Coral Reef Conference in Hawaii

The International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Hawaii has come to an end. While I am using the opportunity to explore more of Hawaii, I figured it could be interesting to share some of the highlights. ICRS is a huge conference held once every 4 years, with about 2500 marine biologist gathering together for 5 days of presentations, workshops, poster sessions, networking and socializing. To give you an idea of just how much research was being presented: for 5 days straight up to 10 differently themed sessions would run at the same time. Session themes were very diverse, from reef fish ecology to the role of macro algae, to protected area management, genetic connectivity, effects of pollution, etc.

Conference centre

The very shiny conference centre

With literally more than a thousand interesting talks going on simultaneously, the hardest thing was choosing which ones to go see. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, there were very few talks about cryptic critters (3 to be precise), but there were plenty of other really good talks to see. So here is an overview of a few talks that stuck in my mind.

One of the plenary talks was to hand the the Darwin medal to Jack Randall, this medal is awarded once every four years in recognition of major scientific contributions throughout the career of a coral reef scientist. Most people reading this blog won’t know Jack Randall, but on his own he described more new species than any other fish taxonomist ever did. In other words, an absolute legend in the world of fish taxonomy. It was inspiring to hear him talk about his long career and to see how passionate he still is at the age of 92!

Another talk that stuck with me was a talk on cryptobenthic fishes (small fishes) living on coral reefs. Chris Goatley‘s research showed how important it can be for small fish to grow even the smallest bit. A difference of only 1mm can increase their chances of survival massively. Size however is not the only factor that helps them survive, for these small fishes, the most important thing seems to be experience. In other words, a fish of 2cm that is 2 months old has a much higher chance of surviving than a similar sized fish of 2 weeks old. Which proves that you can forget about that 3 second fish-memory myth as well.

Miss Baldisimo from the University of Philippines talked about the aquarium trade, a hot topic now that Finding Dory is out. The trade usually does not get much attention but it is still massive, and Philippines is the biggest exporter of marine aquarium fish globally. What was new to me, is that in some areas fishermen are starting to specialise in collecting frogfish! Unfortunately there is still massive overfishing and high mortality of the fish during catching and export. What makes this even more tragic, is that the fishermen are very poorly paid for their hard work, the price per fish has not increased in over 20 years! So think twice before you want to get a marine aquarium.


Clownfish in trouble? (Picture: Greg Lecoeur)

Also connected to Finding Dory, was a presentation about clownfish in the Red Sea. Researchers have noticed a huge decline (86%) in host anemones in the  gulf of Eilat. This has lead to a similar decline in Red Sea Anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus) and might even lead to a local extinction if this trend continuous. The researchers could not find the cause of this decline, which is particularly worrying. Luckily the species is very common in the rest of the Red Sea, so there is no immediate threat for the species as a whole.


I had the pleasure of watching the talk of a blogger I had been following before the conference even started. Jobot turned out to be someone I had actually already met a few years ago during fieldwork in Lizard Island. For her very cool project she used acoustic trackers to see when reef fish died or got eaten.  One of the most surprising results she found, was that most predation (fish being eaten by bigger fish) happened during the day and not at night! Sunset and sunrise were even more intense, which has been assumed for a long time, but the fact that less fish get eaten at night was a surprise for most people attending the talk.


Discussing fluorescence in fish

During the conference I presented a poster about the fluorescence research I have been doing the last year and a half. It seems that the poster was well received, as I got the student prize for the best poster during the conference. I am still not sure what I actually won since I was not present at the last plenary talk, so still some mystery in the aftermath of the conference.


Chilling out at HIMB

The day after the conference I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). HIMB is a world class research station located on a small island at the northeast coast of Oahu. Besides being a place where awesome science is done, they also had hammerhead sharks in their big enclosure, and seeing hammerheads is always a treat 😉


In short: I had a great time at the conference, not only because of the science but also because I got to meet up with old friends and meet a lot of great new people. The next few days I am off to do some volcano exploring on the Big Island in Hawaii, before heading back to Perth for some more serious sciencing!


Halfway there. (Already???)

It’s been a while since the last blog post, partially because I have been travelling a lot these last weeks. The main reason is because I have been busy finishing up the last of my fieldwork. I have been on the road for fieldwork for more than a year now, and collected all the data I needed for writing up my thesis. As I am writing this, I once again realise I am more than halfway through my PhD, it has gone so much faster than I could have imagined when I started at the end of 2014.

So far I’ve had a great time during my PhD. It is exhilarating to dream up a project, work hard for it and then actually get to do the project as well. Over the last 18 months I have visited and dived some absolutely amazing places, from the cold Swan River in Perth to amazing coral reefs in Raja Ampat and Komodo, to world class muck diving in Dauin and Lembeh. On those dives I have seen more critters than I would’ve dared to hope and also finally got to see some elusive ones I had never seen before. Finding species like Rhinopias, Hairy shrimp, Wunderpus, etc made the work even more rewarding than it already was.

Synchiropus picturatus_3_MDB

Another first time: the Picturesque Dragonet (Synchiropus picturatus)

The most rewarding part of doing this PhD though is learning a lot of new things. Some of them were really practical, like how to write a grant proposal or how to organise a long-term fieldwork session. Luckily I also got valuable insights in what I am actually studying. I have gotten a good understanding of soft sediment ecosystems, have gained insights of the social aspects of dive tourism, played around with biofluorescence, got to observe diver behaviour, and so much more. I will learn even more when I actually start analysing the bulk of the data, which is why I am very much looking forward to the next year and a half.


At work in Dauin

Some  general  trends that are already very clear, most importantly that there still is so much that we don’t know. The soft sediment ecosystems (=sand areas) I work on are a lot more diverse and full of life than what is currently assumed. We hardly know anything about the species that have evolved to live in these environments. We don’t know how long they live, how the communicate, how they reproduce, if they are threatened or not, … What we do know is that they are very important for local communities who can make a living of these ecosystems, either through tourism, fishing, or other means.

Which brings me to the people who have been crucial to this project. I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with a lot of great people. During the last two years I have also felt how the dive industry is not always just about making money. While for some it might be just about dollars, most people sincerely care about the environment they work in and want to protect it. I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has helped me with fieldwork. Notably Luke for being a splendid science hobbit, Dragos and his family for giving me a place to crash in Philippines, and Anne-Sophie and Fabien from Safari Bali for getting me on multiple liveaboard trips in Indonesia. The list of divecentres that helped me out is extensive, a massive thank you to these guys as well: Atlantis Philippines, Atmosphere,  AzureBlack Sand Dive Retreat, Critters@Lembeh & Lembeh Resort, Froggies, Geko Dive Bali, Nomad Divers Bangka, Safari Bali, Scuba Seraya, Sea Explorers Philippines.

The next half of this PhD will be mostly spent at my desk, analysing data and writing up results. But I do have a few things planned to prevent myself from getting bored. I am writing this blog from Hawaii, where I will be attending the International Coral Reef Symposium, the world’s largest conference of marine biologists that do work on coral reefs. During the next week more than 2000 coral reef scientists will be presenting their research, networking, and discussing the future of coral reef research. I am joining the madness to present the results of my biofluorescence research. An update of the conference will be posted on the blog in a few days!


A fluorescent Western Australia Seahorse (Hippocampus subelongatus)