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Battling to preserve the Great Barrier Reef

Katia in her element. It's not unusual for her to spend several hours a day underwater. Fabrice Rochat

Katia Nicolet has been studying marine biology at Townsville University in Australia for the past two years. She dives almost daily on the Great Barrier Reef, the subject of her research and future doctoral thesis.

While Europe is preparing to hibernate through the winter, tropical north-eastern Australia is already warming up under a hot spring sun. Katia Nicolet, 27, picks me up from the airport and takes me to the city centre, passing Castle Hill, the 300-metre-high red granite mass that dominates the skyline.

Sitting outside a downtown café, Katia gives me an impromptu lesson on coral formation, using any old piece of paper at hand. In barely 30 years, she points out, half of the Great Barrier Reef coral has vanished, most of it because of climate change.

After a quick walk along the bay opposite Magnetic Island, the island just off the port that is essentially a national park, Katia and I make our way to James Cook University. This is where she is carrying out her research and hopes to complete her PhD in 2016.

Tropical appeal

Katia was born to a half-English father and a Portuguese mother and grew up in Geneva before studying biology at the University of Neuchâtel. After completing her degree, she spent a month and a half as a research assistant on cleaner fish in Egypt. Enough to convince her to pursue a PhD in marine biology.

With three options on the table, Canada, France or Australia, Katia decided to travel far to somewhere warm.

She arrived in Townsville in February 2011, just after cyclone Yasi swept through. ”There was such a huge difference between cold Switzerland and the tropics here with the flooding, rivers spilling out over the road and the uprooted trees,” she says.

“There was no electricity for a week, and at the time I didn’t speak English that well. So at that time, opening a bank account for example, was not easy.” Luckily, her new friends helped her out.

Coral disease

When we get to the university, Katia shows me the campus dotted with eucalyptus trees where 12,000 people study. She shares an office with an Italian doctoral student.

Her studies mean she is often away from her desk. She spent March to June this year on Lizard Island, part resort and part national park off the coast of Queensland, around 500 kilometres north of Townsville.

On those days, she began working at 6.30am, with an hour’s preparation before even leaving the overnight anchorage.

“When you dive for research, you carry around a huge amount of material,” explains Katia.

“A hammer to collect coral samples, a camera or rulers to measure the speed of progress of coral disease. At eight o clock, you’re on the boat. It took 30 minutes to get to the site, where we collected data and took photos during  dives of between one to two hours. From time to time, I would also take water samples, and it would take two hours to analyse them back in the laboratory on the island.”

It was through this work that Katia discovered that so-called coral disease was being spread by the Drupella sea snail.

June 30, 1986: born in Geneva

2006-2009: bachelor’s degree in biology, Neuchâtel

2011-2012: moves to Townsville to complete a master’s degree in marine biology at James Cook University

2013: starts marine biology PhD at same university, due to finish in 2016

Under threat

Since beginning her work in this area, she has become a passionate defender of the Great Barrier Reef.

“It’s a unique and highly productive ecosystem, with an incredible biodiversity,” she explains enthusiastically. “You could compare it to the Amazon rainforest.”

The fragility of the reef intrigues her – and it seems to have many enemies, slowly killing this natural wonder.

Katia has been trying to understand how coral disease is transmitted, but it’s far from easy.

“I’ve set three or four experiments up, that I’m going to leave in situ for two years. I’m going to come back periodically to collect data. I’m also running two other experiments where I’ve placed a cage around the coral, to see what happens when there are no fish to eat off the coral. And other factors, such as water quality, light or the temperature can also influence disease development.”

Coral can survive in water up to 31 degrees Celsius. But above that there is a risk of bleaching. High temperatures are also a threat to the algae that live in symbiosis with the coral and provide it with up to 80% of its energy.

Any loss is a death sentence for coral. Global warming also means more carbon dioxide is released into the water, leading to acidification. This makes coral more fragile, not unlike bones suffering from osteoporosis. A warming climate powers more violent cyclones too, which damage the already fragile coral.

Add to that pollution from heavy metals and insecticides as well as fertiliser feeding the bacteria which make the coral ill. All of this threatens a reef which is 2,600 kilometres long and a preferred spawning area for fish.

Despite the multitude of threats to the Great Barrier Reef, Katia remains optimistic, and hopes that scientific knowledge will progress in step with the development of renewable energy, providing some solutions to the problems faced by the reef.

Katia has another three years to finish her PhD. “If all goes well, I will put together in my final year a model for predicting coral disease,” she hopes. “I don’t know if I will be able to stay in Australia after that, or if I will embark on post-doctorate research. What I do know is that I want to continue my research, to keep on trying to understand how to protect the coral reef in Australia or elsewhere.”

It first appeared at the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago. The reef is some 2,600 kilometres long and covers some 348,000 square kilometres in area. It’s a natural construction, built by living organisms and visible from space.

It’s the biggest coral reef in the world, with some 400 species of coral as well as 1,500 types of fish, from small goby fish to whale sharks and more than 5,000 types of molluscs. It’s also home to some species threatened with extinction, like the dugong or the green sea turtle.

In 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its living coral, according to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which calculates which factors are responsible for this damage.

– 48%, storms. Thirty-four cyclones have hit the Great Barrier reef since 1985.

– 42%, crown-of-thorns starfish, a coral-devouring species. It is unclear why the starfish has proliferated since the 1970s. One theory is that overfishing has taken away its predators, another is it may be a natural cycle.

– 10%, bleaching. This is a phenomenon which results in death for coral when the algae that live in symbiosis with them leave or are expelled when exposed to some sort of stress.

When I lived in Switzerland, I was not aware of the high standard of living and quality of life enjoyed by the Swiss. I think you only realise the value of certain things when you no longer have them.

I would not go so far as to say that everything in Switzerland works perfectly, but when you see the political instability in Australia, you have to tell yourself that the Swiss system really isn’t so bad…

Many things that we in Switzerland take for granted, like certain basic rules governing safety at work, social security, state schools and ecology, are practically non-existent here.

Katia Nicolet

(Translated from French by Victoria Morgan)

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