Coral crusader

Could pi­o­neer­ing re­search by a young ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist from Es­sex save the em­bat­tled Great Bar­rier Reef? Guy Kelly meets her to find out. Photograph­s by Franck Gaz­zola

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Guy Kelly meets Emma Camp, the Es­sex-born ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist with a plan to save the Great Bar­rier Reef

I’ve never con­sid­ered what the col­lec­tive noun might be for a group of ex­plor­ers – a compass? A khaki? A smug? – but what­ever it is, I have dis­cov­ered a large one, gen­tly grooming one an­other in a lec­ture the­atre in down­town Washington, DC. They con­vene here ev­ery year, at the Na­tional Geo­graphic Ex­plor­ers Fes­ti­val, to revel in their tri­umphs, net­work fu­ri­ously, and share con­cerns for a planet in des­per­ate need of their kind to save it.

By mid-morn­ing on the sec­ond day, those gathered in the au­di­to­rium at Na­tional Geo­graphic’s head­quar­ters have heard from peo­ple who’ve viewed Earth from space and plumbed the dark depths of the oceans. We’ve listened to NGOS that have come to­gether to save the Su­ma­tran rhino and learnt why pro­tect­ing 30 per cent of the planet by 2030 is es­sen­tial to pre­vent­ing the next mass ex­tinc­tion. Many of the speak­ers have been Amer­i­can and many have been con­fi­dent, ex­pe­ri­enced fig­ures who’ve fought to be­come the lead­ers in their (of­ten literal) fields.

Then, re­fresh­ingly, come a group of in­no­va­tors with new solutions to age-old problems – be­gin­ning with a young ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist from Brent­wood, Es­sex. Wear­ing an aqua-blue summer dress, 32-year-old Emma Camp strides out look­ing calm and com­posed. She hits her mark, takes a deep breath, then de­liv­ers the bad news.

‘The Great Bar­rier Reef in Aus­tralia is home to over 7,000 ma­rine species, has huge eco­nomic and cul­tural value, and sup­ports es­sen­tial ecosys­tem ser­vices, such as fish­eries. But this un­der­wa­ter city, full of life and colour, is turn­ing white and derelict,’ she says. The au­di­ence is hooked. ‘Climate change is com­pro­mis­ing not just the Great Bar­rier Reef, but reefs glob­ally. Warmer, more acidic, low-oxy­gen sea­wa­ter is fun­da­men­tally af­fect­ing the bi­ol­ogy of the corals, and this is com­pro­mis­ing whether they’ll be able to ex­ist in the fu­ture. In just three years, over a third of the Great Bar­rier Reef has been lost.’

Camp isn’t just here as a har­bin­ger of doom, how­ever. She’s also come with a plan. Through her re­search, she tells us, she has dis­cov­ered that in cer­tain ar­eas of the planet there are corals that al­ready ex­ist in the kind of hot, lower ph wa­ters we’ll see all over the world, un­less action is taken. And re­mark­ably, some are adapt­ing to sur­vive. Camp has had the idea of ‘trans­plant­ing’ clip­pings of ‘su­per-sur­vivor’ coral (think of graft­ing tree branches) to reefs be­ing dev­as­tated by ris­ing sea tem­per­a­tures, then see­ing what happens.

Camp is the first speaker – and sole Bri­ton – from the 10 fi­nal­ists for this year’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise. In 1976, to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the Rolex Oys­ter, the world’s first water­proof watch, the Swiss com­pany launched a bi­en­nial pro­gramme to sup­port ex­plor­ers, sci­en­tists and en­trepreneur­s who have a pro­ject that could make the world a bet­ter place. It con­tin­ues today, as part of the brand’s ‘Per­pet­ual Planet’ cam­paign.

This year’s group – cho­sen from 957 en­tries by a jury that in­cluded Jonathan Bail­lie, the chief sci­en­tist of the Na­tional Geo­graphic So­ci­ety, and the Bri­tish ge­neti­cist and broad­caster Adam Rutherford – will be halved af­ter fur­ther jury con­sid­er­a­tion

and a pub­lic vote. The five win­ners will then be­come ‘lau­re­ates’, each re­ceiv­ing a sig­nif­i­cant grant for their pro­ject (in the re­gion of 200,000 Swiss francs) and, nat­u­rally, a watch. All 10 fi­nal­ists will also en­joy the vi­tal pub­lic­ity that at­tends the awards.

