The Great Barrier Reef is roughly the size of Japan or Malaysia. It is made up of about 10 per cent of the world’s corals, which are scientifically classified as animals—invertebrate, living on the ocean floor, and indispensable to the survival of the planet. Coral reef systems are habitats for marine life, generate clean air by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, and protect coastlines from erosion and flooding.
In 2019, more than 60 per cent of the corals at the Great Barrier Reef suffered from bleaching, losing their vibrant colour, and turning white. The cause? The corals are deprived of nutrients and struggling to get the food they need.
“Corals globally are dying from climate change, from more acidic oceans and waters low in oxygen,” says Dr Emma Camp, marine biologist with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate.
As the world struggles to lower carbon emissions to reduce climate change, Camp is focused on finding direct solutions to help reefs survive and persist. The British-born scientist found her calling as marine biologist at age six, after seeing her first coral reef on a family holiday. “I couldn’t believe there was life under the water,” she says. “I just thought it was amazing and beautiful, and this different world just fascinated me.”
On a 2016 team dive in the South Pacific waters of New Caledonia, Camp documented for the first time how 20 species of coral were thriving under conditions initially believed to be too hot and too toxic. “The fact that we’ve discovered corals capable of doing that, it’s transforming our understanding of how corals can survive in the future,” she says.
The Rolex Awards for Enterprise has helped provide the vital support Camp needs to keep building on our understanding of coral resilience, and to apply this knowledge to explore methods that can repopulate coral reefs, and to recover and survive bleaching. Resilient coral varieties are grown in nurseries where, scientists and researchers venture, they genetically adapt, before being transplanted to cultivate degraded areas of the reef. “We already have over 3,000 outplants of multiple species,” Camp says.
In 2021, Camp, who holds a PhD in Marine Biology from Britain’s University of Essex, established the Coral Biochemistry group with the Future Reefs team at UTS. “I want, through my research and actions, to ensure the reef is conserved into the future,” she says. Millions of humans, many the poorest on the planet, need the reefs to survive, so they in turn, will survive into the future too. “I just can’t bear the thought that I would have to tell my children that our generation knew it was dying and didn’t do anything to help it.”