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CReefs - The Australian Node

Heron Island
By Raelene Morey *

Wednesday 25 November 2009:

Goodbye from Heron Island

Three weeks on Heron Island has come and gone.

Samples are being packed away and diving gear is being aired out.

This was CReefs Australia's second trip to Heron Island giving the team a second chance to collect samples from the reefs.

It was also a second opportunity to discover new species, proving that even in an area where thousands of tourists dive each year, there is still so much left to discover and describe.

The CReefs Australia team.

The CReefs Australia team.  Image: Gary Cranitch.

During this trip the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures were retrieved, uncovering a new genus of squat lobster, with more discoveries expected.

The team of scientists and support crew worked long and hard – often late into the night with early starts the next day – but also knew how to relax.

It became an evening tradition to head down to the pier to watch the sunset and chat about the day's work.

Phil Bock continued his field trip tradition of keeping everyone well caffeinated and Francois Michonneau took charge of the whiteboard, while Aaron Anderson, a man of his word, will be fondly remembered for his budgie smugglers.

Damien Tosh kept us well-fed and happy with his delicious meals.

Now it's time for everyone to head back to their home institutions and start work analysing the specimens they collected during this expedition.

Until next year. farewell from Heron Island. See you at Ningaloo in May.

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Wednesday 25 November 2009:

Behind the scenes

"Behind every great man is a great woman", or so the saying goes.

But definitely, behind every great field trip is a great support crew.

The three-week stay on Heron Island would not happen without the dedicated work of the CReefs Australia support crew who keep the scientists equipped and fed.

Heading the support crew list is Dr Julian Caley, AIMS Principal Research Scientist, Principal Investigator of the global CReefs Project, and leader of these expeditions.

Not far behind is CReefs Australia Field Project Manager Shawn Smith, who not only plans the entire expedition – booking flights and organising equipment and supplies – his skills extend to making hand mixers out of power drills and cable ties.

Is there anything this man can't do?

Chef Damien Tosh gives Acting Sous Chef Aaron Anderson a cooking lesson.

Chef Damien Tosh gives Acting Sous Chef Aaron Anderson a cooking lesson.  Image: Raelene Morey.

François Michonneau writes up the next day's dive schedule.

François Michonneau writes up the next day's dive schedule.
  Image: Gary Cranitch.

Gary Cranitch, the team's photographer, captures the creatures we otherwise wouldn't notice, revealing the ocean's tiny, beautiful beasts.

Damien" Gastronomic taxonomist" Tosh has delivered amazing gourmet meals night after night. Together with Aaron "Moustachio "Anderson the pair have been the social glue on the island.

A born entertainer, Aaron has demonstrated his extensive knowledge of marine life at the research station's touch tank as well as his boating and diving experience as one of the expedition's coxswains.

The other coxswain, Stuart Kininmonth, joins the team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, as does Postdoctoral Research Fellow Camille Mellin. Both are assisting with boating, diving and other research tasks.

And then there's me, the excursion's blogger. After a couple of weeks with the team of scientists I have a few new words to add to my vocabulary and a new appreciation of the work of taxonomists.

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Tuesday 24 November 2009:

Hard work and dedication pays off

What do you imagine is a typical day for a marine biologist out in the field?

On Heron Island, the expeditioners wake up at the crack of dawn to prepare for their morning dives. Convening at the boat shed, the gear is packed and the boats lowered into the water before they set off for the morning's location, whether it be Sykes Reef, Wistari Reef, the channel, or some other location.

After a morning spent diving to collect samples the boats return in time for lunch, sometimes quite a late lunch. Then it's back to the lab where the eager group of taxonomists spends their afternoon sorting and processing the samples.

Field work of this nature is a rare opportunity for most, who work late into the night to ensure they don't fall behind in their processing.

Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Pat Hutchings, said her time on the island with co-worker Postdoctoral Researcher Maria Capa was short so they intended to make the most of it.

"Our strategy was to work long and hard for as long as we could," Pat said.

