Exploration

Remote reefs

For the first time, 11 of the Great Barrier Reef’s most remote northerly reefs around Lizard Island have been surveyed by citizen scientists.

Words by Nane Steinhoff
Photographs by Nicole McLachlan for Citizens of the GBR

Made up of over 3,000 individual reefs across 2,300 kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef is a massive ecosystem. However, only around 5% of the Great Barrier Reef is regularly surveyed. As the impacts of climate change accelerate, there is an urgent need to fill critical data gaps and better understand how the Reef is changing year-on-year.

More than ever, timely and widespread information is needed to help us understand reef health. Central to this is identifying the ‘key source reefs’ – reefs which release large numbers of larvae or ‘coral babies’ during the annual mass spawning and play an important role in helping their neighbours recover from damage. By improving their ability to locate these important sources of coral recovery, scientists and managers can better target their resources, drive more impactful projects in-water and, ultimately, advance conservation outcomes for the reef.

This is where Lizard Island comes in. As the most northern resort on Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, Lizard Island is surrounded by white beaches and 1,000 hectares of national park. For divers and snorkellers, however, the real treasures lie beneath the surface as the island is surrounded by pristine coral reefs. On the island, the Lizard Island Research Station attracts coral reef researchers from around the world, while around 100 research projects are conducted here annually to try to determine how the Great Barrier Reef is dealing with climate change.

As part of the third Great Reef Census, a collaborative citizen science initiative that seeks to survey the far reaches of the 2,300km Great Barrier Reef, 11 of the Great Barrier Reef’s most remote northerly reefs around Lizard Island have been surveyed by citizen scientists aboard a flotilla of volunteer vessels. The project, led by Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, brings together passionate minds from all walks of life, including Traditional Owners, coral and seagrass experts, tourism leaders and citizens, to drive conservation projects, try out new technologies and share learnings with reef communities around the globe.

One of the most northerly islands in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, Lizard Island offers access to a wide area of the reef and some of the most remote coral outcrops, home to a richly diverse community of coral and marine species. The 15 reefs around the island include high priority reefs vital to scientists and reef managers, including the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (COTs) Control Program.

This year, ten vessels including the resort’s own resident fleet of luxury launches and dive boats, together with crews onboard sailing yachts, fishing charters and a superyacht in the region responded to this year’s Census callout and departed Lizard Island’s Anchor Bay to take part in the survey. Included in the reefs surveyed for the first time during the expedition were MacGillivray Reef, Linnet Reef and Parke Reef, all high priority reefs for the COTs Control Program. In an important additional conservation outcome of the initiative, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and Lizard Island staff discovered and removed a ghost net trapped at Parke Reef. Ghost nets are extremely dangerous in the coral reef ecosystem, continuing to trap and constrain marine life if left undetected.

The Great Reef Census in-water surveying is open to any competent snorkeler with a GoPro visiting the Great Barrier Reef between October 2022 and January 2023, requiring a series of 20 images taken at a site along a particular reef. Through this approach, the Great Reef Census provides broadscale reconnaissance of reef condition across the Great Barrier Reef, and this information is helping to inform decisions on where to direct boats for control of Crown-of-Thorns starfish.

The citizen-science initiative has also been central to identifying ‘key source reefs’, which release large numbers of larvae during the annual mass spawning and play an important role in helping their neighbours recover from damage. The team travelled to Lizard Island to coordinate multiple Census expeditions around the island, training more than ten of the resort’s staff members to continue to survey nearby reefs for the third Great Reef Census and beyond, with a vision to engage tourists to the island to take part and join the citizen science initiative.

From early 2023, citizen scientists from across the world can log on to greatreefcensus.org to analyse the images taken at Lizard Island and others from the third Great Reef Census, with the callout for tens of thousands of people to take part when the platform is launched next year.

Leon Pink, Lizard Island’s general manager, said the new partnership with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef was the result of several years of planning and paved the way for ongoing hands-on citizen science initiatives allowing resort guests to make a positive contribution to the Great Barrier Reef. He explained: “After years in the planning we’re so pleased to offer visitors to the World Heritage-listed reef from Australia and around the world the opportunity to engage in regenerative, purposeful travel and real conservation action. Lizard Island is the only luxury resort located with front row access to the Great Barrier Reef, so it’s the perfect place to engage visitors and guests in this remarkable citizen science project.”

Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, commented: “We’re thrilled to have mobilised the Lizard Island flotilla and train staff to help us reach and survey some of the most remote reefs in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef. The Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef 21st Century approach to conservation is to empower individuals and communities to take charge and help us reach more reefs, collecting more data that will be analysed by reef managers, experts and citizen scientists across the world.”

Last year’s Great Reef Census included survey data collected from a total of 315 reefs by tourism and dive boats, superyachts, fishing vessels and even a tugboat over the 12-week marine operation. Community participation more than doubled from the first Census, with 42,000 survey images collected for analysis by citizen scientists from across the world.

“The Great Reef Census has been able to mobilise the community up and down the Reef, and this collective has proven that citizen science can drive the conservation and protection of one of the world’s greatest wonders. Data collected from the first two Great Reef Census missions is already informing the protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef,” said Ridley.

Photographs by Nicole McLachlan for Citizens of the GBR

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