Studying Black Corals

When scientist Erika Gress and superyacht owner Mark Robba connected via our Yachts for Science programme last year, it spawned a unique research trip studying black coral in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat. Richard Madden discovers the results of this perfect partnership.

One of the greatest challenges for marine scientists is gaining access to the sea to carry out their work – work that’s fundamental to the future health not only of the oceans, but also of the entire planet. The deep oceanbelow 200 metresis our largest and most vital ecosystem and yet we don’t fully understand how it functions or how healthy it is.

Enter the Yachts for Science initiative, which was launched at the Ocean Talks event at the Royal Geographical Society in London last June, a collaboration between BOAT International, Nekton Mission and yacht owner and philanthropist Lilly Barclay. The initiative was launched with the aim of bringing marine scientists looking for yachts into contact with boat owners, decision makers, brokers, designers and builders who could help take them to where they needed to go.

The call was met with great enthusiasm and the practical results of this partnership are already coming to fruition. The first expedition to go ahead took place earlier this year in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia. The mission: studying black coral for two weeks on board.

Dunia Baru (Malay for “new world”), a sevencabin, 51metre luxury Indonesian phinisi, owned at the time by American Mark Robba. Dunia Baru is no stranger to giving back to the islands ofIndonesia and their inhabitants. In 2018, after completing a luxury charter around the Komodo region, Robba and his crew sailed the superyacht to Lombok after a huge earthquake devastated the island. They distributed food and other relief aid to the most needy villages. The following year, the yacht carried a team of nine medical staff, made up of four specialists and five GPs, to the most remote villages of Raja Ampat to administer free middleear infectious disease screenings.

As a boat owner I have never felt so fulfilled. I’m always looking for a new challenge, but this was in a different league.

 “As a boat owner I have never felt so fulfilled,” says Robba of his latest endeavour. “I’m always looking for a new challenge, but this was in a different league. My team had just finished building a learning centre where marine conservation and sustainability skills are taught to children in the coastal village of Sauwandarek in Indonesia’s West Papua province. When I heard about Yachts for Science, I leapt at the opportunity for Dunia Baru to contribute, this time in the name of science and conservation.”

Robba was introduced to Erika Gress, who is collaborating with local scientists on a pioneering project studying black corals. “With Dunia Baru’s professional dive team onboard along with topend diving equipment, I felt that we were in the right position to contribute effectively,” he says. “It was a huge success and shows just how much can be achieved.”

Dunia Baru was handcrafted by the Konjo tribemaster shipwrights and made from ironwood and teak from the South Sulawesi region of Indonesia. Her story is special and is testament to the vessel that she is today. Building her took eight years, with the tenacious Robba driving 10 hours each visit into the Kalimantan jungles to source and select only the very best ironwood. Phinisis (traditional Indonesian vessels that set seven to eight sails on two masts, arranged in away akin to a schoonerketch) have since been recognised as UNESCO Cultural Heritage symbols because they represent the best of traditional boatbuilding methods. While traditional in build, inside she is designed and operated very much in the same way as the world’s finest luxury yachts.

Fortuitously, Dunia Baru was in so many ways the perfect research vessel for Gress, whose current focus is on mesophotic (between 30 and 150 metres deep) reefs and black corals, and whose work spans different areas including the Caribbean and Indian Oceans. Gress’ steam of five on board included four marine biologists from the University of Papua, Manokwari and the NGO Bionesia. The team’s aim was to gain insights into the abundance and diversity of black corals and their role as fundamental habitat providers in Raja Ampat’s reefs. From the Port of Sorong, Dunia Baruunder took a 12hour journey to the Marine Protected Area (MPA) off the island of Misool, one of the four major Raja Ampat islands. Anarea known as the Coral Triangle, it is world renowned for the density of its marine organisms and boasts the largest diversity of corals on thplanet. The topography is stunning both above and below water, changing dramatically from east to west with the northwest dominated by lowlying sand atolls and the southeast by karstrock structures with large vertical walls.

The support we had from Clive, Dunia Baru’s cruise director, and the crew was outstanding.

“The support we had from Clive, Dunia Baru’s cruise director, and the crew was outstanding,” says Gress, “The opportunity to tap into the immense experience of Dunia Baru’s team in the region as well as the amazing dive setup they have on board was critical to the success of our project.

“We had 12 days of diving. Our day would start at 6am with a cup of coffee and then we would prepare the diveroperated video system before the first dive, which would normally be for around 80 to 90 minutes. After that, we would have breakfast and download all the video and data before a second dive between around 2pm and 3pm, which would be for about an hour.”

The study took place in reefs both inside and outside the MPA. Its aim was to document the size and abundance of the black coral as well as the organisms associated with them, including fish. The team dived in three different depth zones to a depth of 40 metres, carrying out transects over a 60metre area and filming with two cameras at a time.

The videos will be analysed using sophisticated software, which will enable the team to measure the size and numbers of the fish living alongside the colonies of black coral. It will also ultimately provide information on the black coral ecology and the reefs they thrive in.

The team recorded black coral both inside and outside the MPA. An abundance of colonies seem to favour the southeastern region, where reefs were generally in better condition than on the west side of Misool, outside the protected area. It also appears to support a high diversity of black corals, possibly including undescribed species.

We were only able to do one night dive, but it was one of the best of the whole trip

“We were only able to do one night dive,” recalls Gress, “but it was one of the best of the whole trip. Many of the marine organisms and invertebrates that use black coral as habitat, such as shrimps and crabs, are more active at night and it was easier see them.”

To conclude their two weeks on board Dunia Baru, the team headed to the learning centrein Sauwandarek that Robba had commissioned, with the biologists giving the children an inspiring talk explaining the importance of protecting the marine environment in the region. The expedition was followed by more capacity building, and much of the hard work is still to come for the Indonesian team.

Future planned expeditions include a study of deep scattering layers led by Professor Andrew Brierley of the University of St Andrews, who also met with owners at Ocean Talks. “Deep scattering layers are almost like an outer space environment,” says Brierley. “Extraordinary animals hang there in the twilight or total darkness. Lanternfish, for example, with their flashing photophores, wonderful crustaceans and giant shrimp. It will give us a completely new window into an aspect of the world’s oceans that we don’t yet have.”

The Yachts for Science initiative is still in its infancy, but as the leader of another pioneering expedition of exploration and science once observed, small steps often lead to giant leaps.

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