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In June 2021, we embarked on our first Citizen Science expedition on the Great Barrier Reef with a goal of furthering and participating in the preservation of the reef through Great Barrier Reef Legacy’s Living Coral Biobank Project. The organisation is doing extraordinary conservation work that will be instrumental to the future of the famous colourful corals that thrive in the Great Barrier Reef.
Great Barrier Reef Legacy aim to safeguard all 800 known hard coral species by creating the world’s first Living Coral Biobank. The project will utilise international public aquariums and private aquarium collectors to preserve backup fragments, making it the largest collective conservation network of corals in the world.
The organisation is forging a world where the future of the diverse and healthy coral reefs is assured, believing that if we work together, there are no barriers too great to save our reef. Founded in 2016 by the late John Rumney, the organisation’s purpose has always been driven by a passion for the reef and its conservation. At the heart of the organisation is Dr Dean Miller, who acts as Managing Director and Project Director. We had the pleasure of having Dean on board the Citizen Science expedition alongside Dr Charlie Veron, also known as ‘the godfather of coral.’
In the space of the 10 day voyage, 50 species of coral were collected to add to the Biobank. The corals were collected from the Sudbury Cay region, and most were Acropora or branching corals. Acropora is a stony coral genus including 149 species such as table coral and branching corals are characterised by branches that grow similarly to a tree from a trunk-like base. The trip was a considerable leap in the development in the Biobank, raising the number of specimens collected to 85 in total, representing about 22% of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral biodiversity. Remarkably, on the first day of the voyage, Charlie identified a new species of coral for the area. Dean informs us that work is ongoing to better understand this rare find.
While underwater during a dive, Charlie would point out the species to add to the biobank. The team then photograph the coral and collect data pertaining to the water depth, chemistry, location and other environmental data specific to the coral. After the coral was harvested and on board, the fragments were transported to a holding facility in Cairns. There they are fragmented into smaller sections and placed onto a microchipped base that captures all known information about the specific fragment so it can be recalled easily. This information is regularly updated with data regarding growth rate and tank conditions. If maintained correctly, the coral fragments can live indefinitely in this way. Dean comments on the process saying, ‘This is a world first in using this technology and allows us to track each fragment perfectly.’
Dean and his team have long specialised in citizen science trips with over 20 years of experience, but this trip was a standout according to Dean, “It was the first time we have carried out an expedition on a vessel the size of the Coral Discoverer. Never before have we travelled in such luxury, covered such distance, and been fed so well as we did on Coral Expeditions.” He notes the benefit central to the nature of the project as the places that Coral Expeditions visit and the atmosphere on board, “If we are to continue to collect corals, we need large and reliable access with a great support team – Coral Expeditions has that in spades!” He continues, “Our team was absolutely blown away by the level of interest and support from the passengers aboard the trip.”
Dean mentions that one of the most challenging aspects of the project both logistically and financially is gaining access to the reef and the size of the vessels required to cover the distance at sea. The project relies on private donations and philanthropic funding. Dean speaks about this aspect regarding our voyage saying, “Each passenger contributed $500 from their fare to go to[wards] the project, totalling $30,000.” This is a considerable contribution, with the funds raised dedicated to designing and building a holding facility that can hold up to 12,000 coral fragments.
We are thrilled to have been a part of the Great Barrier Reef’s innovative insurance policy against species loss. Charlie says, “If we can keep all these corals alive in an aquarium, then they can be used when the technology is right to repopulate reefs.” With 85 species already being held in a partners’ facility, Dean says the project is well underway. The team at Great Barrier Reef Legacy are looking to scale up operations to collect all 400 coral reef species found in the Great Barrier Reef before it’s too late.
Currently, the organisation is calling for start-up funding to sponsor the purchase of equipment and the establishment of the ‘Foundation Hub’ facility. Dean teases the opening of the public facility saying, “Watch this space as Coral Expeditions passengers will be able to visit the facility in the near future and see how the corals are doing!” At Coral Expeditions, we share Great Barrier Reef Legacy’s passion and care for our reef and will continue to work together with the organisation and support the Biobank project.
To contribute to the Living Coral Biobank Project, there is an opportunity to sponsor a coral fragment which consists of a monthly donation to ensure care and maintenance of the fragment. For more information, visit coralbiobank.org/donate. Stay tuned for future Citizen Science voyages currently in the works at Coral Expeditions.