Who I am
I have always had an affinity with the ocean. Even though I grew up in the urban jungle of Singapore, I could often be found in the school library reading dive magazines or books detailing the voyages of Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso. At home I kept fish tanks that contained anything from freshwater eels to archer fish. However, I clearly remember the exact moment when I decided that I’d spend my life working on the ocean. I was 12 years old, snorkelling off Pulau Tioman in Malaysia. I was completely absorbed in my first visit to a living coral reef when a small blacktip reef shark swam by. My immediate instinct wasn’t fear but a deep sense of wonder, watching an animal so finely tuned to its environment that it glided by without a sound, like poetry in motion. I was hooked. It’s fitting that, years later, blacktip reef sharks were the subject of my PhD thesis. When I came home to Australia after high school, I took every marine biology subject offered at university and saved up enough cash to go diving. A group of us started the university’s first scuba-diving club, and by the time I was doing my PhD I joined up with a new group of colleagues and friends to found the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society, the first professional organisation for scientists and managers working on sharks and rays in the Oceania region.
Sharks often capture the public’s interest but their close cousins, the rays, attract far less attention and are less well understood. Unfortunately, many of them are also in trouble. My years of working at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority taught me that sometimes the things – and species – we need to learn about in order to manage and conserve the ocean aren’t always the most popular or iconic research topics. That’s how the porcupine ray project began. This ray is both uncommon and unusual, and the loss of its habitat as a result of climate change makes it potentially one of the most threatened sharks and rays on the Great Barrier Reef.
Where I work
Hardly anything is known about the porcupine ray on the Great Barrier Reef, possibly because the species is apparently so uncommon here. A recent review found only 22 records of it in Australian museums and databases. The little information there was suggested that the species is uncommon in Australia and may only occur off shallow beaches and on coral reefs. Its rarity and dependence on certain habitats may make it vulnerable to environmental changes, such as the predicted impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. However, it’s hard to be sure given that so little is known about it.
Working on uncommon species brings up several problems. To study the species, you first need to find it. As much as I would love to spend months diving on reefs hoping to find porcupine rays, this would cost far too much money and take far too long – real research just doesn’t work like that. So we turned to the scuba-diving community and invited divers to take part in a citizen science project in which they could help the research team to find and photograph these rays. The results exceeded my expectations. We received notes and photographs from across northern Australia that more than doubled the number of existing records in the country. We received video footage of porcupine ray courtship, got photos from as far away as Papua New Guinea, and we extended the species’ southern range by more than 100 kilometres. One of the best outcomes was that the results revealed two potential ‘hotspots’ on the Great Barrier Reef where porcupine rays were more regularly seen. Luckily, one of these hotspots was at One Tree Island, which just happens to have a research station on it!
The Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) gave us start-up funding as part of its Small Grants programme, which enabled the research team to get to One Tree Island and stay for a week to conduct a pilot study. We needed to see if we could reliably find porcupine rays and work out how to catch them for tagging and tracking studies. One Tree Island is a coral cay in the southern Great Barrier Reef. It is tiny, remote and has nothing on it except one research station and several thousand seabirds. The accommodation block has coral rubble floors and its walls are covered with names, signatures and drawings of all the researchers who’ve visited over the years. The station runs on solar power and rain water, yet has functional labs and decent WiFi – it really is paradise! There were only seven of us on the whole island, including the two station managers. It was the perfect spot to spend a week looking for rays and testing equipment, survey methods and working out capture techniques.
What I do
Unfortunately the weather was pretty bad during most of our time on One Tree Island and strong northerly winds and rough waves meant we were unable to use the large seine net we had brought with us. Nevertheless, we had success in other areas. Using snorkel and kayak surveys and baited remote underwater video stations (BRUVS), we found out where the porcupine rays seem to occur around the island. We also tested several ways to catch them. Unfortunately the rays we found were so large they wouldn’t fit into any of the nets we had, so although all of us had our hands on a porcupine ray at one time or another, they were too large to restrain safely.
Although we were unable to tag a porcupine ray, the good news is that we collected more than 120 hours of video footage for analysis and we have worked out a new capture technique. The trip also raised a whole range of new questions: where do porcupine rays go at low tide? Do they travel between reefs? Where are the small animals, do they use different habitats? Do porcupine rays perform ecological functions for other species such as shaping habitats or providing foraging opportunities? We are now refining these questions and they will form the basis of a new research bid. This project will be real discovery science that also addresses key research priorities listed by managers of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I’m excited about its future and hope you will stay in touch to see how things unfold!