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CReefs - The Australian Node

Heron Island

By Angus Livingston *

Friday 12 September 2008:

Farewell from Heron

AFTER three weeks on a tropical island it is time for the team to pack up and say goodbye.

Samples will be sent off, reports done and research collated.

For me, coming fresh from a cold Tasmanian winter straight to an island on the Great Barrier Reef, this has been a welcome respite from the snow.

I'm certain none of my friends down south have been wearing shorts and thongs for the past couple of weeks.

But apart from the ridiculously gorgeous weather (have I mentioned that enough?), I've been part of something intriguing, enjoyable and most of all – important.

The work done here on Heron Island will increase our understanding of reefs and the creatures that make their homes there.

When you think that the Great Barrier Reef is listed as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and thousands of tourists visit it every year, it is surprising to learn that there is still so much we don't know about it.

Of all the science done on this expedition – and there was a lot – the thing that struck me the most was how much we still had to learn about soft corals.

Those beautiful structures, which make up a large part of the Great Barrier Reef's appeal, remain very poorly known.

Hopefully the work done on this expedition will encourage more research in this area.

The scientists themselves proved to be among the hardest-working and most passionate groups I've worked with.

A working day typically included an early dive collecting samples and taking photographs, then another dive doing the same, before spending the afternoon and late into the evening classifying and examining what they've collected.

They know they've got limited time in the field, so every minute is precious.

Sunset at Heron Island resort.

Sunset at Heron Island resort.
Image: Angus Livingston

Of course, there was still time to enjoy the fact they were on a tropical island.

Thanks to some impromptu salsa dancing lessons and balloon animal making sessions, the whole group can go home knowing they've learned new skills on this trip.

I will go home with a new found appreciation for the small things living on the bottom of the ocean, as well as disappointment knowing Christos won't be cooking my meals anymore.

In a year's time the team will return, hopefully to a newly rebuilt research station and a lack of early morning construction work.

Angus Livingston

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Thursday 11 September 2008:

Researchers' roundup

Our reporter, Angus Livingston, was keen to find out what the Heron Island team thought of the trip. So, like all good reporters, he did a vox pop.

What have you enjoyed, or found the most interesting, on this trip?

"I'm amazed by the diversity of life here. You can look anywhere – there's just life everywhere." Zamaria Rocio

"I saw a manta ray and I don't think I've ever seen a manta ray before. This one was really big." Florent Angly

"I'm learning from everyone here. They've got so much knowledge about what's down there and they're all so passionate about it." Michelle Vardy

"This is the eighth or ninth scientific expedition I've been on, and this is the most cohesive group I've ever encountered. This has been the easiest group of people to get along with." Rick Morris

"I did get excited when we went out to see a reef at low tide and there were sharks in the water and heaps of turtles stranded on the reef. That would probably be a highlight." David Vize

"The sea-whip forest was the most interesting thing I've seen so far," Merrick Ekins

"I liked being able to dive in beautiful visibility. Any visibility is great." Gavin Dally

"I thought it was good we could help out some unexpected visitors we came across out on the water." Shawn Smith

"My favourite part of this trip was working with a great bunch of people. They're a fantastic group to work with." Steven Gregg

"I'm happy to be here, there's a lot to shoot – just not enough hours in the day." Gary Cranitch

"Each expedition is new in surprising ways." Julian Caley

"I enjoyed the perfect dive in the sea-whip forest, 28m down. There were soft corals and fans everywhere." Monika Schlacher

"Finding the new specimen of seaweed – the pseudocodium – in the channel, down 30m, was pretty exciting." John Huisman

Sunshine under the Heron Island pier.

Sunshine under the Heron Island pier.
Image: Angus Livingston.

