Blog Archives

#WorldParksCongress wraps up #WPCMarine

I worked some of the longest days of my career at World Parks Congress and dealt with a variety of event teething issues never experienced before. On the upside, I met some amazing people (including the wonderful Sylvia Earle, who I interviewed for our webtv channel) and worked with a great team from the French Marine Protected Areas Agency. Please make sure you check out our videos at



Sylvia Earle being interviewed at Ocean+ pavilion


Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve, Manly, Sydney



Wintry Warrnambool


20140723-132435-48275171.jpgWhile I’m missing the summer flat spells and warm weather activities, there’s something special about winter on the Shipwreck Coast. No tourists around, fresh cold southerlies and some calm clear days when the whiting are biting! Here’s a few shots of the local marine sanctuary from last week- some heavy downpours have caused the river to flood but the area still looks petty impressive.

Plastic piles up in ‘paradise’

Rubbish pile at Cape Tribulation

I had forgotten about this photo above, taken at Cape Tribulation in far north Queensland during my trip there in July this year, and rediscovered it in a scan of the images left on my camera card.

Trash piles near tropical holiday resorts are nothing new: google Hawaii and plastic waste for some disturbing images of rubbish dumped by oceanic gyres and storms. But this lot looked to have just been mainly bottles possibly left by tourists, which makes it sadder to think that people would visit one of the World Heritage Areas and be too lazy to take their trash.   

There’s not many undisturbed “rainforest meets the ocean” areas left in the world, so we should be doing our best to see they remain clean and free of plastic pollution.

Empty beach, Cape Tribulation

Holiday break in Far North Queensland

On board the Wavelength dive boat near Long Bombie

On board the Wavelength dive boat near Long Bombie

Some fortunate timing and a partner keen to try snorkeling helped provide me one of the best diving experiences of my life last week. Nine days in Port Douglas wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, which I’d never visited before and nothing could have prepared me for.

Being a student, my budget hasn’t stretched to a new underwater camera after my last one died so I settled for recording the action with a HD Flip camera (a present from a friendly Google employee at a conference in North Carolina 3 years ago) in a waterproof case. The editing process may take a while but results will be up here and on Youtube in a week or so.

We also hired a cheap car for a day at Cape Tribulation and the Daintree, hoping to spot the elusive cassowary. It was only in literally the last five minutes of our drive before boarding the ferry back across the Daintree River that we spotted this youngster below, happily snacking on berries on the roadside.

Young cassowary

Young cassowary


Port Douglas, even in the peak of school holiday winter break, is a laidback place compared to the madness and plastic nature of the Gold Coast resorts. Many of the southern families seem to stay ensconced in their resorts a few kilometres from town, leaving locals and some lucky tourists to enjoy sunsets like this from vantage points close to the marina.

Sunset from the point at Port Douglas

Sunset from the point at Port Douglas

A Photographic Tribute to The Ocean
This Earth Day, One World One Ocean is giving the ocean the attention it deserves with a special video collection of ocean photographs from our online community. Here is the ocean through their eyes. Happy Earth Day!

More than a planktonic relationship: microbes digest double the carbon previously estimated

Microscopic plankton (of the plant and animal variety) drives global carbon dioxide absorption. While the Amazon rainforest is absorbing nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon per year, scientists have calculated the global ocean currently absorbs about one-third of carbon emissions but both carbon sinks can also be producers of carbon dioxide.

Researchers at the University of California (Irvine) have compared their survey data to 18 other marine voyages to find that plankton digest double the carbon previously calculated and overturning a 1934 science marine principle in the process:

Models of carbon dioxide in the world’s oceans need to be revised, according to new work by UC Irvine and other scientists published online Sunday in Nature Geoscience. Trillions of plankton near the surface of warm waters are far more carbon-rich than has long been thought, they found. Global marine temperature fluctuations could mean that tiny Prochlorococcus and other microbes digest double the carbon previously calculated. Carbon dioxide is the leading driver of disruptive climate change.

In making their findings, the researchers have upended a decades-old core principle of marine science known as the Redfield ratio, named for famed oceanographer Alfred Redfield. He concluded in 1934 that from the top of the world’s oceans to their cool, dark depths, both plankton and the materials they excrete contain the same ratio (106:16:1) of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous.

But as any gardener who has done a soil test knows, amounts of those elements can vary widely. The new study’s authors found dramatically different ratios at a variety of marine locations. What matters more than depth, they concluded, is latitude. In particular, the researchers detected far higher levels of carbon in warm, nutrient-starved areas (195:28:1) near the equator than in cold, nutrient-rich polar zones (78:13:1).

“The Redfield concept remains a central tenet in ocean biology and chemistry. However, we clearly show that the nutrient content ratio in plankton is not constant and thus reject this longstanding central theory for ocean science,” said lead author Adam Martiny, associate professor of Earth system science and ecology & evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. “Instead, we show that plankton follow a strong latitudinal pattern.”

He and fellow investigators made seven expeditions to gather big jars of water from the frigid Bering Sea, the North Atlantic near Denmark, mild Caribbean waters and elsewhere. They used a sophisticated $1 million cell sorter aboard the research vessel to analyze samples at the molecular level. They also compared their data to published results from 18 other marine voyages.

Martiny noted that since Redfield first announced his findings, “there have been people over time putting out a flag, saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute.'” But for the most part, Redfield’s ratio of constant elements is a staple of textbooks and research. In recent years, Martiny said, “a couple of models have suggested otherwise, but they were purely models. This is really the first time it’s been shown with observation. That’s why it’s so important.”



