In the Cayman Islands, amateurs play a big role in measuring coral-reef health
I fight the current before ducking into the shimmering blue water. I swim 15 feet down to a meter tape laid across the reef bottom, anchored with fishing weights on both ends. Pressure builds in my lungs as I spot a large rounded dome of brain coral intersecting the tape. I quickly measure the coral, careful not to damage the intricate yellow mazelike pattern on its surface. My task complete, I surface, shouting the length, width, and height to my partner who’s treading water nearby, holding a dive slate full of precious data aloft.
Four other pairs of snorkelers fan out around us, each absorbed in painstakingly identifying and measuring the corals of Mary’s Bay off Little Cayman Island. We are an efficient research team, and over the past three days we have collected hundreds of feet of data on coral bleaching. Yet not a single one of us is a professional scientist. Two of us are high school biology teachers from Grand Cayman, one of us is a graphic designer from Seattle, and three of us are teenagers. We are part of an effort at the Little Cayman Research Centre to involve regular people in ongoing, long-term research projects.
For centuries, most science was carried out by people who didn’t have formal degrees but did have keen observational skills and a fascination with the natural world. In the first half of the 20thcentury, that began to shift, and by the 1950s, professional scientists affiliated with universities and government institutions were doing the bulk of scientific research. Citizen science transitioned from individual efforts by amateur scientists to citizens teaming up with professional scientists on research projects backed by universities or large institutions. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which has surveyed wintering bird populations throughout the United States since 1900, is one example.
In recent years, the number of citizen science projects has increased, driven in part by advances in technology that make it easier to collect and synthesize data from a variety of sources. This is a state of affairs that makes some professional scientists uneasy. During my years of training and work as a scientist, I experienced firsthand how difficult research can be even for professionals, and I occasionally encountered citizen scientists who seemed to have a tenuous grasp of the scientific process. Citizen science projects are often categorized as community outreach or education rather than hard science at scientific conferences.
Even as I shifted careers from scientist to journalist, I remained convinced that science should be left to the professionals. Then I was offered a journalism fellowship to join a research team in Little Cayman. It was the perfect chance to look at a citizen science operation up close.
The Little Cayman Research Centre, located on a tiny Caribbean island with fewer than 150 residents, consists of little more than a yellow, sprawling, beachside building equipped with the basics: sleeping quarters, a classroom, a mess hall, a few small offices and labs, composting toilets, rainwater showers, and a dive shed chock-full of gear. Four full-time scientists live there, along with a handful of full-time science educators and a rotating cast of visiting scientists, interns, student groups, and citizen scientists. Despite its laid-back vibe, the center is constantly bustling with activity.
Coral reefs make up less than 1 percent of the world’s oceans yet contain more than 25 percent of all marine life. Some 500 million people worldwide rely on coral reefs in some way. However, in 1998, record-high ocean temperatures following an El Niño event caused extensive coral-reef bleaching around the world, as stressed corals lost their symbiotic zooxanthellae (photosynthetic, food-producing algae) and starved, leaving behind bone-white calcium carbonate structures.
Forty percent of the coral of Little Cayman was destroyed, but by 2012 it had made a complete recovery. Almost. In 2015, Little Cayman and other reefs around the world experienced another warm year, and another massive die-off. Even the most conservative climate change models were showing that these higher ocean temperatures were on their way to becoming the new normal.
After the most recent bleaching in 2015, researchers there began using citizen scientists from the Earthwatch Institute for a long-term project that aims to monitor coral bleaching and investigate why Little Cayman’s reefs are so resilient. Research that requires complex procedures, like labwork, is probably not suited to citizen scientists. But projects with simple protocols that require large quantities of data are well-suited to amateurs. A meta-analysis of citizen science concluded that it has the greatest potential impact in the fields of biology, conservation, and ecology.
“Because of the work that we’re doing, it doesn’t require PhDs to be collecting data,” Peter Quilliam, director of operations at the center, tells me as we chat in Adirondack chairs overlooking Great Tree Bay during a few minutes of downtime. “The data we’re collecting can be collected by anyone as long as you go through training and you’ve got the right methodologies.”
Our group, the first of five Earthwatch trips to Little Cayman in the summer and fall of 2016, underwent intensive training on how to identify 28 different local coral species and on execute field protocols, then went out into the water to collect data under the supervision of senior research scientist Steve Whalan. At each site, we laid out 10 meter-long transects, identified and measured any corals that intersected the meter tape, and used a chart developed by CoralWatch to estimate coral bleaching. Between multihour snorkeling sessions, we stopped off in the classroom to add our data to spreadsheets.
When I was in college, I spent a semester at a field station on South Caicos doing marine research. Our group of citizen scientists did work that was every bit as intense, if not more so. Within three days, our team surveyed 290 meters of the reef, measured 229 corals, and spotted 13 different species, a testament to the amplifying power of more bodies in the water. While it’s still too early to tell if the coral is recovering from the 2015 bleaching, the center recently published a paper in a scientific journal using some of its citizen science data.
Utilizing citizen scientists frees up staff for other projects such as the staghorn coral nursery, one of the center’s most important research efforts. In recent decades, a combination of coral bleaching and disease outbreak has wiped out more than 90 percent of elkhorn and staghorn coral populations around the island (NOAA placed both species on the endangered-species list in 2006). In a nursery half a mile from shore, researchers are growing fragments of staghorn coral on PVC trees suspended in the water column. Once the coral fragments grow big enough, the researchers will plant them on reefs all over the island. It’s a labor-intensive project that requires a huge amount of daily maintenance, but it is also the center’s best shot at helping an endangered coral species recover.
There is another practical reason for running citizen science programs on Little Cayman: While the center offers fellowships for journalists and teachers, the other citizen scientists paid for their time at the center. “We can use these citizen science programs to create our own funding to run the projects that we want to do. It opens up a world of possibilities for us,” says Quilliam, who has ambitious plans, from more involved citizen science projects to research that incorporates technology like remotely operated underwater vehicles and drones.
For the staff at the Little Cayman Research Centre, the value of citizen science programs extends beyond the practical. “It’s about getting people engaged,” Quilliam says. “Our team really loves the work that they do, so to be able to share that with other people is part of the kick as well.”
Kristi Foster, the assistant director of research, echoes this during my team’s last breakfast on the island, amid chatter about the challenges of doing fieldwork in a bed of fire coral. “It’s only once you’ve come here and seen it that you can understand what you can do,” she says. After a week on the island, experiencing for myself what citizen science can accomplish under the right circumstances, I’m inclined to agree.