"I enjoyed very much working in Australia. The way people work here and the general atmosphere is excellent." Laetitia Plaisance

"It was my first time on Heron Island and I was amazed with the biodiversity, the beauty of the coral reefs, the fact that the corals are exposed to the air at low tide, which is something very unique, and the pristine condition of the environment." Fred Gurgel

"I enjoyed working with the scientists, and the excellent dive team." Trish Hendriks

"Apart from the wonderful camaraderie of my fellow scientists, I found the sea urchins most interesting." Ashley Miskelly

"Finding the codium in the channel, and seeing different things down there was great. It's a pretty special place." Rainbo Dixon

"We've found a good spread of species here. We will be adding a considerable amount of knowledge to the fauna of this area." Phil Bock

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Wednesday 10 September 2008

Swaying in the current

THIS large gorgonian fan, Ctenocella pectinata, was found in the channel just outside the entrance to Heron Island.

CReefs participant Trish Hendriks said these types of soft corals tended to grow in deep water with strong currents, and they were fairly typically found in channels.

"They're fairly static, but they move about when the currents push them," she said.

This particular gorgonian is more than one metre tall.

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Wednesday 10 September 2008:

Teacher finds an abundance of life

SAN DIEGO school teacher Zamaria Rocio has four apt words for her research on the Great Barrier Reef.

"There's just life everywhere," she said.

"You look at just one little part of coral and there are 10 different things."

Zamaria, a science teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in San Diego, is on Heron Island working with the CReefs team, mainly on Laetitia Plaisance's coral analysis.

She came to Australia as part of the ARMADA project, which sends 10 American school teachers each year to do field work, so they can then go back and mentor other teachers.

Zamaria said a major part of her enjoyment was witnessing the scientists sharing their knowledge and ideas and being part of the scientific community.

"I'm just amazed at the experience of the group," she said.

Zamaria said co-operation between scientists should be the norm in theory, but it didn't always work in practice.

"Here you really do see it," she said.

As part of her time on the expedition, Zamaria has had to break up dead coral heads to examine their contents and search for echinoderms, molluscs and crustaceans for later study.

She said the ongoing nature of scientific work was something she wanted to communicate to her students when she got back to San Diego.

"Science is not done. Maybe you start something and continue working on it, but science is never finished," she said.

Zamaria has been writing an online diary for ARMADA, as well as e-mailing photographs to her class and fellow teachers.

A large gorgonian fan, Ctenocella pectinata, near Heron Island.

A large gorgonian fan, Ctenocella pectinata, near Heron Island. Image: John Huisman

Zamaria Rocio enjoying some snorkelling at Heron Island.

Zamaria Rocio enjoying some snorkelling at Heron Island. Image: Gary Cranitch

Although keeping up with scientific advances as much as possible, Zamaria said the trip had made it clear just how much science had moved forward since she was in college 30 years ago.

"DNA wasn't big when I was in college. We've gone light years from the 1970s to here," she said.

The long hours took some getting used to, Zamaria admitted, especially with construction work on the island starting at 6am.

"Working in the field is not an 8am-5pm job. That took some adjustment," she said.

Zamaria said the scientists had to make the most of the time they had available out in the field, so they tended to work hard all day and well into the evening.

When she gets back to the United States, Zamaria said she would go to the National Science Teachers Association conference and make a presentation about her trip to the other nine teachers who went on field work this year.

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Tuesday 9 September 2008:

ARMS to hold sea creatures

WHEN the CReefs team returns to Heron Island in a year's time they will return to more than just a beautiful island.

The team's divers are leaving behind Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), which will be pegged to the ocean floor in nine spots around the reef.

Dr Julian Caley, AIMS Principal Research Scientist and Principal Investigator of the CReefs project, said creatures would colonise the ARMS and make their home there.

In a year's time the CReefs divers will collect the ARMS and examine their contents.

Each structure has its location and depth recorded with a GPS, so the divers will know where to find it.

Julian said the team was developing a standardised way of measuring the health, diversity and biological makeup of coral reefs.

"We're aiming at getting a standardised method that is replicable around the globe," he said.

Julian said the idea of dropping structures in the water to study the animals that recruit to and live on them has been around for some time, but this was the first time an attempt has been made to develop and apply the same method on a worldwide scale.

The ARMS have several layers, some open, others with small caves, and another with a "pond filter", with tiny holes in it.

