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Tobago’s Coral Reefs Go Online

Dr Anjani Ganase, marine biologist and underwater photographer, discusses the partnership – Maritime Financial, Underwater Earth and SpeSeas – to showcase Tobago’s coral reefs in a significant Collection that will be available before the end of 2019 anywhere with an internet connection. 

Who or what is SpeSeas?

SpeSeas is a TT NGO of marine scientists, conservationists, and communicators; and the Project Operator for the Collection.  SpeSeas will oversee all operations and communications for the 360-imagery collection in marine ecosystems across Trinidad and Tobago. We wish to instill ocean stewardship and advocacy in Trinidad and Tobago, using marine science and innovative communication strategies.

 Dr Anjani Ganase and Christophe Bailhache, co-founder of Underwater Earth, working on the Great Barrier Reef for the XL Catlin Seaview Survey in 2012. Photo courtesy the XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

What is this special Collection of Tobago’s coral reefs?

The Maritime Ocean Collection will be the first on-line library of photos and videos showing coral reefs all around Tobago. It will be available for individuals, communities, schools, NGOs and companies in Trinidad and Tobago, and anywhere in the world, to view and to use for science and education. A visual information platform, it will be a powerful advocate for marine protection and conservation.

The Collection of imagery will serve as a baseline for the state of Tobago’s reefs in 2019. It is a research and learning tool that can be used to gain understanding of the diversity of our coral reefs. Reefscapes (as in Google Street View but under the ocean) may be viewed online; accompanied by information on the location of the dive site and the marine life seen in the image. The project to photograph the reefs (in 360 degree images) begins at the end of March and will extend over the next few months.

We hope that the image collection will highlight the good and the bad of Trinidad and Tobago’s coral reefs; so that we may learn how we impact them and also how to protect them. Coral reefs need to be top of mind because of their diversity and beauty, and also as indicators of climate change.

The project is funded by Maritime Financial Group, who will host the Collection on their website to be used as an educational and engagement tool by the general public. Maritime hopes the programme will raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on marine environments, and foster environmental stewardship within this and future generations.

What is the purpose of the Maritime Ocean Collection?

 We want to connect Trinbagonians to our coral reefs; so that everyone is aware of where they are, what they look like; and to be inspired by them.

The ocean, apart from being the main source of water for life, regulates our climate through the transport of water that absorbs heat from sea, land and the atmosphere. It also provides us with oxygen, while removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Our ocean and our coral reefs are a major source of food – fish, shrimp, lobster, conch, crab – and provide shelter from excessive wave action and sand for beaches.

These ecosystems that extend beyond our shores are intimately tied to our livelihoods and well-being. Living on tropical islands surrounded by water, more of us must be comfortable in the ocean, able to swim or snorkel, free dive or SCUBA dive. Would you believe that less than one percent of the world has seen under the oceans on more than one breath? On a planet that’s mostly ocean, it is bizarre that we still aren’t able to “see it”.

A significant partner of this project is Underwater Earth, an Australian non-profit established in 2010 to bring coral reefs to people, so they can fall in love with the beauty of coral reefs that has mesmerized the fortunate few who have been able to experience them. The aim of Underwater Earth is to reveal the ocean to the world using creative storytelling combined with innovative technology.

What will be the benefits for Tobago?

This will be the first marine imagery/ video collection of Tobago’s coral reefs that can be accessible by anyone. These images are powerful tools for education and to allow Trinbagonians to actually see the beauty and understand the value of the marine world living just below the waves. We hope to create connections for our citizens with the marine environment and to instil a deeper sense of stewardship.

Many of Tobago’s reefs are not managed, even those that are considered protected by law. We need citizens to truly understand what is at stake. Our land-based activities – improper drainage, sewage, coastal development and unregulated land use – as well as unregulated fisheries will continue to degrade our coral reefs, even though we rely on the attractions of marine habitats for tourism, food and job security.

We hope that the Collection will be used by community groups and the public; and that it might encourage other private and public sector partnerships for coral reef conservation projects.

Where can the Collection be seen? And, from when?

The Collection will be hosted online and accessible from anywhere in the world. By Googling “Tobago Coral Reefs,” divers would be able to experience our best dive sites before coming to visit. Educators would be able to show students what a coral reef in their backyard looks like without even getting wet, and also use the imagery to explore what lives among corals as a habitat. Community members will be able to use the images to push for better protection of their most valuable natural asset.

Maritime Financial Group and SpeSeas will work together to use the Collection for education and awareness on marine conservation. Follow us on the SpeSeas website; and to find out when the Collection will be launched.

How did the idea originate?

Underwater Earth pioneered the technology to bring coral reefs to our homes, through online platforms such as Google Street View. They developed the Seaview II (SVII), a unique underwater mapping camera and scooter unit capable of taking 360-degree imagery of the reefscape or any marine habitat and collecting images of the reef continuously. This camera system was used in the mapping project known as the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. They have made a simpler version of this technology (the Seaview X) available to NGOs and conservation entities for the purpose of highlighting the coral reefs anywhere in the world.

I worked with Underwater Earth on the XL Catlin Seaview Survey in Australia in 2012; and as a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. I used the images to observe natural changes in patterns of reef composition from place to place in order to understand the drivers of these changes. I’ve always wanted to be able to showcase Tobago’s coral reefs because I’ve seen the power of the images. Seeing coral reefs in their ocean backyards is empowering for communities. We want people to understand how coral reefs function and what we can do to protect them and keep them productive on our behalf.