As frequently chronicled here and elsewhere, the world’s reefs are struggling to deal with a variety of environmental issues. From climate change to pollution and marine debris, the world’s coral is in trouble. The most effective management approaches to control these threats are always based on sound science. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough diver-scientists in the world to collect all the data we need to fully understand and manage our reefs. This is where the recreational diver can step in, becoming a citizen scientist for the oceans.
Some organizations have realized that divers are some of the best advocates for marine conservation, and most divers are happy to help. Citizen science is a fantastic opportunity to lend a hand and fill in the gaps that science sorely needs to help marine life survive the tough years ahead. Best of all, you don’t need to be an expert or even motivated by science to become a citizen scientist for the oceans.
Plenty of programs, designed away from the classroom, feature easy-to-follow instructions for turning your dive vacation into something more meaningful. Often you’ll simply take a photo or fill out a form. Given this opportunity, the Green Fins initiative promotes and includes guidelines for participation in citizen science programs.
If possible, choose a Green Fins member when booking your vacation. If not, ask your dive operator if there are any programs running locally, or search for organizations reaching out to divers near your destination. Following are a few organizations that could use your help as a citizen scientist.
Record a seahorse sighting or take a quick photo and add your observations to the iSeahorse database. If you’ve honed your ID skills, you can even work to identify the pictures that other citizen scientists upload.
Adding to the iSeahorse database is as simple as downloading the iOS app or uploading your pictures via the website. Experts behind iSeahorse then analyze the information and create better habitat-management and protection plans in seahorse hotspots. This not only protects the seahorses but also protects the surrounding dive sites, which makes for an all-round better diving experience.
Whether you’d like to help out in the marine environment or topside, iNaturalist.org will have something for you. Search their different projects or select specific species to record. Your submitted observations enter an international database for everyone to access. Don’t know what you’re looking at? Upload an image and the network of observers will identify it for you. The goal is to have enough people recording information that the database can continually evolve and grow. As it does so, iNaturalist can monitor changes in biodiversity, habitat shifts as climate changes, and influence scientific policy.
Marine Research Center in the Maldives
If you’re heading to the Maldives, check out The Marine Research Center and you might just end up with a turtle named after you. Maybe not, but by photographing turtles and submitting images to the resource center, you’ll help them track sightings for better population management. The center is also collecting information on reef sharks, manta rays and whale sharks.
Wildbook for Whalesharks
Despite their incredible size, we still know very little about whale-shark behaviors, lifecycles, reproductive habits and birthing grounds. Slowly we are learning more and more, largely thanks to the information citizen scientists have gathered.
Each whale shark’s spot pattern is unique, but as the shark grows, the angles between the spots stay the same. Using the same algorithms that define constellations, scientists have created a fantastic database in Wildbook for Whale Sharks. Here, photos of spot patterns are automatically compared and matched to previously identified individual sharks. Wildbook for Whalesharks will even notify you if someone has recorded the same shark.
For this method to work, divers or snorkelers must take photos of the same area on the shark’s body, at the same angle. For the proper technique, get down to the same depth as the shark, just above the pectoral fin, and capture the area from the last gill slit to immediately after the pectoral fin. The photo’s angle should be level with the shark’s angle. The frame shot should include the gill slits to the start of the first dorsal fin. In this way, you keep a responsible distance from the shark and don’t disrupt your encounter. If your camera has a burst mode, use it here — at least one shot is likely to be at the right angle. Upload those photos to Wildbook to see if yours is one of the rare matches across the world.
Just as with whale sharks, we know shockingly little about the secret life of manta rays. It was only in 2009 that Dr. Andrea Marshall and her team proved that there were two separate species of manta ray. Like their whale shark cousins, mantas have a unique spot pattern that we can use to identify them, this time on their underbelly.
MantaMatcher is the Wildbook-equivalent database for manta rays. To participate, let the animal control the encounter, but try to get below it. Its natural curiosity means that the manta will likely approach you. Let the manta pass overhead, and try to get the its entire underside in your shot. Take lots of pictures, especially if there are lots of remora fish around. You must also learn how to identify the animal’s gender — don’t worry, it’s quite easy.
Because of our limited knowledge about both whale sharks and mantas, each photo you upload is incredibly important. But the most important part of any encounter with marine life is to avoid harassing it or causing it stress. If getting the shot is going to bother the animal, forget it and try again next time.
Reef Check EcoDiver
If you’re interested in marine science, become certified as a Reef Check EcoDiver. You will learn how to identify all the main species while also learning techniques to improve your buoyancy. Across the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific there are many surveys and courses you can get involved with to help collate data on the world’s most diverse ecosystems. Learning to identify coral bleaching can also help alert management authorities to the ecosystem. Check out ReefCheck and ReefBase for more information.
The Ocean Conservancy
Whatever our interests, we can all collect trash whenever we see it on beaches and reefs. The Ocean Conservancy has a Coastal Clean-up Day each year in September, but you can also submit your clean-up data to them any time of year using their Cleanswell app, available for both Android and iOS. The app also tracks the weight of collected trash and the route of your clean up. You can also share your information to social media for additional outreach. Find out more about previous efforts in their Annual Ocean Trash Index Report.
These are just a few of the growing network of citizen-science programs across the world. With our unique skills as divers, we can use our fins for good and get involved. The more we know, the better we understand, and the stronger our collective conservation impact will become.