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Citizen science and the future of Australia’s iconic Ningaloo Reef

In a town of just two thousand people, getting one hundred residents to attend a talk by scientists about ‘mushroom-shaped corals and whale shark migrations,’ is a sign something special is going on.

It happens regularly in Exmouth, a small resort town on the coast of Western Australia. It’s adjacent to the largest and most accessible fringing coral reef in Australia, Ningaloo Reef.

“It is an amazing place and in 2011 became a UNESCO World Heritage Area because of its biological diversity and conservation significance” said Susie Bedford, Science teacher at Exmouth District High School and participant in the Ningaloo Outlook Program.

The Ningaloo Outlook Program is a partnership between BHP and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Dr Mat Vanderklift, program leader said, “We engage with the community and the school to tell them what we do, and to give a sense of ownership of the knowledge we produce and to use that in caring for Ningaloo.”

“The school kids are critical because they are the next generation who will be looking after the reef, so it’s important we give them the skills and understanding they will need, as well as fostering student interest in science as a career.”

“As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of the entire ecosystem, we then pass that science on to organisations that can make a difference, not just to Ningaloo, but reefs everywhere.”

The Ningaloo program provides information to organisations like the World Heritage Committee, federal and state marine park managers and business, with information that helps them better manage the reef and reduce negative impacts.

According to Dr Vanderklift, the program is strongly supported by an extensive volunteer group of local ‘citizen scientists’, many who are members of the Cape Conservation Group.

Volunteers work with scientists to tag turtles and survey parts of the reef to help gather the data that is used to develop the deeper understanding of the reef and its ecological values.

“Every year, we have a plethora of what are known as ‘charismatic megafauna’ and they arrive pretty much back to back, so when one species season stops, another one starts up, so it is just incredible” said Susie Bedford, who is also the Vice President of the Cape Conservation Group.

“We have hundreds of turtles mating and laying eggs, then there are the enormous, filter-feeding whale sharks, humpback whales from Antarctica along with manta ray, dugong and dolphins.”

Because the nearest big city is more than a thousand kilometres from town, many people who live there are drawn by the reef and the diverse ecology it attracts.

Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, which has a lot of deep water between it and the shore line, at Ningaloo in some sections, you can walk from the shore to the reef and start snorkeling straight away.

“From our point of view, BHP has been very supportive, particularly of the Turtle Program and it has meant our volunteers have the chance help tag turtles and support the scientists in many other ways too.

“It is very important that companies who operate in communities, put back into those communities.”

“Through community interest and the financial support that funds the Ningaloo Outlook Program and research, we have now developed a unique relationship with scientists” Susie Bedford explained.

She said when they first started the program the scientists would just turn up in town, do their work, and leave without any contact.

“But now, we have regular reef information nights that attract up to 100 locals, and that can swell to 400 people in tourist season.”

“Thanks to the strong interest and involvement of the community, we have a unique connection between the scientists and the people of our town.”