So too was the strategy of Florida Museum of Natural History PhD student Seabird McKeon.

"These opportunities are rare so we make the most of it," he said.

But it's not all work and no play.

The taxonomists hard at work processing samples in the lab.

The taxonomists hard at work processing samples in the lab.
 Image: Gary Cranitch.

University of California scientist Laetitia Plaisance, who is based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said she enjoyed the friendly atmosphere of the CReefs Australia trips as the team talked freely about their work.

The friendly nature of the CReefs Australia team even extends to sharing samples and helping their fellow taxonomists search for species during dives.

Rob Lasley snorkels for samples.

Rob Lasley snorkels for samples. Image: Gary Cranitch.


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Tuesday 24 November 2009:

New genus found in Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure

Specially designed mini-habitats retrieved last week from the ocean floor have uncovered a new genus of squat lobster.

Kareen Schnabel, Collection Manager of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research made the exciting discovery, with more new species expected to be discovered.

The new genus was sampled for the first time from one of nine Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) deployed on the reef surrounding Heron Island during last year's September CReefs Australia expedition and retrieved last week.

The ARMS, consisting of a series of stacked plastic layers, are designed to mimic a reef environment, allowing sea creatures to take up residence inside.

Laetitia Plaisance, of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and involved in the international ARMS project, said the devices were designed and developed by CReefs scientists as a standardised method for comparing localities and to monitor biodiversity over time.

The CReefs Australia team has begun processing species samples collected from the ARMS but Laetitia said it would take time before more discoveries were made.

Once back in Washington, Laetitia will begin DNA barcoding the contents of the ARMS collected during this field trip.

"My job is only just starting," she said.

 Dr Julian Caley and coxswain Aaron Anderson collect two of the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures.

 Dr Julian Caley and coxswain Aaron Anderson collect two of the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures.  Image: Gary Cranitch.

More than 300 ARMS have been deployed in locations around the world, with almost 40 retrieved so far, including nine from Lizard Island in February this year and nine from Heron Island last week.

Once the worldwide data is collected and processed, Laetitia said a better estimate of marine biodiversity could be calculated.

"Because so little of the world's oceans have been explored – less than 5 per cent – the current estimate of marine life biodiversity stands at between one and 10 million species."

The data will also provide marine scientists with a better understanding of the human impact on marine environments, Laetitia said.

"At the moment we have no idea how much the biodiversity of a coral reef is reduced by disturbances."

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Monday 23 November 2009:

Magic carpet brings worms to the surface

CReefs Australia's polychaete biologists are using an unusual method to collect samples.

Known as the "magic carpet" technique, a small plastic tarp is secured to the ocean floor with a heavy chain to cut off oxygen to the area underneath by preventing water flow.

  Lynda Avery conducts a grab from the ocean floor.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

Kareen Schnabel and Lynda Avery collect samples from underneath the magic carpet.

Kareen Schnabel and Lynda Avery collect samples from
underneath the magic carpet. Image: Gary Cranitch.

Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Pat Hutchings, said the area of ocean floor selected for the technique "looked like a desert" when snorkelled over, but the sediment contained animals beneath the surface.

"The theory is that you reduce the oxygen content of the sediments, bringing all the animals to the surface," Pat said.

Some hours later, the plastic sheet is carefully peeled back and the animals at the surface of the sediment are gently gathered into a catch bag.

Polychaete consultant Lynda Avery, an associate at the Museum of Victoria, said the polychaete species collected were then divided up into taxonomic families and sent off to members of the polychaete team to examine.

From the polychaetes collected from the magic carpet laid during this field trip, Lynda is studying Opheliids;Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Pat Hutchings, is examining Terebellidae and Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Chris Glasby is examining Nereididae. Polychaete expert Charlotte Watson, also of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, is assisting the team.

Lynda said the method had produced "very good" results when used during a CReefs Australia field trip to Ningaloo in May, but this time had not worked as effectively.

"But we'll wait and see the final results," she said.

