Our Living Laboratory

The science of what we do at Les draws scientists and volunteers to us.

Every year we offer volunteers an opportunity in July to join marine biologists from Tropical Marine Science Institute of National University of Singapore, Lutfi Afiq bin Rosli and Daisuke Taira, to collect data on how our reefs and fish are regenerating. Our annual expedition, STARR (Scientific Trial Active Reef Rehabilitation), has expanded from a monitoring exercise to a coral nursery and replanting programme. The video below filmed STARR 2016, courtesy of our volunteers Greer and Pablo of C'est La Vie Films, Australia.

We are experimenting with coral nurseries on tables and on ropes. When the baby recruits are bigger and hardier at 6 months to a year old, we transplant them onto natural benthic. By sowing new plantings amongst dead reefs that are slowly recovering from cyanide poisoning suffered over 15 years ago, we hope to kickstart natural propogation through coral spawning. We measure the survival rate of different types of transplanted coral at different sites and depths. We try to understand what type coral grow best where, and why.

                           Dive volunteer planting coral on a string         Volunteer divers with coral nursery tables


In between our scientists’ visits, our fishermen and volunteers collect data that the scientists use to measure the rate our coral plantings grow versus how fast Mother Nature grows coral. We also collect data on fish repopulation. Our fishermen measure, first hand, how slow it is to win back coral and fish that were devastated by a puff of cyanide they used in their fishing years ago.

Our scientists have an interesting and very relevant CV. They are from a team helping the Singapore government regrow reefs that are being demolished for Singapore’s port development. They are preserving a “Noah’s Ark” of coral nurseries replicating the mother reefs, with the intent that these can be replanted at a new site. It is a laudable green initiative.

The aim of STARR is to learn ways of propagating coral effectively and cheaply, using materials available locally in villages. Our fishermen are well known to other indigenous communities, who invite them to teach the methods we use in Les. The trials in our Living Laboratory therefore have an influence beyond our own shores.

Last year, Ashlee, a marine biology student from the US, participated in STARR 2016 and what follows is her story of our experiments in our Living Laboratory in the reefs of Les.

“Throughout the long months between STARR 2015 and STARR 2016, Dai and Lutfi have been hard at work in their Reef Ecology Lab back at home, focusing on rehabilitating the reefs in Singapore and finding out in the meantime what methods work and don’t work for growing corals. This year, they came back to Bali with new knowledge on what to try on the strong currents and plentiful fish of our reefs.

Before the group arrived, Lutfi and Daisuke scoped out the reefs for the first time since August 2015 to see which areas needed the most work. During their dive, they assessed the success of previous transplants and compared the biodiversity of the natural reefs to the artificial reefs. This assessment showed the scientists that the corals on the 4 meters by 12 meters cement structures weren’t faring as well as the corals growing on the rope structures. The cement turtles had varying results. By the time the divers arrived late Friday night, Daisuke and Lutfi knew what needed to be done.

     Dive volunteers surveying       Dive volunteer with calipers

So that citizen science would give accurate data, the volunteers had been given materials to study before their arrival and then the scientists spent a hefty amount of time reviewing what they studied in coral biology and identification, the rehabilitation structures, fish identification, survey methods, data collection, and everything in between. During our first dive, their knowledge was put to the test as we used Coral Health Charts to monitor the health of corals on the rehabilitation structures and took pictures of the living corals to measure their heights and widths. This type of data is used to compare how successful the rehabilitation structures are in fostering the growth of corals from year to year.

The next dive was dedicated to transplanting baby coral fragments along the natural reef. This was a new idea for STARR 2016 to see if there was a change of biodiversity between transplant areas and untouched areas. To test this hypothesis, we transplanted about 30 corals along a 70 meter transect on the reef and then monitored the initial health and size of those corals. During the following dives, we conducted Point Intercept Transects (PIT) along the transplanted 70 meters and then along an untouched 70 meters, meaning that we recorded what type of coral was located under each 0.5 meters of transect tape. We also took pictures when necessary to be able to identify particular coral species once we were out of the water. We then conducted a belt transect for fish surveying along the two sites. All of this data will be used to compare whether or not transplanting baby coral fragments on the natural reef make a difference in the presence of coral and fish species and abundance.

Our last dives were spent transplanting baby coral fragments onto the 4 meters by 12 meters cement structure, where many of the corals had gone missing (assumingly due to a very strong current during the rainy season in Bali) or were dead. The most innovative component of these transplants was that there were different percentages of coral rubbles mixed into the cement structures that stabilize the live transplants, questioning whether or not the coral rubbles have an impact on the growth or overall stability of the baby corals.

In the end, STARR is vital to the local communities in and surrounding Les. The visiting dive volunteer community is providing the impetus, labour and financial means to do the underwater rehabilitation work, whilst the , the scientists are also collecting important data on whether active human intervention is better or faster for reef regeneration rather than not intervening at all. This information is not only useful for repairing the reefs in Singapore and Bali, but all over the world.” – Ashlee, marine biology major at Stetson University, USA and volunteer at Sea Communities, July 2016

After the dives, our volunteers enter the data into excel spreadsheets.

Dive volunteer survey sheets

For measuring the length and height of corals accurately, we use a software called ImageJ. In your picture of the coral with the caliper next to it, you draw a line on the caliper and tell ImageJ the length shown on the caliper. ImageJ takes over and gives you the coral measurements to the scale of the caliper.

And, what do you as a volunteer, get out of this? Apart from having a chance to live out your marine biologist inner child, you face one of the best tests of your peak bouyancy performance skills. In the words of an experienced diver who did his first underwater survey with us: survey diving brings out the best and the worst in divers! This is a fun yet meaningful way to practice buoyancy and underwater photography skills. We welcome divers of all skill levels, though. We have surveys to suit all levels of divers. The only thing we drill into our dive volunteers is, don’t grab coral for balance and position, or you will break off what you just measured. 

All our volunteers leave a little legacy of their own baby coral in Bali. Join us and be a part of our reef rehab team!

              Volunteers making coral table