This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.Text and photos by Jürgen Freund, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.
The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation is circumnavigating the globe on a five year research mission to study the world’s coral reefs. Scientific opportunities to do research like this don’t come along everyday but that’s just one of the reasons that their Global Reef Expedition is so special. Another is that it involves a multidisciplinary team of scientists from many countries and institutions. For about a month at a time the researchers come together to live aboard the M/Y Golden Shadow to collect scientific data from remote corners of the ocean.
Organizing the daily activities of the multi-faceted scientific team is the job of chief scientist Dr Andrew Bruckner, he coordinates the comings and goings of each research team as they gather different types of crucial data. I joined the Golden Shadow on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) to see how a scientific survey of this scale is managed.
The coral and fish scientists shared two big dive tenders – the Calcutta Cat and Leisure Cat. The M/Y Golden Shadow stayed far from the reef and these catamarans were the vessels that got us through big ocean swells to the far and wide destinations of the inner and outer reefs of the GBR.
Only the shark and pelagic guys had their own boat, the Parker 680 Jet since their dive pattern differed very much from the more stationary diving of coral & fish surveyors. As one would expect their whole survey approach was much more active and felt more adventurous. Not that you don’t see a shark on a coral survey, but having your nose deep in some coral hole makes you blind to the surrounding.
Aside from looking for sharks and pelagic fish underwater the shark researcher Dr. William Robbins from Perth, Western Australia brought his quadcopter to find sharks and other big creatures more quickly during dive intervals from a higher altitude. Drones have recently become an affordable way to collect information during limited boat times and have greatly contributed to the scientific data.
Brett Taylor, dive buddy of Will Robbins is doing his PhD at James Cook University. His study has to do with surveying reef-associated fish assemblages so he uses this stereo video camera. Underwater, creatures are magnified and the eyes can play tricks on you, but accurate measurements of the size of fish are key to understanding the fish population. With this 3D device and specialized software, Brett precisely measures the size of parrotfishes.
Executive Director of Living Oceans Foundation, retired US Navy Captain Philip Renaud, deploys a current meter in one of the channels in the outer reefs. These are the places where currents run fastest because of the high water volume that is pressed through these narrow passages. The plan was to install the current meter in about 30-meter depth during slack tide. That is the time when the ocean currents change direction and were nearly at a stand still – the safest time to dive.
The unit is quite heavy and had to be anchored down deep. But to get the data back it has to be retrieved 24 hours later. In order to counter the current meter’s weight, Phil used an air filled lift bag where air can be added or released. Assisted by the dive safety officer Jonathan Barnes they carefully float the current meter back to the surface.
On board the Golden Shadow was a tow video camera that I liked to call the yellow submarine. This photogenic, torpedo looking camera housing is tethered to a topside computer and the gadget goes all the way down to 25 meters.
To document the corals that we found on the reef I had brought along my own specialist camera equipment. Around 20 years ago, while still living in Germany, I tinkered with fluorescent photography of marine creatures, mainly in the Caribbean Sea. In the beginning I re-modeled a UV money detector into my own DIY underwater housing, used real UV lens filters in front of my underwater strobes. But this never really worked well. At some point I stumbled upon Charlie Mazel from Nightsea, an American scientist who interestingly did the same thing with UV filters. But he was some steps ahead of me and developed a set of filters, both for strobes and the camera lens that made the whole fluorescent photographic experience work. Today I always carry my Nightsea filter-kit in my camera box. On this GBR mission, I was itching to look for some fluorescing corals in the Great Barrier Reef. For some strange reason, there were reefs bursting with fluorescent corals and some right next to them with almost none. There are various theories around why corals and other marine creatures fluoresce. I am not a scientist, so I keep myself out of these theories and just get enthralled by the beauty of nature.
The only limiting factor is the very reduced light that is available. As you can imagine, if you place a number of filters, both on your strobe and on your lens, that would reduce the light quite a bit. But modern digital cameras are very forgiving; I just set the camera to manual mode at about ISO400, 1/250s exposing time and f-stop 8 and go from there. My Seacam strobes, which are quite powerful, I set in manual mode at ½ power. Depending on the individual coral, I had to adjust the flash power either up or down depending on the strength of reemitted light. That’s it. The rest was focusing manually with a macro lens and playing. Here are some outcomes of incredibly psychedelic corals!