Lynda also used the traditional method of collecting by "grab" nearby to the magic carpet site in order to gather a different set of samples and allow her to compare the results of the two collection methods.

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Monday 23 November 2009:

BHP Billiton employees get involved

Usually desk-bound, Sjaak Lemmens has been getting a lot of hands-on experience this past week.

An environmental advisor from Perth, Sjaak joined the Heron Island expedition as part of the BHP Billiton Employee Engagement Program, which sends two employees on each of the CReefs expeditions to show them first-hand the kind of scientific work that goes on.

An experienced diver and former marine biologist with 30 years experience, Sjaak spent a lot of time in the water during his stay.

He assisted with the retrieval of the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures and helped some of the biologists collect samples.

Sjaak said he put his hand up to join the trip because he wanted the opportunity to get involved.

"This was very much the kind of work I used to do," he said.

Sjaak left this afternoon after seven days on the island, and was replaced by, Mark Hammond, another environmental advisor with BHP Billiton

Mark will pick up where Sjaak left off, assisting the CReefs team where needed – and fitting in some snorkeling whenever he can.

Based in Moranbah, Queensland, Mark said he hoped to learn more about marine taxonomy as well as help out the scientists where needed.

He said the mine he worked at was within the Great Barrier Reef catchment and he hoped to gain a better understanding of how his day-to-day activities could impact the reef.

Sjaak said he was sad to leave the island and had enjoyed his time with the CReefs Australia team.

"I've been impressed by the level of dedication here. There's a great team spirit," he said.

 BHP Billiton sponsored visitor Sjaak Lemmons.
 Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Sunday 22 November 2009:

New squat lobster genus discovered

A new genus of squat lobster has been found off the southern coast of Heron Island.

The tiny creature, barely half a centimetre long, was collected from one of the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures(ARMS).

The ARMS were installed during last year's Heron Island expedition and retrieved last week.

Kareen Schnabel, the Collection Manager at New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Invertebrate Collection, made the exciting discovery when she was able to identify the family the squat lobster belonged to but not the genus.

She will now describe and name the new genus.

"I've named species before but I've never named a genus," she said.

Kareen said the shape of the creature's rostrum, the patterns she observed on the carapace and its claws were distinctly different from other genera in this group.

She said squat lobster research had previously focused on deep-water environments greater than 100m and there was a lack of collections and knowledge of shallow water fauna.

"Shallow water fauna hasn't been very well described in the South-West Pacific, and this is something I would like to concentrate on in the future," she said.

An unidentified squat lobster belonging to a new genus.
Image: Kareen Schnabel.

Squat lobsters are a diverse group of crustaceans commonly found in the deep sea, with a total of about 900 species worldwide.

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Saturday 21 November 2009:

Taxonomy misunderstood and unrecognised

As much as two-thirds of marine life remains undiscovered – and this is particularly true for the Australian tropics – yet the work of scientists seeking out new species and describing them is often misunderstood and unrecognised, says a senior scientist at Sydney's Australian Museum.

Senior Principal Research Scientist Pat Hutchings said taxonomy – the practice and science of classification – struggled to gain funding from major granting bodies and suffered a shortage of skilled taxonomists.

She said universities did not always expose their students to the fieldwork that often inspired young marine taxonomists.

For young career scientists who do gain a passion for this branch of science, Dr Hutchings said career opportunities were linked to funding.

"Although the Australian Museum is currently recruiting, there are very few positions available nationally," she said.

Senior Curator at the Museum of Tropical Queensland (Queensland Museum), Niel Bruce said taxonomy also faced the hurdle of not being regarded as a serious science.

"Some of the other scientists in other disciplines don't see it as a science but as a service, perhaps not realising just how much remains unknown," Dr Bruce said.

"Yet everything we do as biologists is underpinned by sound taxonomy."

Despite these hurdles, Dr Bruce said BHP Billiton's funding of the CReefs Australia project and Australia Biological Resources Study funding had made it possible for experienced and student taxonomists to expand their research of coral reefs, considered to be the most diverse of all marine ecosystems.

