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The Long Game: Studying Coral Reefs at Their Own Pace

Long before I was a career scientist, I developed a love for photography. While I couldn’t afford an underwater housing to document the underwater world diving had brought into my life, I spent countless nights after work driving out to photograph the California coastline near Davenport. I spent weeks returning to the same location waiting for just the right conditions, just the right sunset or cloud cover, and began to notice how life in the intertidal moved at a different pace from my own. Over nearly a year of trips I came away with a few good photos, but I mostly gained a deep appreciation for observing biological processes on their own unique timescale.

Nearly six years later, I am now a third-year PhD student at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa studying coral reefs (Image 1). If you know anything about corals, you probably know that they grow remarkably slowly. Like the redwood forests of Northern California, the unique habitats provided by complex coral reefs require many decades to mature, built up by the unhurried process of larval recruitment and incremental growth. However, unlike a terrestrial forest, observing coral recruitment and growth over long periods of time requires extraordinary amounts of resources and patience. Ask yourself, what would it take financially and logistically for you to photograph the same coral colony every day for a year? Now imagine doing that for many, many corals all at once, or a particularly deep reef where decompression becomes a factor. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, but high-resolution data like these are what we need to understand the biology of coral reefs on their own terms to improve conservation practices and better manage threatened reef systems (Image 2 & 3).

With the help of my grant from the AAUS Foundation I completed closed-circuit rebreather training so I could spend even more time on the seafloor trying to understand long-term processes of coral ecology. Wanting more time still, about a year ago I began developing CoralCam, a low-cost camera designed for time lapse photography of coral colonies (Image 4). CoralCam is open access, meaning anyone can build one with about $80 of parts and a soldering iron. Its low cost makes CoralCam friendly for a graduate student’s budget, but what’s unique is that it can be left on the seafloor for up to a month of twice-daily photo collection. Why is this important? Because virtually every important event of a coral’s life occurs outside of the few moments we might spend observing it during a dive. In a world where corals reefs are on the brink, it might surprise many that science hardly understands what drives coral larvae to settle, what predators feed on juvenile corals, or how corals interact with each other on short timescales. These are critical questions that remain unanswered, but that I hope are now within reach. Thanks to CoralCam we are already getting to see some really interesting interactions, such as regular feeding behavior of Opheodesoma spectabilis, a unique Hawaiian Sea Cucumber, which appears to remove sedimentation around small-sized coral fragments (Image 5).

For the first time, myself and other scientists on a budget can get to know coral reefs (and many other marine systems) at daily and sub-daily timescales. We can place cameras over recruitment tiles and watch for daily patterns in coral settlement, linking them to environmental data to better plan reef restoration efforts. We can better understand the ecological impacts of coral bleaching, a worldwide phenomenon, by placing cameras on reefs in the weeks before a projected heat wave. Or, we can encourage stewardship by asking networks of citizen scientists to adopt a reef and conduct their own CoralCam surveys. In my own research I plan to use CoralCam to better understand the spread of coral diseases, an increasingly prevalent impact affecting reefs worldwide.

Much like I experienced on the California coast, I hope new technologies will allow us to take a closer look, spend a little more time, and appreciate the true complexity of the underwater worlds we have all come to love. I am immensely grateful to the AAUS Foundation for their support as I pursue my research, and I hope that this small piece provides new perspectives for others like myself who may be financially or logistically limited. Lastly, I would like to dedicate this article to Joshua Copus, a fellow UH Mānoa graduate student and rebreather diver who died on November 12, 2019 during a research expedition to the Solomon Islands. There are great scientists, and then there are great explorers, Josh was both. I hope we all continue his legacy through conservation, science, and exploration (Image 6). 

Note: If you would like to build a CoralCam you can view the complete how-to guide at the article linked below and access all design files (including a how-to video)
at the Open Science Framework repository linked below as well.
Link to CoralCam article: 
Link to CoralCam OSF Repository:

Austin Greene, MSc
PhD Student & Graduate Research Asst. Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology - UH Manoa
2018 AAUS Doctoral Scholarship Recipient


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