They are em­i­nently im­pres­sive, and as var­ied as in any year. Pre­vi­ous win­ning projects have in­cluded turn­ing dis­carded rice husks into en­ergy; es­tab­lish­ing a trav­el­ling school to help a no­madic cul­ture sur­vive; and, in 2016, a pro­posal from a Bri­tish man, Andrew Bastawrous, trans­form­ing eye care in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa us­ing a smart­phone-based ex­am­i­na­tion kit. This year’s com­pe­ti­tion fea­tures ev­ery­thing from con­ser­va­tion to dis­ease pre­ven­tion.

‘It’s all been a bit full on,’ Camp ad­mits, when we meet for cof­fee in a nearby ho­tel the next morn­ing. The night be­fore saw her at­tend the Na­tional Geo­graphic Awards and the rest of her time has been taken up by speak­ing events, in­ter­views, photo shoots and ‘as­so­ci­ated ad­min ac­tiv­i­ties’.

‘I had to just go for a walk yes­ter­day, just to be out­side,’ she says, sinking into an arm­chair. ‘I’m not used to be­ing around so many peo­ple. It’s usu­ally fish and coral.’

Camp is tall and wil­lowy, with long brown hair and the healthy tan of some­body who spends half her life dangling off boats in the world’s most beau­ti­ful places. I ask for the down-the-pub-chat ver­sion of her pitch.

‘Well, climate change is killing the reefs, and we risk los­ing them in our life­times. But there are nat­u­rally re­silient pop­u­la­tions we know very little about. My pro­ject aims to find out how they’re do­ing it, and whether they could help save other reefs.’

For a long time Camp’s work was largely gen­eral: look­ing at the im­pact of climate change on coral in dif­fer­ent wa­ters. But one re­search trip in 2016, to man­groves in New Cale­do­nia, in the South Pa­cific, changed her fo­cus for life.

‘No­body [in ma­rine bi­ol­ogy] out­side of our little com­mu­nity bought into the idea that there could be some­thing ex­cit­ing there, but we went and there were corals ev­ery­where – full reef struc­tures, in wa­ter where the ph read­ing was ex­tremely low.’

The pub­lic’s great­est mis­con­cep­tion about coral is that it is a plant. Really, it is a ses­sile (fixed, like a bar­na­cle) an­i­mal, a ma­rine in­ver­te­brate re­lated to sea anemones and jel­ly­fish. Corals rely on al­gae that live inside their tis­sues, pho­to­syn­the­sis­ing and giv­ing the coral its colour. Un­der stress – due to, for ex­am­ple, warm­ing wa­ters and chang­ing ph levels – the al­gae will leave, even­tu­ally killing the coral. The process is known as ‘bleach­ing’ be­cause it goes dull and pale.

A good ph level for coral is around 8 to 8.5. In cer­tain man­grove la­goons in New Cale­do­nia, where tidal cy­cles and unique physico-chem­i­cal con­di­tions create a swirl of warm, de­oxy­genated, lower ph wa­ter, Camp didn’t ex­pect to find such healthy coral. The wa­ter was 1 to 2C warmer than nearby. So she tested the ph – it was below 7.5.

‘My col­leagues said the ph me­ter must be bro­ken. So they tried and got the same. We ended up try­ing five sen­sors be­fore we ac­cepted it. It com­pletely chal­lenged our un­der­stand­ing.’

It was the kind of light­bulb mo­ment sci­en­tists only ex­pe­ri­ence once or twice in a ca­reer. The wa­ter con­di­tions in the la­goon are more extreme than many of the worst pre­dic­tions for the warm­ing of the world’s oceans over the next cen­tury. So if corals there have man­aged to adapt, could they hold the key to saving the Great Bar­rier Reef ?