A Galethea squat lobster and likely new species.
 Image: Gary Cranitch.

AIMS Principal Research Scientist and Principal Investigator of the CReefs project, Dr Julian Caley, said a number of young scientists had joined this year's Heron Island expedition and he was impressed by their enthusiasm.

"They are like-minded, dedicated to their particular groups of interest and willing to share their findings and enthusiasm leading to a real synergy among the researchers," Dr Caley said.

He said the young scientists were proof there was a pool of talent available to replace older scientists as they retired – so long as there were jobs available to accommodate them.

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Friday 20 November 2009:

Collaborations extend beyond Heron Island expedition

CReefs Australia has produced some invaluable international collaborations.

The Ocean Genome Legacy, based in Massachusetts, United States, has begun working with the Queensland Museum's Centre for Biodiversity to help sequence its entire collection of octocorals.

In addition, the organisation is in the early stages of assisting the museum's parasitologist, Tom Cribb, by extracting the DNA from an archival collection of fish parasites stored in alcohol.

The partnerships are the result of both organisations' direct involvement in the CReefs Australia project.

OGL Staff Scientist Abby Fusaro said the organisation relied heavily on the expert knowledge and collections from a network of collaborators around the world.

"Engaging researchers who are knowledgeable about their taxa offers us the expertise we can't do without," Abby said.

She is also assisting Australian Museum Senior Principal Research Scientist Pat Hutchings and Postdoctoral Researcher Maria Capa in defining the taxonomic relationships of polychaetes, and Melbourne Museum Associate Professor Phil Bock in his identification of bryozoa.

She said the collaborations would assist in the collection of molecular data.

"It's fun having your hands in everyone's work," she said.

Abby will return to the United States with around 900 species samples, which she will further process before the data is registered with the organisation's collection.

Ocean Genome Legacy Foundation Staff Scientist, Abby Fusaro.
 Image: Gary Cranitch.

Next year OGL will launch an online catalogue of its collection, making sequence data publicly available and providing access to DNA extracts for scientific research.

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Thursday 19 November 2009:

Crabs help identify coral

What has caused some marine biologists to double-take has proven to be a unique way to tell apart different coral species.

Florida Museum of Natural History PhD student, Seabird McKeon, has found coral species around Heron Island that look identical in every way – except they play host to different crab species.

He said the phenomenon gave biologists a quick and easy way to initially distinguish one coral species from another.

Seabird made the discovery with his advisor, curator Gustav Paulay, back at their lab in the United States.

The pair is investigating the symbiosis that exists between crabs and their hosts, primarily mutualism.

He said his work was similar to the terrestrial diversity studies carried out in rainforests, which involve measuring the number of host specific insects that lived in different tree species.

Those data are then extrapolated to estimate how many insects live in other trees.

He said this technique had never been applied to coral reefs.

His current research is now in its second year and will continue into his postdoctoral studies.

Seabird studies how interspecies relationships create and maintain biodiversity over ecological and evolutionary time.

His research focuses on mutualism, where two or more species benefit each other through their interactions, but is increasingly concentrating on the negative side of symbiosis.

An unidentified Cryptochirid from the coral genus Turbinaria. A potential new species of Neotroglocarcinus.  Image: Rob Lasley.

Seabird contributes to a blog for his lab's field and lab activity, which is at:

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Thursday 19 November 2009:

Inspired television star inspires others

The CReefs Australia team has a celebrity among its ranks.

Soft corals expert Monika Schlacher was featured on Channel 10's children's television show Totally Wild this morning.

A Research Fellow with the Queensland Museum, Monika described soft corals to the show's young audience and explained her involvement with the international Census of Marine Life, of which CReefs Australia is a part.

"It's important for kids to see this. It's a positive outlook for them with all the stories around about climate change and pollution," she said.

Monika knows better than anyone the power of television to inspire children.

As a young girl she followed the ocean adventures of French biologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau and his Austrian counterpart, diving pioneer and documentarian Hans Hass.

