The mission to save the world’s coral

With coral reefs around the world threatened by global warming, the pioneering XL Catlin Seaview Survey is creating a Google Street View of the world’s oceans – and raising awareness of a looming crisis

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, June 2015)

Did you know the world has lost more than 40 per cent of its coral in the past 30 years? Or that in 1982-83, a rise in water temperatures killed 97 per cent of the coral off the Galapagos Islands? Did you know that coral bleaching – when coral loses its colour and dies, mostly due to rises in water temperatures – is considered by experts to be one of the most damaging effects of climate change?

If the answer to all of the above is “no”, you’re not alone. Enter the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which is documenting the world’s coral reefs one panoramic photo at a time, including adding underwater shots to Google Street View. The survey is simultaneously gathering scientific data and raising awareness of the challenges facing the reefs, which include overfishing and pollution.

The team, led by British advertiser-turned-dive-photographer Richard Vevers, has already documented 800km of reef in 24 countries, with plans to keep going.

“This is an urgent race against time,” says Vevers over the phone. “We’re losing one or two per cent of the world’s reefs every year, and urgent action is required. But the basic problem is that we’re a terrestrial species, and only 0.1 per cent of us sticks our head underwater and looks around. What started off as an advertising issue became a scientific issue too, because we realised what scientists can do with this data.”

Vevers had quit advertising in London to become a dive photographer based in Australia when he realised the need to spread the word about the severe degradation of coral across the world, which is important not least because coral houses 25 per cent of all marine life. In 2011, he secured sponsorship from Bermuda-based insurance group Catlin and set about gathering a 25-strong team of scientists and divers, many from the University of Queensland, while designing and building a game-changing camera (see right) that would make surveying the ocean 30 times more efficient.

Since the first dive, on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012, the team has been to 13 countries in the Caribbean, as well as the Coral Triangle around Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and parts of the Indian  Ocean such as the Maldives. You can take an online tour of the more than 100,000 panoramic images at globalreefrecord.org, and can already see many of the best views on Google Street View.

Vevers says the XL Catlin Seaview Survey is the “largest stocktake of coral reefs ever”, and that the main aim is to enlighten people about threats to coral reefs. “Essentially, climate change is hitting the sea harder than anywhere else – and it’s an issue that is being massively under-reported.”

The most obvious effect of warmer waters is mass coral bleaching, which was first reported in 1979, and the 60 bleaching events since have been the result of rises in sea temperatures. Many of the bleaching events happen during  El Niño, natural phases of warmer waters whose effects have been exacerbated by global warming. An intense El Niño event in 1998 caused 16 per cent of the world’s coral to die, including two-thirds of the coral around the Maldives, and various periods since have had devastating local effects, such as the 1982 El Niño in Galapagos or the 1997/98 event  that caused 16 per cent of the world’s reefs to die, including 90 per cent in the Maldives. A mass bleaching is predicted this year.

“They’re like underwater heatwaves,” says Vevers, “and once the coral is irrevocably dead, it can take thousands of years to come back.” On top of rising water temperatures, researchers have said that if CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, rising acidity in the ocean could mean that all coral reefs will be dead by the year 2100.

Bur reefs can bounce back. “The Maldives, for example, have mostly recovered,” says Vevers. “But for a lot of areas the damage has been irreversible. Part of our research is seeing which reefs bounce back, and how we can help others do the same.”

Vevers’ main hope is that people wake up to the severity of this crisis, and he says there is hope. “We’ve already had more people going on virtual dives through the Seaview Survey than have ever actually dived in the ocean. And by getting corporate as well as governmental involvement, we’ve been able to get things done a lot faster than is usually the case with similar projects.” They have an exhibition coming up at London’s Natural History Museum and are scaling up their partnerships with big companies such as Google.

And it’s not all bad news. “The reason we care so much,” says Vevers, “is that there’s still this magical world down there – we just want as many people as possible to see it, and realise how important it is that we protect that world.”

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