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Establishing Baselines for Fiji’s Coral Reefs

Coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet 25% of all marine life call coral reefs home. But, their homes are being threatened. The oceans have been dramatically changing and this change is often going unnoticed. With the recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urging governments and individuals to take action now to reduce the effects of climate change, it has become even more critical for us to start monitoring and changing the way we affect aquatic environments.

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By Amanda White

Photo Credits: Rob Wilson, Frontline Photography for Project Baseline

Coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet 25% of all marine life call coral reefs home. But, their homes are being threatened. The oceans have been dramatically changing and this change is often going unnoticed. With the recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urging governments and individuals to take action now to reduce the effects of climate change, it has become even more critical for us to start monitoring and changing the way we affect aquatic environments.

Over the past four years, Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) conservation initiative, Project Baseline, has been collaborating with scientific and government entities around the globe to provide data on critical environments using divers and submersibles. Last year, GUE sent a team of divers, scientists, and volunteers to Fiji to explore and establish baseline conditions for several of the world’s healthiest remaining coral reefs.

“It is our responsibility and certainly our mission as Project Baseline, to get out there and document these reefs in order to understand what is here and to present that, not only to scientists, but also to local people and to the world to encourage them to care more about what is here and to try harder to protect it,” Project Baseline Director Dr. Todd Kincaid said.

The mission in Fiji took place over fourteen days onboard the private motor yacht m/y Ad-Vantage, which was donated for use by the project along with its submersible Moby, to collect data on the health of deep and shallow Fijian coral reef ecosystems at ten different locations.  

Dr. Brian Walker and Dr. Ciro Rico photographed coral populations during 16 open circuit dives. Some of the images from the different sites they visited can be seen on Project Baseline’s database. 

The Diving

For the Fiji mission, Project Baseline partnered with Dr. Ciro Rico from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, and Dr. Brian Walker and Dr. Charles Messing from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Drs. Walker and Rico were able to complete 16 open circuit dives to conduct detailed documentation of specific coral colonies at depths between 12 and 20 meters.The GUE technical dive team, made up of Mel Jeavons, Jamie Obern, Martin McClellan, and Kincaid, conducted three plus hour-long dives where they collected fifty-five 50-meter long video transects at depths of 30, 20, and 10 meters.

Ad-Vantage’s submersible pilots also conducted 12 video transect dives. The dives were made at the same or nearly the same locations as the dive teams but between the depths of 50 and 362 meters. The primary mission of the submersible dives was to collect vertical video transects of benthic conditions across the steepest portions of the slopes. In addition, Dr. Messing was able to go on eight submersible dives during which he documented deep benthic life forms and collected 29 physical samples. The samples were later preserved and delivered to USP to be added to their South Pacific archives.

“One of the things we did find is that as we ascended from deep water of 300-400 meters, life got more abundant and diverse as we reached the top of the deep reef wall,” Dr. Messing said. “There were also some interesting parallels with the Bahamas where I have dived before. Because both of these environments are limestone, we saw some of the same basic geological structures, and organisms used some of the same adaptations as those on the opposite side of the world, which I found really interesting.”

The team of rebreather divers was responsible for taking video transects of both the benthic and the fish life at varying depths. The footage is then shared with scientists and students. The footage from this trip will help one student develop his thesis. Pictured here are GUE divers Mel Jeavons, Jamie Obern, and Martin McClellan.

Reaching Out to Villages

Project Baseline missions are not limited to just science or diving, but also include public outreach. The Fijians rely on the ocean to live. Their food and their economy depend on the health of the coral reefs that surround the islands and their livelihoods are threatened by a lack of understanding and adequate protections.

To combat this threat, Project Baseline reached out to Fijian villages that were near the dive locations in order to share what is happening beneath the waves with the people it matters to the most.

We met with village leaders and invited them aboard the m/y Ad-Vantage and for tours of the ship and the sub, as well as an overview of our mission and its relevance to our efforts to protect and sustain their ties to the sea. We also met with and described our mission to municipality leaders in Vunisea and representatives of Fiji’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.  Project Baseline hopes that by sharing what is happening underwater with the people of Fiji, they will take the first steps in managing how the reefs will be impacted in the future.

One of the most important elements to the mission in Fiji was to share what we were doing with the Fijian Villages near the sites we were diving. Here, Dr. Todd Kincaid is explaining our mission objectives to one of the chiefs.

Results

The good news? There is still a cause for hope.

“The reefs that we have monitored so far are in relatively good health compared to other sites of the world,” Dr. Rico said. “And in particular to see that the Astrolabe Reef is pretty much a pristine ecosystem. I think it’s a model of healthy coral ecosystems, and it is obvious that the remoteness of the place and the fact that it is far from human settlement is an important difference.”

