Earthwatchers Make History in the Water

Earthwatch volunteers recently returned from a two-week expedition Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas and conducted 19 patch reef surveys, more than any previous expedition.

Snorkeling in the Bahamas: Why Are We Here Again?

Kyle Hutton, team leader, took ten teenagers from the United States and the United Kingdom to the Bahamas to help scientists figure out the importance of patch reefs and mangroves for protecting the shoreline and supporting fishing communities. “These areas are incredibly important nursery grounds for fish in the area,” Kyle told us.

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

Kyle explaining to the volunteers the purpose of this coral research

All over the world, scientists are studying huge coral reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef and the Andros Coral Reef, but not a lot of research is typically conducted on smaller, patch reefs. These small patch reefs are incredibly important for studying fish development and climate change.

“On this project, we are gathering all the info we can on patch reefs and fish counts to try to figure out why some small patch reefs have an abundance of fish, and why others are practically desolate,” Kyle said.

When teams first arrive on the project, each person is designated a specific role. “One person will become the resident expert in parrot fish, and another person is in charge of angel fish,” he explained. It is that team member’s job to identify and keep track of all instances of their designated fish within a specific reef. Other team members are in charge of evaluating the actual patch reef itself. Patch reefs can range in size from 5 to 30 feet. “That person’s job is to take all the physical measurements of the patch reef,” he said. “They evaluate the length and depth, and then go through with a chain to record all the nooks and crannies to evaluate how complex each patch reef is.”

Some of the patch reefs might have less than 20 fish, and others could have thousands. The research aims to figure out why fish are attracted to different patch reefs.

A student volunteer dives down to count XXX fish in the reef

A student volunteer dives down to count angel fish in the patch reef

Rockstar Team: More Patch Reefs Than Ever Before

“We collected data on the most patch reefs we’ve ever measured on an Earthwatch Expedition,” said scientist Alistair Harborne. Of all twelve Earthwatch Expeditions that have headed to the Bahamas before, the record was only 14. “This group did double the work of what the average team that heads to the Bahamas accomplishes,” Kyle said.

 Throughout the two weeks, Harborne and Kyle both knew that this team had the potential to accomplish a historic amount of research. “The group make-up was ideal,” Kyle said. “All of the students were incredible energetic and athletic, and in some instances we would head out in the mornings and do 4 or 5 patch reefs in a single day.” The group did have some days of bad weather, and were stuck on land because of thunder and lightning, but in the end, the group surveyed a total of 19 patch reefs.
A student volunteer examining the make-up of the reef

A student volunteer examining the make-up of the patch reef

Beyond the Research: A Spark Is Lit

The research that Kyle’s team was able to accomplish is invaluable for the patch reefs and for the Bahamian ecosystem as a whole. “The information is really instrumental,” Kyle said. “If you know which areas are abundant for fish and are important to the healthy function of the patch reefs, you can help local governments create marine preserves.”

Why do some patch reefs have thousands and fish and others have less than ten? “This research will hopefully give us a lot of answers that we don’t have right now. Is it the reef’s proximity to land? Or the algae cover which is influenced by climate change?”

The research helps more than just the patch reefs in the Bahamas, too. “The real reason I lead these teams of students is because of the influence we have on them,” Kyle said. “It’s such a pinnacle point in a kid’s life and it’s an incredible experience to see that spark light up in them when they get it. When they finally realize that they can have an actual impact on the environment.”

Some of the volunteers on this expedition had already shown signs of continuing their research journeys. “I can say with the utmost confidence that at least two of the students on this expedition will be heading down the marine biology path once they’re back at school,” Kyle said. “One of the volunteers was even talking about returning to the school where we stayed while we were on the expedition. It’s clearly an influential life experience for them.”

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and the team after a long day snorkeling

Kyle and his team collected an unprecedented amount of research, and you can get involved too! From the Bahamas, to the Seychelles, to Australia, Earthwatch volunteers are constantly collecting invaluable amounts of data on coral reefs all around the world. Want to join the expedition Kyle went on? Read more about our Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in the Bahamas.