The Maiden Expedition of 50 Reefs

A local spear fisherman dives next to Christophe Bailhache collecting 360-degree imagery of a coral reef in Palau. ' ©The Ocean Agency'

A local spear fisherman dives next to Christophe Bailhache collecting 360-degree imagery of a coral reef in Palau. '©The Ocean Agency'

Nimrod is a tough man with deeply tanned skin – the result of 40 years of fishing. He is one of the few remaining full-time fishermen in Palau, a beautiful, remote island in the Western Pacific Ocean. His job used to be easy. He could catch a full day’s haul without leaving sight of the jetty, but now it often takes him all day as he needs to take his boat further and further afield to find fish

The 50 Reefs team joined Nimrod for a day and saw for ourselves just how scarce the fish have become. It was an hour before we caught the first fish – one not even suitable to sell at the market. Despite the obvious frustration, Nimrod didn’t complain about the situation, as it has become the norm. However, his frustration and disappointment was plain to see as he talked about his community no longer being able to afford to eat fresh fish from their own island. With an ever-increasing number of tourists, the limited supply of fish is quickly snapped up by hotels at high market prices. Ironic, when you think the tourists, who expect to see these fish on the reef while diving and snorkeling for entertainment, also expect to be able to eat them for lunch and dinner each day.

Nimrod, a Palauan fisherman using a hand line to catch reef fish. (©The Ocean Agency)

Nimrod, a Palauan fisherman using a hand line to catch reef fish. (©The Ocean Agency)

Our team was in Palau on a pilot expedition for our new 50 Reefs initiative. We photographed Palau’s reefs using our unique 360 camera system to reveal them as virtual dives for a global audience to explore in Google Underwater Street View. Although we’ve done expeditions like this in over 25 countries around the world, this expedition was different. We were there to tell deeper stories and wanted to show how these reefs are critical to the local community.

Half a billion people are like Nimrod – they rely on coral reefs for food and income. And half a billion people, like Nimrod, are in a perilous situation – relying on an ecosystem not just threatened by development, but now also from total collapse due to the global threat of climate change. This situation is the main reason why 50 Reefs launched earlier this year with the support of Bloomberg PhilanthropiesThe Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The aim of the initiative is to address the rapid decline of coral reefs, by bolstering existing coral reef conservation efforts globally, by catalyzing new targeted action and investment.

The long wait for a fish to bite. (©The Ocean Agency)

The long wait for a fish to bite. (©The Ocean Agency)

We have three specialist teams working together on the project: a science team (led by the University of Queensland) that will head up the process of identifying the reefs, which are not only the least vulnerable to climate change, but also have the greatest capacity to repopulate other reefs over time; a conservation team (led by the Wildlife Conservation Society) that will identify effective conservation strategies for these reefs sites; and a communication team (led by The Ocean Agency). Our role is to raise awareness of the crisis facing coral reefs and to inspire support for the urgent action needed to protect them. We want to tell stories of people like Nimrod – to show the impact of the coral reef crisis on the people and communities that so often get ignored.

A local spear fisherman dives next to a diver collecting 360-degree imagery of a coral reef in Palau. (©The Ocean Agency)

A local spear fisherman dives next to a diver collecting 360-degree imagery of a coral reef in Palau. (©The Ocean Agency)

Palau was a pilot expedition, the maiden expedition of 50 Reefs. Although the science won’t tell us until October if Palau will make the list of 50 Reef sites, we knew Palau is a possible contender and we also knew it was sure to yield incredible images and insights.

We came away with thousands of images, as we always do on expeditions. But this time we also came away with rich stories and ideas for what can be done. Ideas from those that know the reef better than anyone – Nimrod and the fishermen like him. We were humbled and were enthused by the experience, and our time on Palau certainly gave new meaning to the 50 Reefs initiative in a way we never imagined.

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50 Reefs is generously supported by Bloomberg PhilanthropiesThe Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

Learn more at 50Reefs.organd follow more of our stories on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, or send us an email info@50reefs.org.

A Global Plan to Save Coral Reefs From Extinction

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For the last two and a half years The Ocean Agency has been visually documenting and revealing a massive coral bleaching event worldwide. Our team has seen coral bleaching in over 10 countries and taken over 100,000 photographs to share this crisis with the world. The third Global coral bleaching event has been the worst coral die-off ever recorded, and has lasted longer than the first two bleaching events combined… and it’s still ongoing.