Not all of the locations we were able to dive were as healthy as the Great Astrolabe Reef. Signs of distress and disease were present on the reefs that were closer to populated islands.

“In the areas that we have visited on this trip, we haven’t seen evidence of mass bleaching,” Dr. Walker said. “We have seen some disease. There were low levels of disease at most sites. At sites closer to human populations we saw an increase in dead coral and cyanobacteria blooms and other indicators that they are probably being impacted by their locations.”

The reason for the diseased and dead coral is still being examined. However, all indicators point toward stresses from local unsustainable land uses – pollution and overfishing – rather than global warming or climate change. If there is a silver lining, it is that these are impacts that can be quickly and effectively countered through public engagement and an investment in sustainable practices. The effects go beyond just the health of the coral. Jeavons and Obern were a part of a previous study collecting video transects on Fijian Coral reefs and they noticed some differences since the last time they visited the islands

“You can see the commercial fishing pressure on the reefs. I remember when we were here 20 years ago there were a lot more of the big predators. A lot more grouper, a lot more snapper and they’ve just gone,” Obern, a GUE instructor from New Zealand said. “If you haven’t collected the data and you can’t give something that’s measurable, definitive to prove to people that it is gone, then it is just in my memory. To come back here and get more baseline data so we can say, no this is what’s happening going forward, is really important.”

Onboard the m/y AdVantage, scientists from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji were collecting specimen during the submersible and scuba dives. Here, Dr. Charles Messing from Nova and a masters student from USP preserve pieces of coral and sea fans to study after the mission was completed.

About Project Baseline

GUE’s Project Baseline initiative started in 2009, is at the forefront of data collection efforts by citizen scientist divers around the world. With over 100 projects in 38 countries, the initiative is more than just the Global Missions you may have read about. Our volunteer divers have collected over 2,700 images, 46,000 temperature readings, and almost 4,000 visibility measurements, all of which are visible on our public database.

Top Image: Working with the m/y Advantage’s submersible named Moby, our dive teams can help accomplish scientists’ goals outside of the reach of a  mechanical arm. The submersible during this trip carried scientists down the sides of the reef walls. Divers in this image are Dr. Todd Kincaid, Mel Jeavons,  and Martin McClellan. Inside the sub is sub pilot Berry McGowan, Dr. Charles Messing, and Ginnie Kincaid.

Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.



Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Cave

EXPLORING AND DOCUMENTING SA CONCA ‘E LOCOLI CAVE

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Text by Andrea Marassich. Photos courtesy of Phreatic. Header image: An inflatable (aka The love boat) is used to facilitate transportation of diving gear through the lakes.

Locoli cave is an amazing and challenging spring in the wilderness of Montalbo, Sardinia. It took me three years to set up the project, but it was all worth it. After all, David Rhea taught me that, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

I’m Andrea Marassich. I began exploring underwater caves in 2003, and I have taken part in cave exploration missions all around the world. In 2010, I fell in love with the powerful, majestic cave systems of Northern Sardinia, Italy. As a result, in 2014, I founded a nonprofit association, Phreatic, which collaborates with scientists and researchers in geology, paleontology, and earth sciences to study and document these unique environments. 

In 2019, I presented at Icnussa, the international speleology meeting in Sardinia, and spoke about Phreatic projects. During the event, a local caving club offered to carry diving gear to the first sump of a cave I had never heard of: Sa Conca ‘e Locoli. I dove with fellow GUE instructor Stefano Gualtieri, and  it was love at first sight. During the dive, I realized that I wanted to get back for more survey and exploration.

The Environment

“Locoli” is a temporary spring (active after rainfall and during certain seasons) located into Montalbo limestone massif, and is included in the UNESCO MaB (Man and the Biosphere) reserve of Tepilora, Rio Posada e Montalbo. 

Unesco Mab Tepilora Park: Karst, wetlands and coastline.

This Sardinian version of the Dolomites Alps, with its white rocks, looks out onto 25 km/16 miles of coastline. The silver ridge of Montalbo features evocative itineraries: historic trails for coal merchants and shepherds, archaeological sites, holm oak forests, and Mediterranean scrub (populated with mouflon, the golden eagle, and the red-billed chough). The peak presents doline valleys, chasms, underground rivers, as well as caves prehistorically inhabited by the Nuragic civilization. Archaeologists uncovered iron weapons in Bona Fraule, Gane ‘e Gortoe is rich in limestone concretions, Sa Conca ‘e Locoli  is eroded by the fierceness of the water, and Sa Prejone ‘e ‘Orcu is a cave-sanctuary.

Sa Conca’e Locoli

Locoli spring, which can submerge the whole valley during winter flooding, forms the entrance to the massive cave system hidden beneath Montalbo. The entrance cavern leads to a series of crystal-clear, freshwater lakes, and though the access is not technically complex, it requires the use of ropes through multiple changes of elevation, while the decorations and speleothems inside alternate with the smooth rocks levigated by water passage. 