Julian said the ARMS might be left down for longer than a year, with research now going on about the effect of leaving the structures in the water for up to three years.

These structures are already being deployed around the world as part of the international CReefs project.


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Tuesday 9 September 2008:

Just cruising

THIS group of whiptail rays was enjoying a cruise through the shallows when photographer Gary Cranitch spotted them from the pier.

"They came in with the high tide in the afternoon," he said.

"There were probably about 50 of them."

Gary said the rays cruised around the shallows for a while, allowing him to get a shot of them in formation.

Whiptail rays cruise past Heron Island.
Image: Gary Cranitch

An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS), deployed at Heron Island.

An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS), deployed at Heron Island.
Image: Julian Caley.

Whiptail rays cruise past Heron Island.

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Monday 8 September 2008:

BHP employees engage with the Reef

IF DAVID Vize and Michelle Vardy weren't here on a tropical island, they'd be back in the office at meetings.

It's a hard life, but someone has to do it.

Both came to Heron Island as part of the BHP Billiton Employee Engagement Program, which sends two employees on each of the CReefs expeditions so that they can experience scientific field-work first hand.

BHP Billiton is the major sponsor of the CReefs Australia expeditions.

Michelle works in Iron Ore in Perth's head office, while David works at the Ravensthorpe Nickel Operation in Western Australia.

David did extra diving training to make sure he was able to join the divers on this trip, while Michelle spent a lot of time snorkelling.

Both said the trip was "absolutely" worth going on.

"It's exceeded my expectations," David said.

"As a volunteer I thought I might get a little bit of diving, probably drudge work, maybe washing dishes."

Instead, both David and Michelle got stuck into the field work and sample collection, as well as helping out in the lab.

For Michelle, who has degrees in marine science and environmental management, the chance to do some practical work in her field of expertise was "really inspiring".

"I'm learning from everyone here. They've got so much knowledge about what's down there and they're all so passionate about it," she said.

David said on the expedition he'd done "loads of diving", smashed rocks looking for worms, done sample preparation of soft corals, and also provided entertainment for the troops.

As well as teaching salsa dancing and ukulele playing, David's balloon animal lessons proved a big hit with the scientists and assorted staff on the expedition.

"Everyone got into that in a really big way," a surprised David said.

Both David and Michelle said they would go home with a better understanding of what goes on underwater.

"I'll have a completely different perspective on it [being underwater]. It'll change what it is I look for when I'm diving," David said.

Michelle said her team in Perth was very interested in the project and was keen to find out more about the work being done.

"It's good to know BHP is doing projects like this that are making a difference," she said.

David Vize doing some underwater camera work.

David Vize doing some underwater camera work. Image: Gary Granitch.

Michelle Vardy on Heron Island.

Michelle Vardy on Heron Island.
Image: Angus Livingston.

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Monday 8 September 2008:

Painted cray grabs attention

DAVID Vize, a scientist with BHP, saw this interesting looking crayfish on Masthead Reef near Heron Island and swam closer to take a picture of it.

"It had very long antennae, about a metre long, which it waved around," he said.

"And the spectacular black-and-white striping on the legs really stood out."

Subsequent enquiries confirmed it was a painted crayfish, otherwise known as Panulirus versicolor.

Panulirus versicolor, also known as a painted crayfish.

Panulirus versicolor, also known as a painted crayfish. Image: David Vize

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Monday 8 September:

Bringing the Reef to life

READING about coral reefs in a book and seeing them for yourself are two completely different things.

French PhD student Florent Angly discovered just how different they were when he volunteered to come to Heron Island as part of the CReefs project.

"I started learning about reefs and coral biology without having been on a reef," he said.

Florent, studying for his PhD in Computational Science at San Diego State University, made contact with Dr Laetitia Plaisance, who told him about the CReefs project and the trip to Heron Island.

He travelled to Australia to volunteer on the Island and help Laetitia with her study of the number and type of crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms on the reefs.