As a 7-year-old child, she watched their escapades on the television and dreamt of one day becoming a marine biologist.

While out one day visiting a coffee shop with her mother in her hometown of Vienna, Monika spotted her hero, Hans Hass.

"I said to my mother, 'Look! There's Hans Hass,'" she said.

"My mother said, 'would you like to meet him?' I didn't think he would want to talk to me. But we went over to him and my mother told him about how I wanted to become a marine biologist. He said it was a good idea. He was really nice."

  Monika Schlacher. Image: Gary Cranitch.

As part of a three-year Australian Biological Resources Study/CReefs Australia grant supported by BHP Billiton, Monika has joined the CReefs Australia team to collect soft corals that will feature in an online catalogue with detailed descriptions and photos.

At the Queensland Museum, Monika works in the Sessile Marine Invertebrates section, which is part of the museum's Centre for Biodiversity.

Totally Wild produces news-type stories on topics such as Australia's native animals and plants, action sports, the environment, science and technology.

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Wednesday 18 November 2009:

Poinonous organisms a mystery

Just one microgram of the poison found in some zoanthid colonies is enough to kill 600 mice.

Hence, zoanthid biologist James Reimer takes extra care when collecting samples.

"I didn't know any of this before and used to touch them with my bare hands," he said.

James, an Associate Professor at Japan's University of Ryuukyus in tropical Okinawa, said zoanthids were unusual in that biologists didn't know why they contained the poison, palytoxin.

"Some colonies have this poison and some don't. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why zoanthids in one place are poisonous and the same species in the next bay are not," James said.

Similar to corals and anemones, zoanthids are closely related to both groups but are far less understood.

Zoanthids are a tough group of species found both in deep sea environments and fringe habitats, such as intertidal, back reef and other shallow areas over dead corals. They can be found as individual polyps or as a mat created from small pieces of sediment, sand and rock.

Their ability to incorporate sand into their tissue to help make their structure is a characteristic that sets them apart from soft corals and anemones.

While not much is understood about palytoxin, its use as an anesthetic is being explored, James said.

"These species are everywhere but have been almost entirely ignored in biodiversity studies because no one knows how to identify them," he said.

 Zoanthus species at Sykes Reef - this genue is being researched for its flurorescent proteins. Image: James Reimer.

So far this field trip James has discovered two potentially new zoanthid species, which he will confirm using DNA sequencing when he returns to Japan.

Until then, he is focusing on the biodiversity of zoanthid populations around Heron Island and comparing it with that of Japan.

He is also comparing his research with that of previous CReefs Australia expeditions and hopes to join future expeditions to further his research.

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Try some of this in your sushi

Sushi lovers Terry Miller and Holly Heiniger know exactly what they are eating when they pick up a salmon nigiri – or, more precisely, they know what they are not eating.

The pair of parasite experts have certainly never eaten a fish liver quite as decimated as the one shown with this story.

Found in a porcupine fish at Shark Bay, off the coast of Heron Island, Terry, a research officer at the Queensland Museum said the fish had an advanced larval tapeworm and nematode infection.

"There's hardly any liver tissue left," he said.

"Eventually it would kill the fish, then maybe a shark would come along and eat it and complete the parasites' life cycles."

Terry and Holly, a PhD student from the University of Queensland and the Queensland Museum, are part of CReefs Australia's parasite team.

An advanced parasitic liver infection inside a porcupine fish.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

In addition to this amazing find, the duo have discovered as many as 20 new parasitic species during this field trip.

Terry said they expected to discover more.

"When you look at a coral reef, more than half the life out there is parasitic," Terry said.

During this expedition Terry is collecting helminths, also known as parasitic worms.

Holly is collecting myxozoan parasites, which she described as "microscopic beasts" found in the muscle, brain, heart, kidney and gall bladder of fish.

"Every fish has some sort of parasite so when you open them up they have something," Terry said.

(Just in case you were wondering, Terry said it was common for restaurants to flash freeze raw fish to kill any parasites and ensure the fish was fit for human consumption.)