Often stories like this don’t get the attention they deserve because they don’t have the images to bring them to life. It’s especially difficult for people to capture what’s happening underwater accurately – you need to have the right equipment at exactly the right time and place. To reveal the 3rd Global Bleaching Event to the world, we used technology we developed specifically to take underwater 360-degree images for Google Street View. It allowed us to take imagery to reveal this, often stunningly beautiful, crisis to the media like never before.

Because of climate change, the ocean is at risk of losing one of the most important ecosystems on the planet - an ecosystem that is a vital economic and environmental resource estimated at $1 trillion, generating food and livelihoods from tourism, fisheries, and medicines. Current predictions estimate that by 2050, we will lose 90% of coral reefs as temperatures rise beyond their tolerance.

We launched the 50 Reefs project today. Developed by The Ocean Agency and the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, it is a much-needed global plan to save coral reefs.

Here is a selection of our imagery that capture’s the ironic beauty and impact that climate change is having on the world’s coral reefs. If you are interested in getting involved in 50 Reefs, please contact us through 50Reefs.org

Nature’s most beautiful death

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Feature article in TIME | 26 September 2016

In October 2014 we started responding to the 3rd Global Coral Beaching Event as part of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. In fact we’ve been the only team recording and revealing its impact on reefs on a global basis using our specially designed 360-degree cameras. 

We never imagined we’d still be responding to this event over two years later. This has been the worst and longest bleaching event in history.

Our latest mission was to Okinawa in Japan (our 10th location). We're now releasing that imagery as well as imagery showing the spectacular bleaching in New Caledonia earlier this year. 

The corals in Okinawa, Japan, photographed by the The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Stephanie Roach in September 2016.

In both locations the corals weren't just turning white, many were fluorescing in incredibly bright colours - a sight that has been rarely photographed.

Some corals 'glow' like this during the bleaching process due to natural sunscreen chemicals they produce to protect themselves from the suns rays. The chemicals colour their otherwise clear flesh tissue. They appear to glow due to their exposed white skeletons underneath this coloured tissue that trap and reflect the light. It is truly one of nature's most stunning yet tragic events.

If ever there was a wake up call to the threat of climate change, this is it. We are seeing an entire ecosystem in a rapid state of collapse (the most bio-diverse ecosystem on the planet). It is a dire warning we can't afford to ignore.

Diving Into Our Climate Future

Written for Years of Living Dangerously | 23 November 2016

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For the last two years our team has been following an unprecedented global climate change catastrophe. It is an event that has killed up to 20% of the world’s corals as well as a staggering amount of marine life that directly depended on them. It is the third global coral bleaching event.

As its name suggests, it is not a completely new phenomenon, there have been two other (much shorter) events in 1998 and 2010, however these last two events went largely unnoticed by the world’s media. They happened in the ocean, out of sight and out of mind.

We were determined to make this current global bleaching event different. This time we were more prepared. There was the satellite technology to accurately predict and track the die-off and also the technology to record and reveal it to the world with our specially developed 360-degree cameras. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, as featured in the recent episode of the Years of Living Dangerously. We were there when it started in late 2014 and we have been the only team chasing it around the world as part of project called the XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Explaining the coral bleaching can get a little complicated, but put simply, the ocean has warmed to such a degree, that corals can no longer cope with normal spikes in temperature during especially hot years. As a result vast areas of corals lose their colour and their flesh turns clear exposing their white skeletons underneath (a process known as bleaching). If the heat doesn’t subside or the impact is too intense the corals can die on mass — 22% of corals on the Great Barrier Reef did just that this year.

It’s not really surprising that we are seeing these kinds of impacts underwater — 93% of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean — it’s undoubtedly the front line of the issue. The ocean is soaking up a staggering amount of energy. If that heat had been absorbed by the first 10 km of the atmosphere, daily temperatures would be 36 degrees Centigrade hotter (on average) today. No wonder this heat is killing coral reefs, kelp forests, even mangroves on mass.

Diving into the ocean is like diving into the future, for the ocean is a giant heat sink that will continue to heat the atmosphere for decades to come, even if we prevent further carbon emissions. It is only a matter of time before we see similar ecosystem collapses on land. The longer we take to resolve the issue, the worse these collapses will become.