Camp’s team now hope to ex­pand a pro­ject that in­volves trans­plant­ing ‘su­per-sur­vivor’ cut­tings to at-risk ar­eas. She has al­ready set up a ‘mul­ti­species coral nurs­ery’ off Aus­tralia (imag­ine a mesh fence with cut­tings of dif­fer­ent types of coral fixed to it, weighed down close to the sea floor), but re­quires fur­ther fund­ing and sup­port. And it may not work: af­ter all, the Great Bar­rier Reef – one of the seven won­ders of the nat­u­ral world, vis­i­ble from outer space, and worth about £3 bil­lion in tourism each year – is about the same size as Italy, and sub­ject to all man­ner of dif­fer­ent stresses. But it might.

‘There’s a real art to get­ting the mes­sage across. We fun­da­men­tally have to lower carbon emis­sions to save coral reefs, that’s num­ber one, but we also need to look at al­ter­na­tive strate­gies we can use in ad­di­tion to that,’ Camp says.

She is in­tensely aware that her mes­sag­ing needs to be drenched in cau­tion, lest peo­ple hear of her discovery and de­clare the prob­lem solved – or worse, lest climate scep­tics hoist it as an exam

‘Climate change is killing the reefs. But there are re­silient pop­u­la­tions’

ple of us un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the planet’s abil­ity to sur­vive, what­ever the con­di­tions.

‘Some peo­ple look for any excuse to do less, so we need to be hon­est but not give a false sense of security. Think of it like a toolbox. The main tool we have is low­er­ing emis­sions, but that’s not work­ing well enough alone, so what else do we have?’

Camp has been fas­ci­nated by coral reefs since child­hood. The daugh­ter of lo­cal-gov­ern­ment work­ers, she grew up in Es­sex with two broth­ers (both are still there; one has his own busi­ness, the other’s a po­lice­man). When she was seven, her fa­ther took her snorkellin­g dur­ing a hol­i­day to the Ba­hamas. It was all she needed.

‘I vividly re­mem­ber putting the mask on and for the first time see­ing this whole life you couldn’t see from above the wa­ter, this com­plex coral net­work. At the time I just ap­pre­ci­ated its beauty, but as I got older I started to un­der­stand

how im­por­tant that ecosys­tem is. That so many peo­ple and an­i­mals rely on it. A third of all fish stocks in­ter­act with the reef. They need it.’

As a teenager, she spent most sum­mers in Spain, where she earnt her div­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions. By the time she was an adult she was a di­ve­mas­ter, but bal­anced that pas­sion with one for bas­ket­ball (she went on to play for Great Bri­tain).

On a bas­ket­ball schol­ar­ship, she com­pleted an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence and chemistry de­gree at Bel­mont Abbey Col­lege in North Carolina, be­fore a master’s in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment and busi­ness at Sheffield Hal­lam Univer­sity, then a PHD in ma­rine bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Es­sex – most of which was spent in the field, study­ing reefs around the world. Today she is based at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Syd­ney, where she is one of the lead­ing re­searchers fo­cus­ing on climate change and coral reefs.

Camp – whose vow­els oc­ca­sion­ally slip into a New South Wales twang, es­pe­cially when talk­ing about her life in Aus­tralia – lives in Syd­ney with her hus­band, Rawiri, a banker from New Zealand. They mar­ried in Jan­uary, and she is teach­ing him to snorkel. See­ing his ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the un­der­wa­ter world has ‘rein­vig­o­rated’ her love for it, she says. Camp now reck­ons she’s com­pleted ‘over 1,500 dives, most of them about an hour at least – I stopped count­ing’. By my calculatio­ns, she’s spent two months of her life un­der­wa­ter.

‘Prob­a­bly about a quar­ter of my day job is in the field. The rest is in the labs, test­ing samples, or writ­ing it up. But more and more im­por­tant is the sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion, mak­ing sure peo­ple un­der­stand why we’re do­ing what we’re do­ing.’

It’s why ac­co­lades like mak­ing the Rolex short­list are so valuable, as they al­low her both to gain ex­tra fund­ing and to pro­mote her work be­fore peo­ple she might not nor­mally reach.

‘For me, it’s about raising aware­ness of what’s go­ing on in our oceans, so it’s more about exposure than the money. These are global is­sues and a brand like Rolex can fa­cil­i­tate that mes­sage.’

Last year she was also an­nounced as one of 17 ‘young lead­ers’ for the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals by the United Na­tions. It’s a two-year po­si­tion, and has seen her ad­dress the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly once al­ready. Do they lis­ten?

