Coral reefs are some of the most spectacular and diverse ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately, they are also among the most heavily degraded marine ecosystems. Over the last two decades, coral communities have experienced drastic health declines in response to increasingly stressful environmental conditions.

Let’s Go Back a Step

You may be asking yourself right now, “coral health must be a made-up term; can it really be something I have to concern myself with?”. These questions are not completely unfounded. It has only been in the last two decades that the health of these exquisite ecosystems has become something of relevance to more than just scientists and conservationists. This isn’t to say that their health has not been a concern — as coral bleaching has been a term thrown around since I was a kid — but just that it didn’t really seem to bother anyone that much. It had a similar air to the concept of global warming and climate change, in that it very much exists, but “there are people dealing with it, so how much should I really worry right now?”.

The thing is, all environmental concerns are global, complex, and need the attention of everyone to even feel marginal relief. For coral reefs to be able to breathe, it takes both you and me swimming by to appreciate them, take that appreciation, and turn it into founded assistance. This was one such way that CoralWatch was born.

OK, So What Is CoralWatch Then?

Almost 20 years ago, four friends and colleagues heard the news of the massive bleaching event that occurred on Heron Island — home to a large portion of the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea — and decided that they wanted to help others learn why events like these need to stop. Based at The University of Queensland in Australia, these friends set up a program that allows monitoring of coral reefs around the world. This program came to be known as CoralWatch, aiming to improve understanding of the coral reef dynamic, the role of coral bleaching in their health, and how climate change is affecting them. CoralWatch is a non-profit citizen science program that connects scientific research and monitoring, education, and public outreach to create awareness of reef importance. What is so ingenious about this program is that it is done by volunteers all over the world through using simple, yet extremely engaging, tools. These tools have evolved with the times and now include interactive maps for children as well as easy-to-follow color charts for the concerned citizen.

Why Is It Important?

Coral reefs and the ecosystems that they create are critical sources of food and protection for a multitude of ocean organisms. Not only this, reefs also provide coastal protection against drastic weather changes and even extreme climate events such as tidal waves and hurricanes. Over time, it has become more and more prevalent that coral reefs are valuable economic reserves that require careful attention paid to their health and wellbeing. In light of this realization, a mechanism to assess their state and projected response to potential future environmental changes was an extremely helpful and welcome tool.

The Role of Coral Bleaching

As I mentioned above, coral bleaching is not a new phenomenon. It has been around for decades, with four major bleaching events occurring in this century alone. But the nitty gritty of what it is exactly is not well known: so what is it? Bleaching is a process where corals are stripped of the symbiotic algae — known as zooxanthellae — normally housed within them. The function of zooxanthellae is two-fold, serving as coral’s main food and energy source as well as giving it its vibrant color. Environmental stress events place enormous pressure on coral systems, with corals reacting by expelling these vital zooxanthellae. When these stress events revert themselves naturally and in a timely fashion, corals can recover, such as with short sustained periods of warm temperatures. But when these stress events are longer lasting, they can trigger the formation of disease, making them too weak to recover and ultimately leading to death. Unfortunately, mass bleaching events have become one of the most prevalent and visible negative environmental impacts across the globe, even being photographed from space on cloudless days.

Bleaching is one of the ocean’s harshest realities and its biggest natural predator. The enormous task that coral bleaching challenges us with is a primary driver of programs like CoralWatch. Monitoring the mammoth task that bleaching is all but begs for assistance from the everyday citizen. Thankfully, so many have answered this call by using the CoralWatch Chart. And you can too!

The Chart

Since its inception in 2002, CoralWatch has provided hands-on training and experience on scientific data collection, providing learning materials to education facilities from primary school all the way through to specialized tertiary levels. The Coral Health Chart is one such way they have made it possible for world-wide volunteers (maybe you!) to participate in this vital research. The chart is simply that, a hand-held chart that allows anyone to assess any given coral based on predetermined color variations indicating different health levels. With no prior training required, both you and I may contribute to coral health reports on different sides of the globe at the same time. The steps are straight forward, just requiring you to take note of the different color shades you have identified along with the coral type, so that you may be able to submit your recorded data online. There is even a freely-downloadable app for the technophiles, CoralWatch Data Entry!

OK, I’m Interested, How Do I Get Involved?

To get your hands on this handy chart, head over to the CoralWatch website here to download the “Do-It-Yourself Kit” in your chosen language. From there, grab a buddy or two, some sunscreen, and water, and venture out to your chosen coral region to carry out your survey! Conducting a survey is pretty simple if you follow these seven steps.

  1. Select your favorite (or totally random) coral and look for the lightest area.
  2. Using the chart, rotate it until you find the closest matching color.
  3. Make a note of the closest matching color code in your data record.
  4. Select the darkest color area of the coral and again make a note of the matching color code.
  5. Record the coral type in your data record.
  6. Continue this process with other random corals in the area, making sure to record at least 20 corals.
  7. Log onto the CoralWatch Data Entry App or directly enter your data record on the website. You will need to set up an account for yourself that takes just a few minutes.

Both the website and the App have tons of additional information to help you with identifying your coral and/or designing your survey.

What Happens With The Coral Data I Collected?

Collected data from across the globe has contributed to numerous studies and scientific analyses on the response of coral to the shifting climate. Data that you help to collect will be used to answer questions like: Do all corals in a reef bleach together? Are some reefs immune to bleaching, and if so, why? How long does it take for a reef to recover after a short-term bleaching event?

CoralWatch Successes

The CoralWatch Chart is able to be used either in the field itself or in the classroom. It is available in 12 languages and has detailed data provided for more than 230,000 corals. This data has been gathered from over 1,910 reefs across 79 countries and is completely accessible to the public. Because of the success so far in data collection, CoralWatch has been able to develop regularly scheduled training workshops for teachers, communities, and the public. Which has in turn assisted with publishing far-reaching, multimedia educational materials, of which many are freely available online.

Further Ways to Help Corals

  1. Look, but please do not touch

Corals are delicate in nature and easily breakable. When you are next snorkeling or diving around a reef, be sure to avoid touching or snagging them. Be extra vigilant with your fins so as not to accidently kick or step on their branches.

  1. Anchor in the sand

When out boating where there may be corals around, make sure to anchor directly onto the sandy shore bottom rather than onto the reef. Also check that the direction the anchor will be dragged in will not take it straight into the reef, breaking the corals in its wake.

  1. Check your sunscreen

Sunscreen is a must-have when out in the sun, especially in water where it acts as a reflective surface. However, many sunscreens are made with chemicals that can badly damage corals, disrupting their hormones, affecting reproduction, and sometimes even resulting in death. Be on the lookout for sunscreens that are labelled as “reef-safe” and do your research before you make a purchase.

  1. Live more sustainably

There are so many articles on the internet that give us guidance on how to live more sustainably and how it contributes to the health of our ecosystems. A few of the simplest transition lifestyle changes include: planting more trees to attract pollinators; recycling and finding out where your trash goes; buying your food locally; and avoiding fertilizers in your garden.

  1. Ask about your seafood

Corals are constantly under threat from unsustainable fishing activities. Because of this, it is important that when purchasing seafood — even from a restaurant — you ask questions on the origin and catch technique. The aim of this practice is that eventually sellers will focus on fish that is sustainably caught.

  1. Sharing what you know

The easiest and most fulfilling way to help out is to share the tips and tricks you learn along the way. Involving friends in your surveys and get talking to others about your experiences.