These underwater photos show Norfolk Island reef life still thrives, from vibrant blue flatworms to soft pink corals



A big coral bommie in the lagoon at Norfolk Island.
John Turbull , Author provided

John Turnbull, UNSW

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Two weeks ago, I found myself hitting the water on Norfolk Island, complete with a survey reel, slate and camera.

Norfolk Island is a small volcanic outcrop located between New Caledonia and New Zealand, 1,400 kilometres east of Australia’s Gold Coast. It’s surrounded by coral reefs, with a shallow lagoon on the south side that looks out on two smaller islands: Nepean and Phillip.

The island is picturesque, but like marine environments the world over, Norfolk Marine Park is subject to pressures from climate change, fishing pressure, habitat change and pollution.

I was diving in the marine park as a volunteer for Reef Life Survey, a citizen science program where trained SCUBA divers survey marine biodiversity in rocky and coral reefs around the world. We first surveyed Norfolk Island in 2009, then again in 2013, with an eight year hiatus before our return this month.

While the scientific analysis of our data is yet to be done, we can make anecdotal observations to compare this year’s findings with prior records and photographs. This time, our surveys turned up several new sightings and observations.

A wrinkly orange nudibranch nestled in algae
A red-ringed nudibranch (Ardeadoris rubroannulata). This beautiful little mollusc was a couple of centimetres long, nestled on the side of a wall covered in colourful algae. I had to look twice to notice it, but recognised it as a species I had seen before in Sydney. It had previously only been recorded in the Coral Sea, the east coast of Australia and Lord Howe island, so it was nice to get a record of it even further east in the Pacific.
John Turnbull, Author provided

What we saw

Diving under the waves in Norfolk Marine Park takes you into a world of crackling, popping reef sounds through clear blue water, with darting tropical fish, a tapestry of algae and hard and soft corals in pink, green, brown and red.

In these surveys we record fish species including their size and abundance, invertebrates such as urchins and sea stars, and habitat such as coral cover. This allows us to track changes in marine life using standardised scientific methods.

Emily Bay is a sheltered swimming beach at the eastern end of the lagoon, great for snorkelling too thanks to the diverse corals just below the surface.
John Turbull, Author provided
An orange fish near a mound of orange coral
Banded parma are quite territorial — they charge you as you approach their turf. This one is guarding what it regards as its own personal coral clump.
John Turbull, Author provided

Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk. We even felt there had been increases in coral cover at some sites.

This may be due to Norfolk’s location. The island is further south than most Australian coral reefs, which means it has cooler seas, and it’s surrounded by deeper water. I’m a marine ecologist involved in soft coral monitoring at the University of NSW, so I particularly noticed the wonderful diversity and size of soft corals.

Healthy brown coral garden
This photo shows the structure corals provide for fish and other animals to shelter in. They are the foundation for the whole tropical marine community. The corals here are a healthy brown — which comes from the symbiotic algae in their tissues – with no signs of bleaching.
John Turbull, Author provided
Soft pink coral
The soft corals on Norfolk Island are some of the largest I’ve seen. Their structure is made up of soft tissue, often inflated by water pressure, rather than hard skeleton.
John Turbull, Author provided
Close-up of white, wrinkly coral
Hard corals come in a diversity of shapes and sizes, including this massive form growing on the side of rock wall.
John Turbull, Author provided

I noticed generally low numbers of large fish such as morwong and sharks on our survey sites. Some classes of invertebrate were also rare on this year’s surveys, particularly sea shell animals like tritons and whelks.

Urchins, on the other hand, were common, particularly the red urchin. Some sites also had numerous black long-spined urchins and large sea lamingtons.

These invertebrate observations follow patterns we see in eastern and southern Australia, where there are declines in the numbers of many invertebrate species, and increases in urchin barrens — regions where urchin populations grow unchecked.

The expansion of urchin barrens can threaten biodiversity in a region, as large numbers of a single species of urchin can out-compete multiple species of other invertebrates, over-graze algae and reduce habitat suitable for fish.