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Tuesday 17 November 2009:

Raising awareness of the underwater world

"Whenever I feel upset at the end of the day I take out your book and look at the pictures."

If macroalgae expert John Huisman had ever hoped to inspire people when he began working as a marine biologist, that comment sent to him by a German woman says it all.

The book she was praising was Marine Plants of Australia, released in 2000 and John's first published book.

John, of Murdoch University and the Western Australia Herbarium, could further inspire ocean lovers in three more books he is currently writing.

Seaweed Flora of North-Western Australia is expected to be completed next year, while John is also working on a field guide to the marine plants of the Great Barrier Reef.

He is also working with University of Adelaide macroalgae specialist, and fellow CReefs biologist, Fred Gurgel on a guide to red algae, after the recent publication of a guide to green algae.

John Huisman takes a photo while diving.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

The book will be published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) as part of the Algae of Australia series.

John, who completed his PhD on red algae in 1985, said his motivation to publish books was driven by his desire to open the underwater world to people and help them identify species.

"If you went out into the bush and asked a local what the name of a tree was and they didn't know, you might get upset. But people don't draw the same feelings for the underwater world," John said.

"I publish books to show people how attractive these species are and to raise awareness of them," he said.

This current field trip to Heron Island is John's third expedition with CReefs Australia, which he said allowed him to carry out integral field work for his area of research, as well as photograph species for his publications.

In total John has had six books and booklets published and hopes to write and take photographs for more.

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Monday 16 November 2009:

New red seaweed species confirmed

A beautiful red seaweed found during last year's Heron Island CReefs expedition is in fact a new species.

Discovered by Murdoch University and Western Australia Herbarium macroalgae expert John Huisman, and University of Adelaide Research Fellow Fred Gurgel, it has been confirmed as a species of Platoma.

After leaving the island last September, John and Fred made the positive identification. The seaweed has only been found in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

The pair has since collected further samples of the species and will include it in a field guide to seaweeds of the Great Barrier Reef, which they are currently writing and hope to complete next year.

A new species of Platona. Image: John Huisman.

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Sunday 15 November 2009:

The science of intergenerational change

When Phil Bock eventually leaves his honorary associate post at Melbourne Museum he doesn't know who is going to take his place.

You see, at 70-years-of-age he is one of only a handful of bryozoan experts in Australia – and the others are also on the verge of retirement.

Phil began studying bryozoa, or lace corals, more than 30 years ago, after the scanning electron microscope gave scientists the technology to study specimens with new levels of detail and complexity.

"I had collected bags and bags of samples that needed to be looked at and it was obvious no one else was going to look at them," Phil said.

He said younger scientists were less likely to study bryozoans because the literature was difficult to access and more popular specimens such as molluscs were exciting and easier to study.

To help ensure his vast expertise is not lost, Phil has developed a website that catalogues byrozoa. Mostly text-based, the website features underwater photos of specimens that date back to the 1970s and drawings that date back to the early 1800s.

"Five years before most people knew about the Internet I jumped on it," Phil said.

"I saw something about making your own website so I did it. I gradually put all the things on it that I thought would be useful to people.

"I thought, 'this is going to be great for exchanging information like a digital library, for experts and non-experts.'

"But there's still a lot I need to add."

Melbourne Museum bryozoan expert Phil Bock drills a piece of coral.
Image: Raelene Morey.

Polychaete expert Pat Hutchings, a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, is also imparting her knowledge to fellow biologist Maria Capa.

Pat, who began her PhD in 1967 and hasn't stopped working since on polychaetes, said it was critical Maria stayed on at the museum.

"We wrote in our CReef's grant application about Maria being a young career scientist and the importance of passing on knowledge to the next generation," Pat said.

"If you look at the number of senior people who work with polychaetes around the world, a lot of them don't have students, or postdocs like Maria."

Maria, originally from Spain and now completing her second postdoctoral research study, said Pat gave her the freedom and encouragement to conduct her own research.

"She spends a lot of time with her students," Maria said.

