For many, French Polynesia is a place to escape for a vacation or honeymoon to bask along the white sand beaches while sipping on umbrella drinks. Most people don't even scratch the surface of the diverse ecosystem that surrounds these islands on their visits. I've traveled to the area many times to shoot everything from resort life to indigenous cultures. However, on my most recent visit as a photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers, I was there to tell a different kind of story altogether.
In 2011, the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation started their journey circumnavigating the globe to study the planet's coral belt and determine the health of these majestic underwater structures. The Foundations' world class scientists and researchers use the M/Y Golden Shadow as a research platform. The vessel is fully equipped with a lab, hyperbaric chamber, and dive locker stacked with scientific equipment. To push the frontiers of coral reef conservation and exploration further, the Foundation invites a rotating cast of local researchers, teachers, and scientists to participate and gather as much scientific data as possible. Earlier this year, I spent 15 days as a part of this team bringing the science to life through photos. Joining me as my assistant was Megan Cook, an Our World Underwater Rolex scholar. Our journey was not to the more known island groups of Bora-Bora or Tahiti, but to the remote Southern Tuamotus and Gambiers. Not only are they seldom visited, some of these atolls and reefs had never been dived before our arrival!
I thought I had a lot of photographic equipment with me for this task but it paled in comparison to the enormous amount of gear the scientists need to diagnose the health of a reef. Their basic gear includes a transect grid, a small camera, sampling bags, waterproof charts, line reels and sometimes even an underwater capable power drill which is used to extract core samples from the coral. As with the rings of a tree, age, storm or disease impact, bleaching events and recovery time can all be gleaned from a tiny piece of coral. The stories that can be read from these samples are invaluable for researchers.
Besides testing the coral itself, scientists look at all the other factors surrounding it. Instruments are placed to measure, among other things, temperature and acidification of the nearby waters. Creatures and plants are collected and identified as they are often important indicators of the overall health of a reef. Researchers conduct fish counts by laying down transects and recording every fish that swims within a 4-meter area. Since this same methodology is used all over the world, data can be compared from any reef on the planet.
While stable, self-perpetuating underwater communities were found in the Gambier Islands, a worrying trend was observed. The main concern captured not only by researchers but by my camera lens as well, was a significantly low population of fish, especially predators, in many areas. A place as remote as the Tuamotus and Gambiers should be teeming with an enormous variety of tropical fish. There should be tuna hunting large schools of baitfish and sharks following right behind. These reefs are by and large very healthy and could easily support denser fish populations. Moreover, the lack of larger species isn't due to fishing practices of the local human population. The islanders here are still few and far between and have sustained the marine life for generations as a valuable, and often their only, food source. It all begs the question of who else is navigating these waters. The idea that commercial boats from other countries are coming in and scooping up as many fish as their nets and tanks can hold is not pleasant. But the demand for seafood and the complete lack of monitoring or policing in the area means the possibility is very real.
These sorts of conclusions are hard to relay to the public through science alone. One scientist who studies this issue for years would be lucky to get published in a scientific journal. Few people outside of the same field would ever see their information. When a variety of disciplines are brought together to tell a story as happened on this expedition, a much richer and more compelling picture emerges that appeals to a broad audience. By itself, photography can be beautiful but you need data to take you deeper into the photos and their meaning. Projects such as these that are not only multidisciplinary, but involve the cooperation of several organizations, are the key to inciting passion and bringing change to environmental issues.
To read more of the scientists work during the Tuamotu/Gambier segment of the expedition, go to the Recent Mission: French Polynesia page at www.livingoceansfoundation.org.