The ocean is simply delaying the impacts of climate change on land and it’s giving us a dangerously false impression of the issue. To see the issue clearly we need to put our heads underwater (not in the sand where they are currently mostly buried). That’s why we do what we do at The Ocean Agency, revealing the oceans for all to see — what’s happening there can no longer remain out of sight and out of mind.

Virtual Reality was made for ocean education

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Written for The Ocean Agency | 16 November 2016

Last month we headed to Boulder, Colorado to take fourth-grade students virtual diving for the first time. Using Google Cardboards and Google Expeditions, students swam next to manta rays, snorkeled healthy coral reefs, went cage diving with sharks, and witnessed the effects of climate change resulting in coral bleaching. Student reactions were nothing less than ecstatic with plenty of “ooh’s and ah’s” and shrills of excitement whenever they turned their head in the 360-degree virtual dive. Their responses were contagious.

Inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards needs to begin in the classroom. We need to trigger the same curiosity and appetite for discovery that has existed in ocean exploration for decades. However, all too often, our oceans are left out of curriculum and outside of the classroom. The fundamental importance of the ocean to all life on Earth and the importance of protecting it, is a vital lesson that’s rarely learnt.

In recent years, technology has allowed subjects to come alive and virtual reality is perhaps the best example of this. As it becomes more easily accessible and schools become more and more tech savvy, teachers are able to go beyond the traditional lecture. They can take their students back in time and into the future, around the world - both into space and into the ocean.

 

Virtual reality enhances ocean education more than almost any other subject. It gives students a glimpse of an underwater world that they may otherwise never get to experience. It quite literally provides a fully immersive encounter with a foreign environment. Through this, rather than simply viewing information in photographs, it facilitates observation and encourages students to make their own conclusions – a fundamental skill in learning.

Developing a virtual reality school education program has been a priority for The Ocean Agency. Fortunately, we found the perfect partner to pilot our education initiative in the land-locked education non-profit, Teens4Oceans – based in Boulder, Colorado. Led by scientists, educators, and students, Teens4Oceans provides local youth with the tools and resources to become the next generation of ocean stewards we so desperately need. Now, thanks to the collaboration, virtual reality is at the core of their program as they travel from school to school in their specially converted bus. We hope this is just the start of many such collaborations.

The unfortunate truth is, most people will never see the ocean through a mask and snorkel. Virtual reality is next best thing – we want to bring the same thrill we feel as divers to the world. We plan to continue to use the 600,000 virtual reality images of the ocean we’ve already collected to build education resources - resources that are easily adoptable so that schools can effortlessly integrate ocean education into the classroom. And by doing so, the next generation will further understand the need to study and protect our oceans for all of our futures.

The Miraculous Tale of the Whale

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Written for The Ocean Agency | 2 July 2016

Last week, I really needed to hear some good news about the ocean, a story that would cheer me up, a story about nature bouncing back from catastrophe.

I had just returned from a gathering of the world’s best coral reef scientists in Hawaii where shocking facts were confirmed that I’d been hearing for a while now – climate change is going to wipe out most coral reefs. We are committed to about 25 years of continued ocean warming due to greenhouse gas emissions already in the system. This will take us beyond their maximum temperature tolerance. The global bleaching event, which has just killed 22% of Great Barrier Reef this year, is really just a taste of what’s to come.

Coral reefs are our planets most diverse ecosystem with up to a million species. They are both the nurseries of our global fish stocks and one of our best natural medicine cabinets, full of future cures. The fact that we are committed to virtually losing them, certainly ranks as a catastrophe. Quite frankly the situation is depressing, which is why I needed a good news story so badly.   

Like most people, I already knew a bit about Humpback Whales - I was aware we had nearly wiped them out. We had hunted them down until they were close to extinction. I also knew that, since we stopped commercial whaling, their numbers had recovered reasonably well. However I had no idea to what degree. What I found out surprised me.

By 1966 we had hunted Humpback Whales down to their last 4% (compared to their pre whaling population). Just 5,000 individuals survived. If we’d killed any more, their scarcity and limited genetic pool would have made any recovery increasing unlikely. But we didn’t. Instead we stopped killing them just in time. We stabilised the system, by removing hunting, and we allowed nature to do what it does best. Flourish.

I was expecting Humpback Whale numbers to be up to 20 or 30% from their original numbers. However their recovery has been far more impressive than I expected. There are now around 80,000 individuals (65% of their original numbers) and their numbers are still improving at about 8% per year. That’s phenomenal recovery.

