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Laura Jones—a diary of a changing reef
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I'm reading
Laura Jones—a diary of a changing reef
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Laura Jones—a diary of a changing reef
Pass it on
Pass it on
3 September 2017

Laura Jones—a diary of a changing reef

Art and science are both a means of investigation based on the close observation of nature.

Written by Laura Jones

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Laura Jones is an artist from Sydney. In August 2016 she spent ten days as an artist-in-residence at the Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station. Here we feature Laura’s diary entries, where she documents her up-close experience of the Great Barrier Reef’s changing conditions. This is an edited extract from her book, Bleached.

Australians have a strong emotional connection with the reef—even those who have never seen it before. It is a defining feature of our landscape. To give my work immediacy, I needed to witness the reef first hand. I needed to learn more about the complex ecology of coral and how it was responding to the negative impacts of climate change. I set out on this journey because I felt a responsibility to use my voice as an artist, to work alongside science in order to interpret and publicise the problems that our planet is facing today.

Friday 19th August


I made the trip to the Lizard Island Research Station on a tiny six-seater plane. The journey included spectacular views of the reef and the bright blue sky looked like it was melting into the ocean. I was picked up at the airstrip in a troopie car, and we bounced along an undulating sand track through beautiful bushland for about 10 minutes until we reached the Research Station nestled in the landscape, close to the beach.

Here at the Station, the labs, accommodation and facility buildings are all open, breezy and in tune with the environment. Sandy tracks connect the labs and houses, guarded by the yellow-spotted lizards that give the island its name. There are buckets of water at the building entrances to dip your feet in and wash off the sand.

Dr. Lyle Vail and Dr. Anne Hoggett are the directors of the research station and have been here since 1990. They invited me to have dinner at their place with their son Alex, who is a marine biologist and filmmaker, along with Claudia, an American volunteer and a solar power expert named Robert. Anne told me that they love having people come from all over the world to visit the Lizard Island Research Station. It’s paradise here; I am full of anticipation about what I will see during my stay.

Saturday 20th August


As I write this, it feels like I have already been here for a week. With no phone and limited internet, I’m free of distractions and feel like I can grasp what I set out to do. The salt water has washed the feeling of the city out of my head: I’m fresh and ready to go. I have been snorkelling twice today already.

On the first trip out, it was hard to understand what I saw. Most of the coral was covered in algae and looked like a shipwreck. Colourful fish were swimming around as if in a ghost town, looking a bit lost. I had read so much about the devastation to the reef and seen so many photographs, but it was still hard to believe. Is it really all dead?

My second snorkel trip out was to the Clam Gardens where I saw a lot more colour. The tide started to go out and we came incredibly close to the coral. We saw some stag-horn coral growing back over its algae covered skeleton. Anne described this coral as repairing and growing over itself, “like putting on a glove.”

Sunday 21st August


Spent some time in the library looking at my underwater photos. Lyle has allocated me some lab space to do my artwork. Apart from the office chairs and lab equipment, the set-up looks a lot like an art studio. I have a big bench and the light is beautiful, and through the windows I can see masses of bright green bushes (Scaevola taccada) and a view of the water.

I’ve learnt that there are three main coral forms: massive, tabular and branching.

It seems that the branching coral is the most devastated. It usually appears covered in algae and seems lifeless. When I look at books that catalogue the massive, encrusted, plating, free, arborescent, branching and tabular corals, I struggle to grasp how abundant it looked before the bleaching.

I’m sharing the lab with three scientists: Luke Strotz, Jane Williamson and Michael Gillings. They are researching foraminifera, or “forams” as they call them, which I understand to be tiny single-celled organisms that look like grains of sand.

I’m really enjoying painting and drawing with scientists in the room while they do their research. It’s my own private and highly entertaining scientific podcast! I’m starting to see the quirky similarities between artists and scientists. I have a suitcase full of paint, paper, paintbrushes and pencils, while they have hundreds of tiny little containers and pink dye for preparing their samples.

Monday 22nd August


Jane, Luke and Michael show me how to use a handbook to identify coral, and Jane offers me a camera lens to improve the colour of my photos and videos while snorkelling. Anne is doing a lecture at 10am so I go along and learn my new favourite word: zooxanthellae, a type of micro-organism that lives in symbiosis with many marine invertebrates. Zooxanthellae uses sunlight to make sugars that are vital to building the skeletons of coral. Too much heat and light causes the coral to spit out its zooxanthellae, which results in bleaching. The coral gets really bright and starts to glow, it’s called fluorescing, and this is the coral’s way of protecting itself. It looks quite beautiful, but it’s sad because it means the coral is dying. Everything I have seen over the past two days in the water has gone through this.

Anne shows me some time-lapse photographs that Lyle took of the coral over the course of the bleaching event. He visited the same places every seven weeks from November 2015 to April 2016. The photos have bright red letters marking the bleached coral so it is easy to see how the corals bleached, fluoresced, then died.

I am overwhelmed by the scientists here because they are optimistic despite all the damage and the threat of bleaching in the future. In June 2016, the coral started creeping back and that is what I’m seeing now in August. In November there will be the spawning, when new corals will grow and settle onto the reef.

The overwhelming message is that we can’t keep hammering our reef. It knows how to regenerate. It’s like pruning a tree—you have to give it a chance or it won’t grow. In order to give the coral a chance, global warming and ocean acidification need to be addressed. Scientists know exactly what needs to be done, but when it comes to action, it is in our hands and in the government’s hands, and suddenly it seems like everything murky and progress is slow.

Back at the lab, I ask the scientists some obscure questions. Michael explains why tree branches look like veins, like lightning strikes, like rivers. I’m amazed that my “arty” observations actually mean something. He says that art and science should be working more closely together; after all, they are both a means of investigation based on the close observation of nature.

I’m excited that the scientists are excited about my project. I was worried that it would be hard to explain what I was doing, but this is amazing. They completely get it and tell me they have the same challenge—how to communicate their observations and ideas to the rest of the world.

Laura’s diary entries have been published to coincide with the Dumbo Feather Climate Challenge. She is also featured in this week’s episode of our podcast That Time When.

To register for the Challenge and to receive next week’s email straight to your inbox, sign up! You can also read more about the Dumbo Feather Climate Challenge here.

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