ANU Science On Location: Ningaloo Reef

Visiting Ningaloo Reef, you wouldn’t expect to think so much about the land. But on the 150-kilometre drive from the airport near Exmouth to Coral Bay, it’s impossible not to.

There’s so much of it, unchanging and exposed except for dry scrub and grass, the only consolation from complete baldness. The red dirt comes right to the edge of the road, as do some of the landscape’s inhabitants—thorny devils, emus, kangaroos—maybe just to prove to you that it’s not uninhabitable.

When you reach the coast, the red earth is swapped for over-exposed sand, and then immediately it’s the ocean, tourist-brochure turquoise. For someone who has only ever seen the east coast of Australia, going from such extreme dry to extreme wet comes as a shock.

Researchers from the marine habitat and ecology team at the ANU Research School of Biology exist in both extremes, although if you ask any one of them, they’ll tell you where they prefer to be.

Every morning they leave their dusty research station at Coral Bay, pass the occasional aimless sheep or goat, escapees from nearby livestock stations, and go underwater.

This is why they’re here, and why over 150,000 other people every year also come here to this isolated town with fewer than 200 residents: to leave it and go into the ocean. 

Alongside the coast runs Ningaloo, Australia’s largest fringing coral reef. Here you can snorkel with dozy whale sharks and dive with manta rays. You can set up camp to go fishing on any, or all, of the 320 sunny days every year. You can board a glass-bottomed boat for a view on the 250 different coral species, and over 500 kinds of fish.

Like the passengers on that glass-bottomed boat, we’re all here to watch the show the ocean puts on for us. It seems so unnecessarily beautiful under there, it’s easy to believe it was designed for our viewing pleasure, and to treat it accordingly.

So it seems incongruous to see a diver spooling out a measuring tape, looping it around coral and clams, or a wet-suited figure snorkelling through seaweed with a clipboard in hand. This is how you’ll find the ANU researchers, should you pass by on your glass-bottomed boat. They’re not on holiday, expecting to be impressed, but at work, with jobs to do. And that’s how they see the ecosystem around them too: a seascape at work, functioning thanks to the well-oiled interaction of its components.

PhD student Josh van Lier is currently part of the seascape, on this occasion in a seaweed meadow. He is researching the behaviour of the moon wrasse. He clocks one, notes its identifying characteristics—like the particular markings on their pectoral fins, he says, involuntarily flapping his hands in affinity with his subject—and then follows it, logging its route via a GPS unit strung to his wrist. On his clipboard he notes what the fish gets up to, a diary of its day as it feeds, shelters, or travels. He can follow a single fish for kilometres as it goes about its business, his flippers working to keep up with the wrasse’s natural advantages. Josh’s focus on an individual fish is so intense that one time when a tiger shark tried to compete for his attention, it only succeeded after it was practically on top of him.

Back at the research station, Josh will map and correlate the fish’s journey, noting that they all tend to follow the same route along the edge of the seaweed meadow. It is, he says, a highway on their commute, and now in a way, his too.

By getting to know this fish, and 100-odd others like it, Josh can understand how it interacts with its habitat over time, and how that affects not only the moon wrasse population but broader fish diversity. This one study will then make its contribution to the evidence-driven understanding of this research site which ANU has been visiting for ten years.

And in this way, the researchers’ workmanlike approach to the reef is not at odds with our aesthetic one. Their research findings feed into WA Parks and Wildlife reef management practices to ensure its beauty endures for our enjoyment, and for the associated livelihoods dependent upon it, including tourism.

At lunchtime another PhD researcher, Alex Chen, climbs back in to the research boat, carrying dripping bags of algae for analysis. In the water you can see the snorkel of his fellow student David Ellis, scouting for locations to drop GoPro cameras so he can observe fish activity on replay - that’s what they do instead of watching TV at the research station, he notes. Associate Professor Chris Fulton is heading back on board after a stint counting cod, observing their interaction with different coral types along the path of his measuring tape.

Maria Eggersten, a research collaborator from Stockholm University, has been chasing moon wrasse with Josh all morning among the swaying seaweed. It’s all in a day’s work, she says, but agrees that it’s beautiful. Her friends back in Sweden are jealous of her being here.

“I did write to them,” she says, “to tell them about the quality of the seaweed meadows.”

That’s what you’d expect in a postcard from a marine biologist. To them, the beauty is in the ecosystem, not in the view, but happily, their research will protect both. 

Image gallery

Updated:  15 August 2018/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB/Page Contact:  Webmaster RSB