Monitoring Coral with Cell Phones … Underwater

Today’s guest blog from WWF scientist Helen Fox is part of a series chronicling a joint coral reef health monitoring trip in Raja Ampat, Indonesia with CI, The Nature Conservancy and WWF. This blog is cross-posted on the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

WWF scientist Helen Fox shows the underwater housing devices that allow divers to use cell phones to record data underwater. This new technology is being tested on the research trip currently underway in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago by scientists from Conservation International, WWF and The Nature Conservancy. (© TNC/Sangeeta Manghubai)

As I finished up today’s monitoring, I realized it was my 1000th dive. Hard to believe, as I’ve been spending most of my work time indoors in front of the computer or in meeting rooms these days. Such a great feeling to be out in the field and diving again, looking at beautiful corals as part of understanding reef resilience.

We’re hoping to apply lessons learned from the Bird’s Head Seascape in another amazing region of Indonesia: the Sunda Banda Seascape. This global conservation priority region stretches from just below the Bird’s Head of Papua southwest to Bali, spanning an area of about half the size of the continental United States. In thinking about how we will create a regional monitoring and evaluation plan, we want to bring together information from universities, government agencies and local NGOs. On this trip, we are trying some new technologies that might make that process easier.

Standard coral reef ecological monitoring includes recording coral cover and fish populations on underwater paper and then transferring that data to a computer. Data entry, cleaning, standardization, sharing, and analysis are huge challenges in the process of turning information into good decisions and policies. In order to streamline this process, we want to test out other possible methods for monitoring the health of coral reefs, including using cell phones to collect data underwater.

We have bought two different “ruggedized” cell phones, two different underwater housings, and are testing two different software programs to try to learn which kinds of reef monitoring are potentially well-suited to cell phone data collection. In theory, we can collect the data on the phones underwater, and then upload the information (when the phones have a signal) to a database “in the cloud.”

So far, both housings passed the “tissue test” — the tissue we put inside stayed dry down to 10 meters (33 feet) — and the phones worked underwater in the rinse bucket on the boat. Next, we’ll try with the phones in the ocean … fingers crossed!

Helen Fox is a marine conservation biologist for WWF. Read other blogs from this trip.

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