Understanding nature’s ability to recover so strongly, gives me hope for coral reefs. There is no reason to think an ecosystem, like coral reefs, can’t bounce back in the same way.

Like we did with Humpback Whales we will take them to the brink - less than 10% are likely to survive the committed warming already in the system and that’s just the global issue. There are increasing threats from over fishing and pollutions on a local level too.

However we have time to halt the warming and protect the surviving reefs on a local scale from other threats - to stabilise the system and stop the decline. If we do this in time nature can go to work. By the end of this century we could be seeing a similar recovery to the miraculous recovery of Humpback Whales. It’s a vision for the future that makes me want to double our efforts to protect coral reefs.

The simple fact is we have no choice but to stabilise global warming to under 2 degrees C (above pre industrial temperatures), the science is clear on this. The consequences would be too catastrophic for humanity if we don’t. It is a massive task to achieve this but action is finally ramping up and every government knows we have no other option.

The good news is, by saving ourselves; we’ll still have the potential to save coral reefs. By stabilising the global temperature under a 2 degrees C rise, nature will go to work, creating not just new reefs but reefs more resilient than ever. 

A Deeply Disturbing Dive

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Written for The Ocean Agency | 7 June 2016

Some of the media reports in recent weeks have overstated the facts about the bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – the truth is the southern part of the reef was virtually unaffected. However, even the most conservative estimates of the impact in the north still rank the bleaching as one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. We were there to see it first hand and it was the most disturbing sight we have ever seen.

Bill and Shannon Joy made the trip to the remote far north possible - allowing us to use their amazing yacht Ethereal as our research boat. We started the main mission at Lizard Island, which we'd previously visited at the height of the bleaching five weeks earlier and headed north from there. On the last trip the reef at Lizard Island was in the sad but hauntingly beautiful phase - the corals had lost their colour and their skeletons, visible through their clear flesh, were glowing white

We were expecting to see a similar but faded sight when we returned, but when we jumped in to revisit the sites we knew so well from the previous trip, we were shocked by the transformation. The white hard corals had turned brown - they were dead and covered in algae. They looked like they'd been dead for years. The soft corals were even more shocking. They were in a state of decomposition and were literally dripping off the rocks. It was a deeply disturbing sight. It was followed by a deeply disturbing smell as soon as we got out of the water. We smelt of the rotting flesh of animals. It was an experience we will never forget.  

We hope we never have to witness anything like it again. But we know we will. The ocean is committed to continued warming for at least the next two decades due to carbon emissions already in the system. Dangerous climate change is here and it's now or never for protection of coral reefs.

On the Frontline of Climate Change: the Great Barrier Reef

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Written for Virgin Unite 9 June 2016

Our team has seen more of the Great Barrier Reef than virtually anyone. In 2012, with our scientific partner The University of Queensland, we carried out the most comprehensive survey of the reef that has ever been conducted.

Using our specially developed 360-degree cameras mounted on underwater scooters we photographed the reef on an unprecedented scale as the first part of our global survey of coral reefs (XL Catlin Global Reef Record). I fell in love with the reef on those expeditions, especially the northern section, one of the wildest places on Earth.

Unfortunately the Great Barrier Reef has been hitting the global headlines recently. The Third Global Coral Bleaching Event has impacted most of the 2400 kilometres of reef and has devastated the pristine Far Northern Management Area – scientists have estimated 50 per cent of the corals there have died. Many media reports have overstated the facts about the bleaching regarding the reef as whole, but even the most conservative estimates of the impact still rank it as one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. I know that’s true because I witnessed it first hand. We were there, at the epicentre of the bleaching at its peak and we recently returned to see if the corals had recovered or died. What we saw was the most disturbing sight I have ever seen underwater. 

When we entered the water at Lizard Island, we were shocked. The hard coral had almost all died and it looked like it had been dead for years even though we had photographed it during the bleaching six weeks earlier. Most of the soft coral was still there, but it was decomposing and in places, literally dripping off the reef. It was a challenging sight, one I hope I never have to witness again. What was even more confronting was the smell. When we returned to the boat after the dive, we stank of rotting corals. There was absolutely no escaping the fact that this was not just a beautiful environment dying – it was animals dying on a monumental scale.

