coral reef.
School of longfin spadefish/batfish (Platax teira) swimming over coral reef.
Golden striped butterflyfish (Chaetodon aureofasciatus)
Golden striped butterflyfish (Chaetodon aureofasciatus)
Tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus) swimming above the sandy area.
Tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus) swimming above a sandy patch.

We were diving within some of the zones that have been set aside for greater protection. What was really wonderful to see in the marine protected areas was the number of sea cucumbers littering the sea floor.  Sea cucumber is a high value, high demand Chinese delicacy sought after by Chinese traders buying dried sea cucumbers from all over the world, especially in Asia and the Pacific. They are collected from the ocean floor and processed into a dry food product called bêche-de-mer and exported to Asian markets. Sea cucumbers were harvested and processed into bêche-de-mer as early as the eighteenth century, continuing and becoming increasingly exploited throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the Chinese population, appetite, and buying power increased in China and in Chinatowns worldwide. It is a common story of woe heard amongst fishermen that they are catching smaller and smaller, lower value sea cucumbers, since many high value species have been depleted from their fishing grounds.

Sea cucumbers are flexible, elongated echinoderms belonging to the class Holothuroidea. They live on the sea floor in reefs, lagoons and coastal shallows, with some species living in deeper waters. They move about slowly over the sea bottom like scavengers, feeding on debris found in the sand and sediment. Sea cucumbers are ecologically important in the marine environment – acting like the sea floor vacuum cleaners.

A collection of various types of high value sea cucumbers litters the sandy bottom.
A collection of various types of high value sea cucumbers litters the sandy bottom.
Sticky threads of a sea cucumber secreted when the animal feels threatened.
Sticky threads of a sea cucumber secreted when the animal feels threatened.

We saw some stunning reefs, but it was only in the top few meters at the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef that I photographed these unusually shaped corals.

Coral growth is forced into interesting elongated and stunted shapes in the surge and surf zone on top of the outer Great Barrier Reef.
Coral growth is forced into interesting elongated and stunted shapes in the surge and surf zone on top of the outer Great Barrier Reef.

Reef: Yonge Reef

In April, 2014, the category 5 Cyclone ‘Ita’ developed in Papua New Guinea, headed south-southwest, making landfall near Cape Flattery and moved offshore past Lizard Island – devastating reefs all along its path. LOF Chief Scientist Dr. Andy Bruckner commented: “During today’s dive, at the south-western end of Hicks Reef, we witnessed considerable storm damage. Thickets of staghorn coral had been crushed and their skeletons littered the bottom. Large massive corals and entire chunks of reef rock had tumbled down the reef accumulating at the base of the reef slope.  We measured rubble piles that were more than 70 cm deep.” 

Coral rubble caused by a powerful Category 5 Cyclone
Coral rubble caused by a powerful Category 5 Cyclone

Reef: Hicks Reef

Giant clam’s (Tridacna gigas) heart shaped siphon in the reef surrounded by algae covered dead corals.
A Giant clam (Tridacna gigas) with a heart-shaped siphon in a reef surrounded by dead algae-covered coral.

Andy also said “While the damage was alarming, reefs have weathered storms throughout their history and in absence of other stressors they demonstrate remarkable resilience, rebounding in a matter of years.  Given the high survival of coral fragments we observed among the rubble piles, we expect similar rates of recovery on Hicks Reef.”

Then one of the bad guys of the reef was seen in many areas – the crown-of-thorn starfish. Otherwise known as COTS, this animal is a large, multiple-armed starfish (or seastar) that usually preys upon hard, or stony, coral polyps (Scleractinia). The crown-of-thorns receives its name from venomous thorn-like spines that cover its surface. It is one of the largest sea stars in the world and is very destructive, voraciously feeding on healthy corals.

Loss of coral cover due to crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) attack.
Loss of coral cover due to crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) attack.
A literal crown of thorns starfish on top of a living Acropora coral and digesting it with its stomach.
A literal crown of thorns starfish on top of a living Acropora coral, digesting it with its stomach.
Close-up of the deadly thorns of crown of thorns starfish.
Close-up of the venomous thorns of crown of thorns starfish.
If corals had eyes, this would be last thing they would see if a crown of thorns sat on them and about to digest them.
If corals had eyes, this would be last thing they would see if a crown of thorns sat on them, about to digest them.
Crown of thorns starfish beside a dead coral it has digested to death.
Crown of thorns starfish beside a dead coral it has digested to death.

The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation conducts scientific surveys on coral reefs around the world to determine the health and resilience of the reef. The primary scientific goals of the Expedition are to map and characterize coral reef ecosystems, identify their current status and major threats, and examine factors that enhance their ability to resist, survive and recover from major disturbance events like bleaching, cyclone damage, or Crown of Thorns outbreaks.

At each site LOF brings an international multi-disciplinary team of scientific divers as well as teaming-up with the local scientific community to conduct these surveys and get the most scientifically accurate data possible. The scientific results are shared freely with participating countries and scientific and regulatory organizations. This helps governments, environmental managers, and local residents gain a better understanding of their local coral reefs so they can better manage and protect them. They combine the power of education and outreach with scientific information to help inform and persuade people to take action.

And although it will take some time to analyze all the scientific results, here are some breathtaking scenes from under the waves of the Great Barrier Reef.

Dome-like colony of Platygyra corals with branching Acropora corals growing above it with waves crashing onto the outer reef of the Great Barrier Reef.
Dome-like colony of Platygyra corals with branching Acropora corals growing above it with waves crashing onto the outer reef of the Great Barrier Reef.
Red soft coral (Dendronephtya sp.) with polyps exposed filtering plankton from the current.
Red soft coral (Dendronephtya sp.) with polyps exposed, filtering plankton from the current.
Featherstar or Crinoid attached to a gorgonian fan coral.
Individual polyps of a fan coral. These types of corals are called octo-corals, which means that the polyps have each eight tentacles.
Individual polyps of a fan coral. These types of corals are called octo-corals, which means that the polyps have each eight tentacles.
Philip Renaud, Executive Director of Living Oceans Foundation modelling behind a massive hard coral head (Porites sp.) that must be many hundreds of years old.
Philip Renaud, Executive Director of Living Oceans Foundation swimming over a massive hard coral head (Porites sp.) that must be many hundreds of years old.
Very rich expansive Acropora table coral field at the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef with great visibility.
Very rich expansive Acropora table coral field at the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef with great visibility.
Classic Nemo of the Great Barrier Reef Clownfish (Amphiprion percula) in its lush anemone home.
The Great Barrier Reef Clownfish (Amphiprion percula), the model for the famous Nemo, in its lush anemone home.
Giant clam (Tridacna gigas) in the coral reef. There were many big healthy giant clams in the surveyed reefs. Porites coral head and other hard coral species show a healthy reef habitat.
Giant clam (Tridacna gigas) in the coral reef. There were many big healthy giant clams in the surveyed reefs. Porites coral head and other hard coral species show a healthy reef habitat.