Red urchin beside coral
The abundant red urchin competes for space with other invertebrates, such as this one encrusting hard coral.
John Turbull, Author provided
Fat, black and white urchins beneath a coral mound
Lamingtons are an Australian cake (although there are claims they were invented in NZ!) and I love this descriptive common name for the Tripneustes gratilla urchin. The sea lamingtons on Norfolk appear particularly fat and happy, as they cluster in sheltered grooves during the day to avoid predators. They can also be different colours — I’ve seen them on the east coast of Australia in orange and cream, even with stripes.
John Turbull, Author provided
Two spindly shrimp beneath coral
A pair of banded cleaner shrimp, which grow to 9cm long. They advertise their fish cleaning services with their distinct banding and white antennae.
John Turbull, Author provided

A highlight of any survey dive is when you find an animal you suspect may not have been recorded at a location before, and I had several of those on this trip.

I recorded first sightings for Reef Life Survey of blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish.

While some of these sightings are yet to be confirmed by specialists, they gave a buzz of excitement each night as we searched the records to confirm our suspicions of a new find.

A school of large blu fish
This big school of drummer circled us for several minutes on our first survey dive at Nepean Island. If you look closely you can see one of the fish is different, in the top right. This is one of a few blue mao mao circulating in the school – and a first sighting for Reef Life Survey at Norfolk. You might also notice another species in the school, the darker spotted sawtail down the bottom of the photo.
John Turbull, Author provided
A vibrant blue ribbon-like worm with an orange stripe
Susan’s flatworm is a colourful invertebrate listed as living only in the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. This sighting from Norfolk Island is a new record in the Pacific Ocean. When I first saw this little worm at the end of a survey, I wondered if it was anything special. Just as well I took the photo anyway!
John Turbull, Author provided

Recruiting the locals

Other highlights for me included the warm welcome we received from the local community on Norfolk and the great turnout we had at our community seminar. Everyone I spoke to was supportive and encouraging when they heard we were on the island as volunteers doing surveys, and several people expressed interest in getting involved.

This is great news, as the best outcome is for local people to be trained to conduct their own local surveys.

An underwater SCUBA selfie
Tyson, Sal, Jamie, Toni and me taking an underwater selfie on the west side of Phillip Island, 10 metres below the surface. It’s harder than on land, with your fins off the ground, everyone moving and bubbles to deal with.
John Turbull, Author provided

Ideally we will return for comprehensive surveys of our 17 sites every two years or so, allowing us to plot trends over time. Only then can we hope to understand what is really happening in our marine environment, and make evidence-based conservation decisions. Having a skilled local team would make this easier and more likely to happen.

In any case, our 2021 surveys in Norfolk Marine Park, conducted by our team of five dedicated volunteers and supported by many others, give us one more essential point in time in the Norfolk series, and gave me some great memories to boot.

You can view my full photo album from the Norfolk Island survey here.




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Photos from the field: zooming in on Australia’s hidden world of exquisite mites, snails and beetles


The Conversation


John Turnbull, Postdoctoral research associate, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



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Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.

Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.

This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.

The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.

A gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

A disaster for conservation

The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.

Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.

Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.

It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.

More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.

Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.

In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.

Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.




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UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.

As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.

Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.

While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.

Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.

The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.




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Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
Shutterstock

2021: a crucial year

As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?

The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.

In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Electricity has become a jigsaw. Coal is unable to provide the missing pieces



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Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

There’s something the energy minister said when they announced the early closure of Victoria’s second-biggest coal-fired power station last week that was less than complete.

Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley, provides up to 20% of Victoria’s power. It has been operating for 47 years. Since late 2017 at least one of its four units has broken down 50 times. Its workforce doubles for three to four months most years to deal with the breakdowns. It pumps out 3% of Australia’s carbon emissions.

On Wednesday Energy Australia gave seven years notice of its intention to close it in mid-2028, four years earlier than previously announced, a possibility for which regulators had been preparing.

In what might have been a rhetorical flourish, Energy Minister Angus Taylor warned of “price spikes every night when the sun goes down”.

Then he drew attention to what had happened when two other coal-fired power stations closed down — Victoria’s Hazelwood and South Australia’s Northern (South Australia’s last-remaining coal-fired generator).