So what was it that caused these animals to die on such a scale and what can be done about it? Corals, given time, are remarkably good at adapting to cope with their local environment – they are finely tuned to cope with the natural fluctuations in temperature, even temperature spikes in El Nino years. However global warming has upset the system – a staggering 93 per cent of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean and the most vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs are paying the price. They are no longer able to cope with normal peaks in temperature, they simply haven’t been given the time to adapt to the new conditions. Huge numbers of corals have bleached and died globally (their colourful flesh turns transparent, revealing their bright white skeletons – a process which results in the animal starving). The first global bleaching event happening as recently as 1998, the second was in 2010 and we already have the third event – the longest and potentially most severe bleaching event of the three. 

The bad news for the Great Barrier Reef is the worst is yet to come. We are committed to about a quarter of a century of increasing ocean temperatures as a result of carbon emissions already in the system. That means that bleaching events will become ever more frequent and will, most likely, increase in intensity over the coming years. This is on top of huge local pressures like water quality issues caused by coastal development. Can we save the Great Barrier Reef? I believe we can, if at this critical moment in time, we do everything we can to protect it from local stresses so it can better cope with the inevitable onslaught of bleaching events and powerful storms. Saving enough of the reef so that it can slowly re-seed itself and recover over time.

But that strategy will only buy us time. We must also keep to the internationally agreed targets for global warming set at COP21 if the reef is to have any chance at all. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef is the biggest wakeup call yet, that dangerous climate change is upon us – hopefully the plight of this global wonder can be turned into inspiration… the inspiration we need for the world to act.

Global Bleaching Event Hits Hard in the Indian Ocean

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Written for The Ocean Agency | 1 June 2016

The peak of the coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef is over. An estimated 35% of all the corals in the northern and central sections have died - it was one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. Now all we can do is help make sure the reef is given the best chance to recover (as well as it can) before the next bleaching event inevitably hits.

However the bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef was not the end of the 3rd Global Bleaching Event. That keeps rolling on from region to region. It is currently hitting the Indian Ocean as revealed in the latest imagery released.

"The bleaching we just witnessed in the Maldives was truly haunting," said Richard Vevers, founder of The Ocean Agency. "It's rare to see reefs bleach quite so spectacularly. These were healthy reefs in crystal clear water at the height of an intense bleaching event. The flesh of the corals had turned clear and we were seeing the skeletons of the animals glowing white for as far as the eye could see - it was a beautiful, yet deeply disturbing sight."

"We've been following this 3rd Global Bleaching Event since the start nearly two years ago and just when you think you've seen the saddest sight you'll ever see, you see something even worse."  

The Ocean Agency in partnership with XL Catlin (the global insurance and reinsurance company), Google and scientists at The University of Queensland and NOAA have been responding to the bleaching event since it started in late 2014.  Using specially developed cameras, they are the only ones set up to chase the event, dispatching teams on a global basis to visually record it. The unique 360-degree imagery they have produced is revealing the true scale of a global bleaching event to the world. 

“The current global bleaching event is already lasted longer than any previous bleaching event and is likely to last until at least the end of the year." stated Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA Coral Reef Watch. 

The ocean absorbs 93% of climate change heat. Global Bleaching Events are a new phenomenon caused by this additional heat (there have only been three in recorded history - all within the last 20 years). Both the frequency and severity of these events are predicted to increase for at least the next two decades due to committed global warming already in the Earth's system. 

When Did the Ocean Lose Its Magic?

Written for The Ocean Agency | 22 December 2015

Written for The Ocean Agency | 22 December 2015

Last week a giant squid appeared in a harbour in Japan. It was the stuff of legends. A sci-fi like encounter so rare that it has only been captured twice before. Yet it barely made the news and the Kracken just disappeared back down to the deep.

When did we lose our fascination with the ocean? In the age of Jules Verne, there was nowhere more exciting. Jacques Cousteau kept it going, our love affair with his Silent World, but since then the ocean has slowly, but surely, drifted out of sight and out of mind. 

The ocean hasn't changed. We have. We still have an alien world on our planet, every bit as magical and bizarre as in Jules Verne's days. Yet we're not really interested anymore.

I can't help but think we're missing out. However that isn't the real problem. The ocean is the source of life on our unique planet and we're not noticing that it is failing - failing because of us. We're not noticing and we're not acting. 

It's time we brought the magic back. To re-engage people with the ocean. People have evolved quite literally, our brains have been rewired by the onslaught of technology. But ocean communication hasn't evolved. It's time that changed.

Now there's a creative challenge to get excited about.