World’s Largest Scuba Diving Community Joins Great Barrier Reef Project

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Divers hold Great Reef Census banner during survey expedition on Spirit of Freedom (Photo: Grumpy Turtle Creative)

The world's largest scuba diver training agency, PADI, has announced a partnership with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef – a cooperative network of individuals, organisations and businesses working to protect and conserve the Great Barrier Reef – to spread awareness of a mass-scale citizen science project known as The Great Reef Census.

The Great Reef Census is a citizen science initiative dedicated to the preservation of the Earth's largest coral reef system using online image analysis. The project provides both divers and non-divers with the opportunity to have an impact on the long-term health of one of the most world's important underwater ecosystems, and favourite scuba diving hotspot.

'As the impacts of climate change and other threats accelerate around the world, there is an urgent need to scale-up conservation efforts globally, which requires everyone to take part,' says Andy Ridley, CEO of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef. 'The global dive community is in a unique position to support these efforts with the skills, passion and knowledge needed to support marine conservation efforts.'

From climate change to marine pollution and deforestation, the pressures on global ecosystems are accelerating rapidly. The Great Barrier Reef has experienced three mass coral bleaching events in the last five years, and existing management and monitoring resources are becoming increasingly stretched. 

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Great Reef Census surveys taking place on Poseidon, Agincourt Reef 2 (Photo: Brad Fisher/Ikatere Photography)

'One of the greatest challenges to the Great Barrier Reef is that much of the world believes it’s already gone,' said Ridley. 'But the Reef is massive, the same size as Germany, so the reality is it’s a patchwork system of incredibly healthy, degraded and recovering reefs. Only five to ten per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is regularly surveyed,' he added. 'The Great Reef Census is designed to help fill critical gaps in our knowledge of how individual reefs are coping with stresses and has already returned valuable data.'

Between October and December 2020, divers, dive boats, marine tourism operators and other members of the reef community joined forces to create a makeshift research flotilla and capture large-scale reconnaissance data and images from across Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Dive crew, scientists, tourists and conservation groups volunteered hundreds of hours and surveyed more than 160 reefs from the far northern tip of Queensland's Cape York to the corals of Swain Reef National Park at the southern end. Over 13,000 images were captured and uploaded to the Great Reef Census platform for analysis.

'As PADI scuba divers and professionals, we are all ambassadors for our oceans,' said Michelle Barry, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer based on the Great Barrier Reef. 'The Great Reef Census is a ground-breaking idea for ocean conservation that is inclusive of anyone with access to the internet. This allows people all around the world to visit the Reef virtually and to be part of an important project to protect it.'

No particular expertise in the underwater realm is required to analyse the images, just an Internet connection and a few minutes for each picture. After logging on to the system using an e-mail address, a dashboard presents users with a picture of the reef or sea bed and asks the citizen analyst to outline a particular feature and determine whether it is hard or soft coral; part of the reef or simply part of the surroundings; or a sea creature that is present in the photo.

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Citizen scientists analyse an image on the Great Reef Census website (Photo: Great Reef Census)

An 'expert' mode gives people with more knowledge of the underwater world and reef structures to specify whether the coral is table or branching acropora; sea fan or algae; and whether the organism is living, bleached, diseased, overturned or dead. An intuitive tutorial mode with sample pictures is available to get started, and there is no minimum or maximum limit to how many pictures can be analysed.

Large-scale citizen science is a growing phenomenon around the world, with initiatives such as the Manta Matcher and Project Seagrass proving popular among underwater enthusiasts, and providing invaluable data about animal populations and ecosystem health. The Great Reef Census hopes to test the effectiveness of such engagement on a massive scale, a model which, if proven successful, could be extended globally to provide a 'real-time' status on the health of the planet's reefs and serve as an influential tool to establish greater legal protections for coral reefs worldwide.

'Divers have long understood the value of citizen science and their unique ability to witness and report changes to underwater environments,' said Kristin Valette-Wirth, Chief Brand and Membership Officer for PADI Worldwide. Programs like Project AWARE’s Dive Against Debris continue to effectively provide data to influence policy changes for increased ocean protections. Many of us may not be able to travel to or dive the reef right now but, regardless of circumstance, we can contribute to its future – and ultimately the future of other reef systems around the world.' 

 

All ocean enthusiasts, wherever they may be, are encouraged to get involved with the GBR Survey project at www.greatreefcensus.org. No prior experience or knowledge is required and analysis of each individual picture takes only a few minutes. To learn more about issues impacting ocean health and how you can get involved in helping with its protection, visit the PADI Torchbearers community at www.padi.com/onebillion.

 

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