Evaluating the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef

By Amy Edwards February 21st, 2019

clown fish, sea anemone, clam shell highlighted on reef with sea surface backlit

Steve’s Bommie is one of CSIRO researcher’s Matt Curnock’s favourite spots to photograph and revisit on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Matt Curnock.

“MY eyes are drawn to the nooks, crannies and caves that show the biodiversity of the Reef.”

CSIRO social scientist Dr Matt Curnock has been working on the Reef for more than 20 years, and photographing its beauty on weekends for even longer.

A popular spot in Curnock’s photography is Steve’s Bommie north of Cairns, one of the most biodiverse places on the Reef. Over the years Curnock has watched this site go from healthy to suffering damage and then into recovery phases.

“At times you see the impact from the pressures on the Reef but then you see these sites recover, and it gives you a renewed feeling of inspiration.”

Curnock has been part of research published today in international journal PLOS ONE. The research will be used to measure the Great Barrier Reef’s beauty and improve assessment and monitoring of the Aussie icon for its ongoing management.

What is beauty?

As newspaper headlines continue to be dominated by the threats facing the Great Barrier Reef such as climate change, poor water quality and coastal development impacts, one thing universally agreed upon is the Great Barrier Reef is inherently beautiful and this needs to be protected.

Environmental managers of the Great Barrier Reef will benefit from new research led by CSIRO that identifies indicators for monitoring coral reef aesthetics.

Involving hundreds of Australians, the research helps Reef managers improve monitoring and management of these aesthetic values, which can also align with scientific indicators for coral reef health.

two clown fish in the fronds of a sea anemone

True clowns, residents of Steve’s Bommie on the Great Barrier Reef. Anemone fish are popular among tourists who snorkel and scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Matt Curnock.

Senior Social Scientist and CSIRO project leader Dr Nadine Marshall says most Australians and international visitors know intuitively what a beautiful coral reef looks like, but we each observe and appreciate different parts of a rich and complex coral reef scene.

“This makes it challenging to identify common and objective features of a ‘beautiful’ coral reef for monitoring and assessment purposes.”

CSIRO researchers, funded by the Tropical Water Quality Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program conducted an online survey involving more than 1400 Australians who compared 181 carefully selected photographs emphasising different features in coral reef scenes. The researchers were then able to establish a set of common indicators that are statistically robust.

“Prior to the online survey we compiled a long list of aesthetic features from interviews with people passionate about coral reefs, including Reef managers, photographers, tourism operators and scientists,” Dr Marshall said.

This was narrowed down through our survey to five main attributes, including:

  • the proportion of live coral cover,
  • the shapes and patterns of coral colonies,
  • the topographical complexity (i.e. physical features to explore and that provide habitat for marine animals),
  • fish abundance, and
  • visibility and clarity of the water.

The latter three of these attributes were the strongest predictors of whether a coral reef scene would be rated as aesthetically beautiful by most people. CSIRO also found that these attributes correlated strongly with marine scientists’ assessment of coral reef health, making them a useful proxy in many places where long-term scientific monitoring is not feasible.

school of fish skirting the coral

Fish abundance has been listed as a key indicator for measuring beauty on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo taken at Steve’s Bommie north of Cairns. Image: Matt Curnock.

“I wasn’t surprised that people valued topographical complexity, fish abundance and water clarity above other attributes,” says Matt Curnock.

“These are the qualities I look for when I take a photo to show the Reef’s beauty. My eyes are drawn to the nooks, crannies and caves that show the biodiversity of the Reef.”

World Heritage Listing

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Reef Knowledge Director Dr Roger Beeden says the research is beneficial to Reef managers as it provides standardised guidance for recording, monitoring and managing the aesthetic values of the Reef.

“Having an understanding of the Reef’s aesthetic values is important to Reef managers as the beauty of the Reef is a key contributing factor to its Outstanding Universal Value and World Heritage listing,” he says.

“We’ll consider this work in the development of our Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program and our existing Eye on the Reef monitoring program ”.

clown fish in the foreground, near anemone and coral reef

Live coral cover was identified as key indicator of the Great Barrier Reef’s beauty, Image: Matt Curnock.

The next stages for the research project involve working with Traditional Owners, community groups and the tourism industry to integrate the indicators with existing monitoring programs.


Find out more:

CSIRO’s Social and Economic Long Term Monitoring Program

Reef 2050 Integrated Monitoring and Reporting Program

Eye on the Reef program

1 comments

  1. Really wonderful, beauty is around us in all creatures.. How to have the right eye to admire this beauty ?
    Thanks a lot for your nice job.

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