He said “wholesale prices skyrocketed by 85%”.

And there he finished, without going on to detail what really mattered. South Australia and Victoria now have the lowest wholesale power prices in the National Electricity Market — that’s right, the lowest.

Coal-fired plants close, then prices fall

Before Northern closed, South Australia had Australia’s highest price.

Five years after the closure of Northern in 2016, and four years after the closure of Hazelwood in 2017, South Australia and Victorian have wholesale prices one-third lower than those in NSW and two-fifths lower than those in Queensland.

Something happened after the closure (largely as a result of the closure) that forced prices down.

South Australia became a renewables powerhouse.

South Australian wind projects congregate around power lines.
AEMO

The Australian National University’s Hugh Saddler points out that renewable-sourced power — wind and grid solar — now accounts for 62% of power supplied to the South Australian grid, and at times for all of it.

Much of it is produced near Port Augusta, where the Northern and Playford coal-fired power stations used to be, because that’s where the transmission lines begin.

Being even cheaper than the power produced by the old brown-coal-fired power stations, there is at times so much it that it sends prices negative, meaning generators get paid to turn off in order to avoid putting more power into the system than users can take out.

It’s one of the reasons coal-fired plants are closing: they are hard to turn off. They are just as hard to turn on, and pretty hard to turn up.

Coal can’t respond quickly

There are times (when the wind doesn’t blow and there’s not much sun, such as last Friday in South Australia) when prices can get extraordinarily high.

But coal-fired plants, especially brown-coal-fired plants such as Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn and Victoria’s two remaining big plants, Loy Yang A and B, are unable to quickly ramp up to take advantage of them.

Although “dispatchable” in the technical meaning of the term used by the minister, coal-fired stations can’t fill gaps quickly.




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Batteries can respond instantly to a loss of power from other sources (although not for very long), hydro can respond in 30 to 70 seconds, gas peaking plants can respond within minutes.

But coal can barely move. As with nuclear power, coal-fired power needs to be either on (in which case it can only slowly ramp up) or off, in which case turning it on from a standing start would be way too slow.

What was a feature is now a bug

That’s why coal-fired generators operate 24-7, to provide so-called base-load, because they can’t really do anything else.

Snowy Hydro generators can be turned on and off at will.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

Brown coal generators are the least dispatchable. Brown coal is about 60% water. To make it ignite and keep boiling off the water takes sustained ultra-high temperatures. Units at Yallourn have to keep burning coal at high output (however low or negative the prices) or turn off.

In the days when the other sources of power could be turned on and off at will, this wasn’t so much of a problem.

Hydro or gas could be turned on in the morning when we turned on our lights and heaters and factories got down to business, and coal-fired power could be slowly ramped up.

At night, when there was less demand for coal-fired power, some could be created by offering cheap off-peak water heating.

But those days are gone. Nationwide, wind and solar including rooftop solar supplies 20% of our needs. It turns on and off at will.

Wind often blows strongly at night. What was a feature of coal — its ability to provide steady power rather than fill gaps – has become a bug.

Gas and batteries can fill gaps coal can’t

It’s as if our power system has become a jigsaw with the immovable pieces provided by the wind and the sun. It’s our job to fill in the gaps.

To some extent, as the prime minister says, gas will be a transition fuel, able to fill gaps in a way that coal cannot. But gas has become expensive, and batteries are being installed everywhere.

Energy Australia plans to replace its Yallourn power station with Australia’s first four-hour utility-scale battery with a capacity of 350 megawatts, more than any battery operating in the world today. South Australia is planning an even bigger one, up to 900 megawatts.




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Australia’s Future Fund and AGL Energy are investing $2.7 billion in wind farms in NSW and Queensland which will fill gaps in a different way — their output peaks at different times to wind farms in South Australia and Victoria.

Filling the gaps won’t be easy, and had we not gone down this road there might still have been a role for coal, but the further we go down it the less coal can help.

As cheap as coal-fired power is, it is being forced out of the system by sources of power that are cheaper and more dispatchable. We can’t turn back.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.