Rope work and SRT is required to reach sump1. Hauling gear and physical effort is a serious part of the game.

After the lakes, the cave splits in two. The south passage leads to a shallow sump looping back downstream and connecting to a minor spring in the valley. The north passage goes through a series of changes in elevation, which require the use of ropes, and leads to a wide passage that provides access to the surface of Sump 1. 

This is the entrance gate to a series of huge flooded passages of breathtaking dimensions with obvious signs of a huge aquifer. The first sump is not particularly long or deep at 250 m/820 ft long with a maximum depth of 23 m/76 ft, but it leads to a very important second split. Here the subterranean river flows downstream toward the village of Siniscola and the Fruncu ‘e Oche spring, while on the upstream side it heads toward four other challenging sumps and dry areas. 

In the island of Sardinia, Sump 3 is the deepest, reaching 90 m/295 ft. 

The last exploration dive carried out in 2009 by Rick Stanton led to a collapse in Sump 5; consequently, the present survey only covers the first two sumps.  

The Project

In 2020, I organized the first scouting mission of the deeper sumps, together with Jan Medenwaldt. COVID-19 travel limitations presented difficulties in gathering a bigger team. 

In 2021, finally, we managed to organize a three-week campaign encompassing both survey and photogrammetry. The exploration of the system is particularly complex for a variety of reasons. First, the underwater portion is accessible after a relatively long dry passage, one in which cavers and cave divers must carry all their heavy gear. Subsequently, the series of sumps is difficult from a technical point of view, as the diving profiles involve serious exposures in Sump 3 and 5. 

After the dives were completed, the long clean up requires a couple days, but the smile don’t lie. Operations went smooth.

In order to complete the working goals connected with survey, mapping, photo/video, and research tasks, divers needed to extend their diving time and elected to stay inside the cave and set up a bivouac; entering the cave with dry tubes and bivouac gear without knowing where to establish the camp was risky. We found a new dry section between Sump 3 and 4, which proved to be ideal to bivouac and minimize the decompression risks connected with the profile. 

The main challenge is dealing with the geology of the cave, one that presents multiple elevation changes to move from one sump to the next. Sump 3 is the most demanding of the five underwater galleries, as the cave drops initially to 45 m/148 ft deep, then rises to 15 m/49 ft, drops to 90 m/295 ft, ascends again to 45 m/148 ft, and drops again to 65 m/213 ft before the final ascent. 

We deeply believe exploration without documentation is not getting the job done. Survey and documenting with media is a key component of our activities and we prioritize it over simply “reaching a distance”.

The exploration efforts are now divided in two areas: the newly discovered dry section between Sump 3 and Sump 4, featuring massive rooms and high chimneys that potentially connect with a fossil gallery above, and Sump 5, whose exploration stopped at a depth of 50 m/164 ft and needs  further investigation.

We are already working on new project sessions for summer 2022. 

Considering the importance of the karst system of Montalbo and its water reservoirs, the UNESCO MaB reserve decided to support our project, specifically in relation to our documentation and conservation efforts. We also received the sponsorship of the Italian Speleological Society and are now searching for more partners. 

The main objectives will be:

  • Completing the survey of the upstream section up to Sump 5. To perform this task, we will use the SUEX DRIVe and mapping devices combined with MNemo.
  • Creating a documentary featuring the most beautiful passages of the cave with the help of an expert photogrammeter and videographer.
  • Improving public awareness about caves and karst in partnership with the International Year of Karst and Cave initiative provided by the International Union of Speleology.


Citizen Science

Phreatic believes in the power of Citizen Science. All our projects and missions rely upon the crucial involvement of skilled, specially trained individuals. The Sa Conca ‘e Locoli cave project involves a number of local and foreign volunteers with various sets of competences. Many thanks to Speleo Club Nuorese for the support in the dry portions of the cave, and to all the Phreatic volunteers who joined us in 2021 including Jan Medenwaldt, Peter Brandt, Sven Bertelmann, Keith Kreitner, Laura Marroni, Elke Riedl, and Irene Homberger. 

Entrance of one of the multiple downstream passages; While one team was diving the upstream sumps and bivouacked in the further section, operations continued with oc team working in a different area.

Collaborations and Partnerships

Phreatic can count on a long-term partnership with SUEX, a world leader in high-performance underwater vehicles designed for long-range technical and professional diving.

The Locoli project operates under the supervision of the geologist Dr. Francesco Murgia, author of multiple scientific publications on the areas of Montalbo and Supramonte.

For more information see: Phreatic: Citizen Science and Groundwater Research. Email contact: info@phreatic.org

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