Florent has been out diving and snorkelling with the rest of the team, collecting samples to examine back in the lab and enjoying the beautiful sights underwater.

He said the physical experience of being out in the water helped him tremendously in understanding what he had learned from books.

"I think it is very useful to go and dive and see what is there," he said.

"I realise that now I can recognise coral much better and appreciate which sites are good and which are not."

PhD student Florent Angly on Heron Island as part of the CReefs expedition.

PhD student Florent Angly on Heron Island as part of the CReefs expedition.
Image: Angus Livingston

As part of his time on the island, Florent broke up dead coral heads to check for organisms, and found out there was more living in the coral than he ever expected.

"I had the notion that some organisms would grow in and on the coral skeletons, but I didn't really know what it would be like. It's a mess, with lots of species and individuals inhabiting a single coral head!" he said.

Florent's PhD is in computational science, but he is interested in biology and would like to use his doctorate to work in that field.

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Friday 5 September 2008:

Advancing knowledge of soft corals

EVERY time the CReefs soft coral team learns something new about soft corals they make a significant step forward in our knowledge of the organisms.

Because so little work has been done on soft corals, any gain they make represents a "huge leap".

Patricia Hendriks, a research scientist at the Queensland Museum, said the chance to work on something new was part of what drew her to the beautiful organisms that wave from the sea bed.

"There are very few people in the world working on soft corals at the moment, so this chance to build collections and further our knowledge of these animals is a rare opportunity," she said.

Despite being a large part of what makes coral reefs so beautiful, soft corals are understudied and there is barely any accessible literature about them.

One book written by Katharina Fabricius and Phil Alderslade was published in 2001 by AIMS, and is the first major guide to soft corals, also known as octocorals.

Trish said her aim was to increase the information available for people working in the area.

"There's very little literature for people to use in making solid taxonomical identifications," she said.

To help with furthering our knowledge of soft corals, Trish and two other researchers from the Queensland Museum, Dr Monika Schlacher and Dr Merrick Ekins, are working on Heron Island as part of the CReefs project.

The trio make up one of the few groups of scientists working on soft corals in Australia.

Trish said the group is:

  • Collecting specimens

  • Preparing permanent sclerite preparations. Sclerites are the hardened body parts of the soft coral, and is all that remains after the soft tissue has been bleached away. Scientists use this to better identify their specimens.

  • Taking DNA samples

  • Taking underwater photographs

  • Taking photographs of these animals in the laboratory

Once the three-week CReefs trip is over, the group will go back to their regular tasks at the Museum, leaving the soft corals unstudied until projects are developed for further research.

Trish said the samples taken from Heron Island will become part of a permanent collection that can be used for future studies.

Trish Hendricks and Monika Schlacher photographing soft coral.

Trish Hendricks and Monika Schlacher photographing soft coral. Image: Gary Cranitch

Trish Hendricks photographing a sample in the lab.

Trish Hendricks photographing a sample in the lab. Image: Gary Cranitch

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Thursday 4 September 2008:

Platoma among the corals

THIS beautiful piece of red seaweed is a species of Platoma.

Dr John Huisman, from Murdoch University in WA and the WA State Herbarium, found it nestled among some coral at Sykes Reef.

"It usually comes up in springtime, so it seems to be a bit early," he said.

John said Platoma sits down among the coral to protect itself.

"They're very pretty," he said.

John took this underwater picture for his field guide to seaweeds of the Great Barrier Reef, which he is currently writing.

This beautiful example of a species of Platoma was found on Sykes Reef near Heron Island.

This beautiful example of a species of Platoma was found on Sykes Reef near Heron Island. Image: John Huisman

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Wednesday 3 September 2008:

Video witness to the wonders of the sea

WHEN Rick Morris decided he wanted to give something back to the environment, he had a choice.

Give what little money he had, or try to make a difference in other ways.

After a long career as a cameraman in commercial and public television in the United States, he had a significant amount of experience behind the lens.

He was also an accomplished diver with considerable time spent underwater over the past couple of decades.

So when Rick had a life change in 2001 and decided to do something for the environment, the choice was made.