“SHARK ATTACK!” NB: does not feature an actual shark attack

Marine biologists, social scientists and many shark conservation groups have been battling the stigma about sharks for decades, even before the Jaws films made going in the water a scarier prospect.

A Photoshopped image of a shark attack that fooled many viewers

A Photoshopped image of a shark attack that fooled many viewers

But despite the many graphs showing the minute number of attacks over hundreds of years, shark stories – like the crocodile yarns in the Northern Territory News – capture the imagination and are obviously relished by sub-editors who are usually responsible for the inaccurate headlines.

This article in the Guardian explores recent research on the reporting of ‘shark attacks (emphasis on last two paragraphs is my own):

Would a shark attack by another name would be any less terrifying? Researchers say it would, arguing that the current all-purpose “attack” label is unnecessarily scary, inaccurate, and is helping to drive sharks into extinction.

A study published this week in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences makes the case that the use of the term “shark attack” is overly emotional, and steeped in Jaws-type lore about “man-eating” and “rogue” sharks preying on unsuspecting beachgoers.

Instead, they suggest a sliding scale of new descriptions, from “shark sightings” to “fatal shark bites”.

To support their case, the researches note that records from the two global shark “hotspots”, New South Wales and Florida, indicate the majority of encounters were sightings or, in cases where there was contact, involved small species of shark that pose no real danger to humans.

In the case of Florida, records kept since 1882 show only 11 of the 637 confirmed cases of shark attacks ended in death – fewer than 2%. About three-quarters of the 637 encounters involved shark species that were only capable of inflicting small wounds or scrapes, and were not associated with life-threatening injuries.

The proportion of fatal shark encounters was also in the single digits for New South Wales. And yet all those incidents were lumped together under the label “shark attack”.

The researchers, Christopher Neff, a social scientist at the University of Sydney, and Robert Hueter, a marine biologist who heads the shark research centre at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, instead suggest such incidents should be re-classified according to severity.

“Until new scientific information appears that better explains the physical, chemical and biological triggers leading sharks to bite humans we recommend that the term ‘shark attack’ be avoided,” the paper said.

Future encounters should be categorised as shark sightings, where the animals are nearby but no contact takes place; shark encounters, such as a close call with a swimmer or a surfboard where there is no injury; shark bites, where there is only a single bite and only minor injury; and fatal shark bites for the small proportion of events that end in death.

The nomenclature is important because it feeds an irrational fear of sharks, the researchers said. The Jaws scenario of great white sharks belongs to the realm of fiction, Hueter said.

“When surfers hold a contest where 4ft or 5ft sharks are actively feeding and a few get bitten on their toes, and these all get reported as shark attacks, you present a wrong picture of what is going on,” he said.

The reality is very different; the sharks are the ones in peril. Shark populations have fallen drastically over the last few decades, with some populations in areas of the Pacific falling by 90%.

Conservation groups estimate that tens of millions of sharks are slaughtered each year for their fins, which are used as a thickener for shark fin soup. “When we try to argue for the need for shark conservation because of depletion of sharks, in the public mind and even in the minds of government officials, that is counteracted by this perception that these are man-eaters and that they attack people,” said Hueter.

“More than 90% of these incidents are not fatal. Most are very minor incidents and in many cases there is no injury at all, but when these things are reported and discussed as shark attacks you get a certain mindset about the behaviour of these animals. When you actually look at the outcomes, you get a very different picture.”

It’s an important argument that we should fight the notion of all sharks being human-eaters in order to make their slaughter for shark fin soup and other food products.

I know from experience seeing a shark in the water that it’s a scary prospect but much of that fear comes from watching the shark attack-focused movies, reading biased stories and listening to people who are too afraid to swim in the ocean.

My town of Warrnambool last had a serious shark attack in the 1980s but in telling a few friends about seeing a 1.5m gummy shark while spearfishing earlier this week, there was still the sense that the fear is ever-present in most people. I was able to quickly identify the shark under a ledge as a harmless gummy and saw no reason to be scared of it, so education about the different types of sharks could help more people get over their fear and start to care about shark conservation.

Smooth Stingray at the Warrnambool pier




How krill affects fish, seal and whale populations

I wrote a while back about krill oil becoming a hotly-publicised superfood; an article that is still my most-read piece and was my entry for a New Scientist annual student writing awards program (it missed the cut, though the editor loved the headline!)

This hand-drawn short film is a great view on the importance of krill, targeted at kids with its simple language but thankfully not speaking down to them. Drew Christie, the artist and director, has summed up the need for protection of krill breeding and feeding grounds nicely – this one is targeted at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary but it can apply anywhere.

I worry though when the information section on the Youtube video labels krill as the “cash crop for the ocean waters” – krill’s real significance is its vital place in the oceanic food web, rather than just being the food source for human-targeted fish.

Strange sights in Thailand 1: fish eating bananas

Banana-eating tropical fish

I haven’t yet been able to find out what fish species these little fellas are and the tour guide wasn’t really sure but apparently this is pretty common on some of the islands in the Andaman Sea (particularly, I’m guessing, where they take tourists to show them such sights).

The snorkeling around these beaches was pretty amazing: clear water, inquisitive local species such as parrotfish, collared butterflyfish and the always interesting clownfish; plus a huge array of coral fans, giant sponges and molluscs.

It was disappointing to see how some tourists treated such an amazing place – what makes people walking along a perfect beach or swimming in crystal-clear water want to throw rubbish in it? Or for one young guy on Yongkasem (Monkey Beach) to feel the need to throw a rock and hit a very tame monkey?

Here’s hoping the Thai Government keeps their restrictions on boat numbers at Phi Phi Don and other smaller islands and local authorities work to communicate how important it is to look after the flora and fauna and also fine those who break the rules.

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