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
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