"I didn't have any money to give away, but I had these abilities," he said.

Rick took a class to learn how to combine his experience behind the camera and in the water to become an underwater film maker.

His first expedition was with a neuro-biologist from Los Angeles to Lizard Island in 2001, where he produced a film for PBS and another one for National Geographic.

"I got hooked. I really loved doing it," he said.

Videographer Rick Morris at work underwater.

Videographer Rick Morris at work underwater. Image: Gary Cranitch

Over the next few years Rick found more and more work as an underwater cameraman, including a stint in Indonesia he rates as "hands down" the best spot for his sort of work.

"Twenty-five per cent of all known marine species that exist are represented in the coral triangle in Indonesia," he said.

"It's just unbelievable. It leaves me speechless."

Earlier this year Rick did a short film for the Global Census of Marine Life, funded by the Sloan Foundation.

He offered to make a documentary about the rest of the Census, which runs until 2010, and was given a grant to cover the Census' projects and conferences until it finishes.

Now he travels all over the world covering conferences, symposiums, and expeditions like this one on Heron Island.

Rick said Heron Island was a good place for some of the organisms he's interested in – mainly invertebrates.

"I'm looking for critters. Small invertebrates," he said.

When Rick's work is done, he edits the video together and makes it available for scientists to use free-of-charge.

To see more of Rick's work, visit or

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HMAS Protector

Tuesday 2 September 2008:

SEEING the wreck of the ancient boat jutting out of the water on arrival at Heron Island, you could easily assume it ran afoul of one of the reefs circling the island.

Or perhaps it was the vessel of some travellers who happened upon the island and just decided to stay.

In fact, the ship – the HMAS Protector – has a proud and significant part in Australian history, starting when it was commissioned back in 1884.

Built in Newcastle, England, the light cruiser was outfitted as a gunboat and was stationed in South Australia for 15 largely uneventful years.

However in 1900 South Australia offered Protector to the Eight Nation Alliance to help in putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Protector spent a couple of months in China doing despatch work before being sent home in time to be part of the celebrations of the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia.

It was cheered out of Sydney Harbour on 2 January 1901 and took up patrolling positions around the country for the next decade.

When World War I broke out, Protector was used to guard Australian ports, survey the wreckage of a German ship and do minesweeping duties off the Victorian coast.

The wreck of HMAS Protector.

The wreck of HMAS Protector.
Image: Gary Cranitch

After the war it went through name and job changes, eventually being sold off and used as a transport vessel.

During World War II the Americans requisitioned it for use in the Pacific, however a collision with a tug while on the way to New Guinea spelt the end for the ship.

It was towed to Heron Island and used as a breakwater on the edge of the channel, as well as providing an area for diving and snorkelling.

That's where the wreck has stayed since 1943 – an imposing welcome to the island.

Diving is now forbidden within the ship, which thrusts completely out of the water at low tide.

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Taking apart a coral head, step-by-step

CReefs field work isn't all diving, eating and enjoying tropical sunsets. Mostly it is hard work and long hours.

Today volunteers Zamaria Rocio, part of the ARMADA program*, and Florent Angly, a PhD student from San Diego State University, spent several hours taking apart a dead coral head, brought back yesterday, to examine its contents.

Their work is part of Dr Laetitia Plaisance's study of the number and type of crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms on these reefs.

Dr Plaisance, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution based in Washington, said her study was part of the global Census of Marine Life.

"My work is being done to develop a standardised technique for assessing the biodiversity of reef invertebrates," she said.

That means Laetitia and her assistants are recording all types of invertebrates they find, rather than just trying to discover new ones.

To help everyone understand what goes into finding these organisms, Ms Rocio and Mr Angly have set out a step-by-step guide to what their work entails.