"She's a good example. She was living in a man's world when she started her career and has had to fight for a lot of what she has achieved."

Pat and Maria were last year awarded an ABRS/CReefs grant to study polychaetes as part of a larger team drawn from the Australian Museum, Museum Victoria and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. This grant will allow them to continue their work for another two years.

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Saturday 14 November 2009:

Snorkelling on Sykes Reefs

"Another day at the office," laughs Kareen Schnabel as our boat speeds off.

I'm headed to Sykes Reef, east of Heron Island, for a morning of snorkelling with eight of the biologists on the expedition. Each morning they disappear on the boats and this time I'm determined to find out what they actually get up to.

Our trusty skipper Aaron Anderson steers our boat Anthius towards our destination as Heron Island becomes a dot on the horizon. Our small boat slices through the waves, gracefully flying over the larger ones and landing on the other side with a satisfied smack.

We finally reach Sykes Reef and toss the anchor overboard. It's a scramble as arms squeeze into wetsuits and feet fit into fins. In pairs the expeditioners disappear overboard.

The odd one out amongst an experienced group of divers, this is, admittedly, my first time snorkelling, but who better to learn from than a group of marine biologists. Aaron, a diving instructor, puts me through my paces, explains how a snorkel works and splashes water onto my facemask. I slip into my fins, adjust my mask and wave goodbye as I slide into the water under the skipper's watchful eye to join the other snorkellers.

It's not as cold as I'd imagined. I kick my fins into action and swim away from the boat before diving down as far as my buoyant wetsuit will allow me. The water is salty and I blow the ocean out of my snorkel.

The reef is shallow. There are some tiny blue fish here, a jellyfish there. I dive down to take a closer look and discover a pair of cuttle fish floating about.

Nearby Kareen, a squat lobster expert from New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, is diving down with her orange bag, hunting for samples.

Not far away I can hear Queensland University and Queensland Museum PhD student Holly Heiniger laughing through her snorkel as she squirts clove oil around a fish to anaesthetise it for her partner Terry Miller, a research officer at Queensland Museum, to scoop into a net.

Eventually I make my back to the boat when my legs have had enough.

After an hour in the water the biologists are waved back to the boat and as they climb aboard they excitedly show off their discoveries, some having collected samples for their fellow scientists.

"So this is what they do," I think as our boat bobs about, the sun shining on the faces of eight very satisfied marine biologists.

Kareen Schnabel diving for samples.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Friday 13 November 2008:

Heron Island's History

Once home to a turtle soup cannery, Heron Island is now a destination for tourists and scientists alike.

Situated 72km off the coast of Gladstone in Central Queensland, the 8ha sand cay lies on the Tropic of Capricorn and sits on the leeward edge of a thriving coral reef platform.

Heron Reef is home to around 60 per cent of the approximately 1500 species of fish and around 72 per cent of the coral species found on the Great Barrier Reef.

The island is densely forested with surrounding dunes, which provide a nesting habitat for thousands of migratory and resident birds. Heron Island is also a major green turtle nesting site.

First occupied by a turtle soup cannery in the 1920s, the focus turned to tourism in 1936. The Great Barrier Reef Committee identified Heron Island as a specialised and unique location to establish the first permanent research station in the 1950s, leading to the construction of the Heron Island Research Station.

The island's only tenants are the research station operated by the University of Queensland, Voyages Heron Island Resort and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services.

A permanent staff of 10 operates the research station, which can accommodate up to 120 guests, including visiting students and research groups from around Australia and overseas.

The research station is currently under construction after a devastating fire tore through the site's buildings in March 2007. A $9m reconstruction over two years allowed the station to reopen in February 2009.

The wreck of the HMAS Protector off Heron Island.
Image: Raelene Morey.

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Friday 13 November 2008

Teacher inspired by hands-on-experience

High school teacher Jacqui Smoler couldn't be further from her classroom filled with noisy boys in suburban Adelaide.