‘Yeah, I’ve been pleas­antly sur­prised. There’s an ea­ger­ness to have in­ter­gen­er­a­tional dis­cus­sions. We are the next cus­to­di­ans who will in­herit the planet and give it to our chil­dren, and there’s a real com­mit­ment to make sure young peo­ple’s voices are heard.’

Bri­tain seems to have em­braced the anti-plas­tics mes­sage Sir David At­ten­bor­ough and oth­ers have pushed into the main­stream. Aus­tralia is sim­i­larly filled with ac­tivists, Camp says, but the Queens­land gov­ern­ment hasn’t helped by re­cently ap­prov­ing the con­struc­tion of an Adani coal mine – to be one of the largest in the world – in the Galilee Basin, near the Great Bar­rier Reef. Are we putting too much en­ergy into ban­ning straws?

‘The anal­ogy I like to use is that if some­body has a ter­mi­nal ill­ness and breaks their leg, you ob­vi­ously deal with the bro­ken leg, but you don’t stop treat­ing the ill­ness. You can deal with short-term is­sues with­out los­ing sight of the big­ger pic­ture.’

By the end of the Ex­plor­ers Fes­ti­val in Washington, it’s been an­nounced that Camp has nar­rowly missed out on be­com­ing one of the five Rolex lau­re­ates. Those lucky few are João Cam­pos-silva, a Brazil­ian fishing ecol­o­gist who has de­vised a plan to save the world’s largest scaled fresh­wa­ter fish, the ara­paima; Gré­goire Cour­tine, a French med­i­cal sci­en­tist with a method of al­low­ing peo­ple with bro­ken backs to walk again; Brian Gitta, a Ugan­dan IT spe­cial­ist who has de­vel­oped a new weapon in the war on malaria; Indian con­ser­va­tion­ist Krithi Karanth, who works to ease con­flicts be­tween peo­ple and wildlife; and the Cana­dian en­tre­pre­neur Mi­randa Wang, with her plan for plas­tics.

Not all is lost for Camp, how­ever. Rolex was so impressed with all 10 fi­nal­ists that the re­main­ing five have been made ‘as­so­ciate lau­re­ates’, mean­ing her pro­ject will still re­ceive sup­port. Besides, the net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties have been in­valu­able, not least a din­ner at a man­sion in the historic Ge­orge­town neigh­bour­hood, where the world’s lead­ing ex­plor­ers gathered to meet and cel­e­brate one an­other, again.

There, Camp met her hero, the leg­endary ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Sylvia Earle – a woman who has spent a year of her life un­der­wa­ter. Camp hopes she’s still div­ing and work­ing at 83, too. There are days ‘when you think, this is really tough’, she says, ‘es­pe­cially when you see the po­lit­i­cal scene, but what’s the op­tion? You can give up or be one of the in­di­vid­u­als who make it their com­mit­ment in life to do ev­ery­thing they can to pro­tect the reefs.’ So she is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture, but knows the planet is now at a cross­roads.

‘The best case scenario in 50 years is that we have coral reefs that are still bio­di­verse, serv­ing their function, and we have an even health­ier ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment than we do now, re­spect­ing bio­di­ver­sity not just for its value to us as hu­mans. The worst case scenario is that we’ve lost coral reefs as we know them. I don’t want to tell my fu­ture grand­chil­dren that this was a priv­i­lege I had, but they won’t, and it was all be­cause we didn’t do enough.’

Ev­ery time I see her in Washington, Camp is wear­ing a large bone necklace in the shape of a fish hook. It is a tra­di­tional Maori hei matau ,madeby her hus­band’s late un­cle, and means ‘safe passage over wa­ter’. A wearer is con­sid­ered a strong-willed provider and pro­tec­tor, de­ter­mined to suc­ceed.

Camp clutches it to her chest. ‘It’s seen bet­ter days,’ she says, ‘but I wear it on ev­ery dive.’ Rolex is now ac­cept­ing en­tries for the 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise (rolex.org /rolex­awards)

Emma Camp col­lects a sam­ple from a healthy coral colony off the coast of Port Douglas, Queens­land

Study­ing re­silience in coral at a man­grove off Port Douglas

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