  • Step one: Fill a bucket of water about two-thirds of the way up and make a mark of the water level.
  • Step two: Remove the coral head from its tank and photograph it.
  • Step three: Put it in the bucket and measure the increase in water level to determine the volume of the coral head. It may be necessary to break the head up a little bit to make sure it is submerged.
  • Step four: Record the information.
  • Step five: Prepare a series of small water containers to hold what's found in the coral.
  • Step six: Start breaking the coral into small pieces and begin looking for organisms living within the skeleton. In this case, Ms Rocio and Mr Angly look for crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms over five mm in size.
  • Step seven: Use tweezers and plastic spoons to remove the organisms, while hammers and chisels are used to break the coral apart. Sometimes the tweezers are necessary to remove algae on the coral that is making it difficult to see what's underneath.
  • Step eight: When something is found, it is placed in one of the water containers to be examined later.
  • Step nine: When they're finished with a piece of coral, the researchers put it in another bucket of water to be examined by other scientists looking for other organisms.
  • Step 10: Once the coral has all been picked through, the animals that have been extracted are taken to the laboratory for Laetitia to look through and take tissue samples for DNA analysis and classify them into species.

Florent with a coral head to be broken up.
Image: Angus Livingston

An organism found in a coral head.

An organism found in a coral head.
Image: Angus Livingston

After the process is complete Mr Angly and Ms Rocio return to the laboratory to help Laetitia classify and tag the organisms.

*The ARMADA program provides American teachers with the chance to do field work in locations around the world. Ms Rocio is one of 10 teachers selected this year to go away.

PhD student Florent Angly examining a piece of coral.

PhD student Florent Angly examining a piece of coral. Image: Angus Livingston

Expedition volunteer Zamaria Rocio examines some coral.

Expedition volunteer Zamaria Rocio examines some coral. Image: Angus Livingston

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Monday 1 September 2008:

FINDING out the name of a plant or animal is generally fairly easy.

You can look it up online or in a thousand books published over the past few hundred years.

Start looking underwater, however, and you'll find a different story.

There is so much still undiscovered, let alone uncatalogued.

For Dr Julian Caley, senior AIMS scientist and principal investigator of the CReefs project, the oceans are where the next important ecological discoveries will be found.

Dr Caley said the CReefs project would provide valuable information to scientists about plants and organisms that might have never been seen before.

"[We're here] to fill in our knowledge in the biodiversity of coral reefs," he said.

To achieve that, the CReefs team has visited two Australian locations – Lizard Island and Ningaloo – and is now on its third and final field trip for the year, to Heron Island, 72km from Gladstone in Central Queensland.

Dr Caley said in setting up the expeditions he had to make a choice about the best locations to get diverse coverage of the island continent's reefs.

"If you can't do everything, the best thing is to include as much variety as possible," he said.

With that in mind, Heron Island was chosen as the base for the team's third expedition for 2008.

Researchers visiting the University of Queensland research station have been collecting samples from the area since the 1950s, and the station is one of the leading coral reef field sites in the world.

Dr Caley said that strong base of knowledge would help the CReefs project team find out how much is known about the various species in the area.

"We'll be collecting where people have already collected quite a lot," he said.

Dr Caley said if the group found a significant number of new species or organisms, they would have a better idea of how much we don't know about what was living on Australia's reefs.

"We would start to understand how much sampling is required," he said.

The field work started on 23 August and concludes on 14 September.

Reports on the discoveries, scientists and news from the expedition will be available daily on this website.

Heron Island, Central Queensland

Heron Island, Central Queensland.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

Gavin Dally from the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory examines coral near Heron Island, as part of the third Australian CReefs expedition.

Gavin Dally from the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory examines coral near Heron Island, as part of the third Australian CReefs expedition. Image: Gary Cranitch

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* Angus Livingston, CReefs journalist on Heron Island

Angus Livingston, CReefs journalist on Heron Island

Hobart-based Angus Livingston has BA from the University of Tasmania with majors in Journalism and History.

He has worked as a reporter for the Advocate for three and a half years, covering primarily sport and politics.


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CReefs Australia: A partnership between BHP Billiton, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation,
the Census of Marine Life and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).
CReefs Australia is a node of the Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs),
a project of the Census of Marine Life.

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