The recipient of the Australian BHP Billiton Science Teachers Reef Research Award, Jacqui is on Heron Island for a week-long trip assisting marine biologists in their daily work.

A South Australian with a teaching career spanning 23 years, Jacqui teaches senior biology and middle school science and maths at St Peter's College in Adelaide.

"It's a lot more relaxing than being in a classroom with a group of boys, I can tell you that!" Jacqui said of her trip so far.

She said her days on the island have been split in two: mornings are spent diving and collecting samples and the afternoons are spent analysing those samples.

"It reminds me of life at university, to be honest," she said.

Born in the seaside suburb of Glenelg in Adelaide, Jacqui spent many of her childhood summers fishing from her family's boat. Her love of the ocean led her to undertake an Honours degree in Marine Botany, specialising in algal taxonomy and ecology, at the University of Adelaide.

Jacqui's dedication to teaching has also been recognised by the ARMADA program, which selects a handful of American teachers each year to do field work in other parts of the world and mentor fledgling teachers.

Jacqui was selected as the lone Australian of the 2008-09 program and travelled to Rhode Island in the United States to take part in lectures and field trips.

She is now mentoring a Grade 4 teacher at her school and together they are developing a marine biology program for students.

When Jacqui returns to school she plans to turn her hands-on experiences on Heron Island into hands-on learning activities for her students in which they can gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the importance of ocean ecosystems.

"The last 12 months have been absolutely incredible for me as a teacher," Jacqui said.

"I've learnt a lot from the scientists I've worked with. I'm very grateful for this wonderful opportunity."

In addition to her busy teaching schedule, the self-confessed workaholic has just completed a Graduate Certificate in Science and Mathematics Education at Flinders University.

Jacqui Smoler snorkelling. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Thursday 12 November 2009:

Back to Heron Island

The CReefs team is back on Heron Island.

How much more biodiversity is there for them to discover here?

Over the next three weeks the assembled team of 20 scientists will find out as they dive for samples and examine specimens.

And what a diverse team of scientists it is.

Australians and ex-pats from Brazil, Germany, Latin America, Ireland, Austria and even a Canadian living in Japan's tropical Okinawa make up the group of scientists from institutions as far-reaching as the Australian Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, Japan's University of Ryukyus and the University of Iceland.

Among these experts are specialists in isopods, macroalgae, octocorals, zoanthids, commensals in live and dead corals, echinoderms, crustacea, polychaetes, bryozoa and fish parasites, just to name a few.

Giving the CReefs project's continuity, a number of scientists from last year's field trip to Heron Island have returned.

Dr Julian Caley, AIMS Principal Research Scientist and Principal Investigator of the CReefs project, said the field trip amassed expertise to fill in knowledge gaps about what lives on coral reefs.

"The expeditions are about four things: filling in taxonomic gaps, making information about reef biodiversity accessible, carrying out large scale analysis of reef biodiversity (a field of study called macroecology), and education and outreach," Dr Caley said.

To realise its goals, CReefs expeditioners use a diverse range of sampling methods in a wide range of habitats to sample species associated with coral reefs that not have been previously well-sampled.

The field trips also give scientists the opportunity to collect samples of species currently in museum collections but which don't have tissue samples available for genetic analysis.

This is CReef's second field trip to Heron Island after first visiting the coral cay in September 2008. It is CReefs Australia's sixth expedition in total, including trips to Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Western Australia and Lizard Island on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

The research trip began on November 10 and finishes up on November 30.

Reports on the discoveries, scientist profiles and news from the expedition will be updated regularly on this website.

Heron Island. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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* Raelene Morey,  CReefs journalist on Heron Island

Melbourne-based Raelene Morey is an experienced freelance journalist and has spent time working in public relations and teaching high school English in regional Japan.
A skilled writer, Raelene has worked as a political reporter with The Examiner newspaper in Tasmania, also covering business, education, health and entertainment.
Raelene has a BA from the University of Tasmania, with majors in Journalism and Computer Science.

She reports on work being done by research scientists on the CReefs field trip to Heron Island.



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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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