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A Swiss sailboat on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Switzerland and Australia, two countries situated poles apart, combining their efforts and their vision of the environmental challenges to work together through their respective civil society for the good of an endangered world heritage. This is «the adventure within the adventure» that will begin on 28 March 2017 in Brisbane when 33-metre ketch Fleur de Passion, the largest sailboat flying the Swiss flag, will put to sea from the capital of Queensland and head north towards this environment existing on borrowed time as part of The Ocean Mapping Expedition. After presenting the CoralWatch project in a previous news, let’s introduce you to the second of the two programs developed with local partners that will start soon.

This new programme, lasting a month from April to May, will be conducted in partnership with the University of Queensland over a specific area of four hundred kilometres between Townsville and Cooktown. Under the leadership of Dr. Chris Roelfsema of the Remote Sensing Research Centre (RSRC), several teams of volunteers will be coming on board successively to map the coral reefs as part of a larger joint project which, besides the University of Queensland, encompasses several other Australian research institutions, namely the Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS), the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), James Cook University and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

«No comprehensive map of all the vast and diverse habitats on the whole Great Barrier Reef currently exists describing geomorphic zonation (e.g. slope, flat, crest) or benthic community composition (e.g. coral, algae, sand)», explains Dr Chris Roelfsema. «These maps would provide valuable information for monitoring and management to support current bleaching surveys, the Crown of Thorns Starfish Eradication Program, marine park zonation design and day-to-day management of the GBR. These types of map have not been produced due to lack of resources and suitable approaches for mapping the 3,000 extensive and mostly submerged shallow reefs of the GBR».

He adds: «Currently, the Remote Sensing Research Centre at the University of Queensland (UQ) is leading efforts, with funding from the GBR Foundation, to create these comprehensive maps through combination of field and satellite image data, and ecological modelling and mapping. A pilot study was used to test the approach in the Capricorn Bunker group during 2016, and methods have now been adapted for application on the 200 reefs in the Cairns to Cooktown Management Region (CCMR). The approaches applied will be the first of their kind to be used over such a large area for so many reefs, and will result not only in benthic and geomorphic maps but also produce detailed water depth and wave climatology data for each shallow reef of the GBR».

For Chris Roelfsema, «Fleur de Passion's journey along the GBR comes at the right time as it provides a unique opportunity to collect additional field data for 15-20 reefs to validate the mapping of the 200 reefs in the CCMR area. Validation data will include georeferenced photo transect surveys, Reef Health and Impact Surveys and Coral Health Chart surveys. This collaboration between the Swiss vessel and RSRC-UQ with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland in Australia is a clear message that there is international interest in conserving the biggest reef globally», he says.

As Australia's lead management agency for the Reef (the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority) recently confirmed, «we’re seeing mass coral bleaching on our Reef for the second consecutive year – part of a global event affecting the world’s coral reefs», says Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden.

«This Ocean Mapping Expedition is a wonderful opportunity for the research team to contribute meaningful information to reef managers, helping them gain a more comprehensive picture of how our Reef is faring – not an easy task given the Great Barrier Reef’s immense size spanning more than 2,300 kilometres along the east coast of Australia», she adds.

«The Foundation aims to catalyse solutions to some of the most complex and challenging problems facing the Reef. This project will fill a critical gap by helping to create a comprehensive map of the vast and diverse habitats of the Great Barrier Reef», says Anna Mardsen.

These two programmes specific to the Great Barrier Reef - with the RSRC-UQ and CoralWatch - come in addition to the two others in progress since the start of the expedition on 13 April 2015, and which will also be continued: 20,000 Sounds under the Seas, relating to noise pollution in the oceans, in partnership with the Applied Bioacoustics Laboratory (LAB) of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, and Micromégas, on micro-plastic pollution, in partnership with the Oceaneye Association in Geneva.

To learn more about the RSRC: