Monitoring the Great Barrier Reef. Is a healthy reef a beautiful reef?

The Great Barrier Reef was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1981 and is widely recognised for its exceptional natural beauty. Under the World Heritage Convention, the Australian federal and Queensland state governments have a responsibility to monitor and report on the reef aesthetic values, as well as more traditional reef health measures such as water quality and biological diversity.

So how do you measure the beauty of something as expansive and ever-changing as the Great Barrier Reef? For some, the beauty lies in the colour of coral, for others, the number of fish present.

A group experiment, run by a team from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS), has set out to determine how people perceive the reef’s beauty in a bid to measure its aesthetic value.

The beauty of the reef is not directly related to its health, the study has found.

Project leader and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Principal Research Fellow Dr Erin Peterson said, “Something that people don’t realise is that the reef was designated because of its geological features, its ecological and biological processes and its biodiversity — and those things are relatively straightforward to measure — but it is difficult to measure aesthetic value.”

Measuring the beauty of the reef

The project uses virtual reality to immerse various groups, including the general public, marine scientists and divers, into five different parts of the reef and asks them questions regarding what they can and can’t see and what parts of the reef they found visually appealing.

Dr Peterson said the health of the reef did not always relate to how beautiful it was.

Marine scientists’ perceptions of beautiful are very strongly tied to what they perceive as healthy, whereas a diver or a member of the public pays more attention to the colours and shapes of the coral.

When QUT Research Associate Dr Julie Vercelloni, who developed the virtual reality experiment, shows a picture of a very colourful reef, some people might think that was very beautiful. However, as a marine scientist, Dr Vercelloni points out that many of the coral on that reef are soft coral and that represents a degraded habitat.

Groups of scientists, citizens and divers were immersed in the virtual reality experience. Photo: QUT

Dr Vercelloni’s perspective is to think it isn’t beautiful because it isn’t in pristine condition, all hard coral. Otherwise specialised scientists, or the general public may think it is beautiful because of the amount of coral present and the degree to which they are colourful.

Dr Peterson said being able to measure the aesthetic value could greatly contribute to the management of the reef. All of the groups identified reef structure, or shape, as aesthetically pleasing and this is a feature that is related to reef health. However, colour diversity was also a strong indicator of reef beauty, which is not currently monitored for reef health.

“If we can capture some of those aesthetic values along with the more traditional reef health measures, then we have a lot more information to manage the Great Barrier Reef.

“We have a responsibility to track changes in the beauty, because it is one of the reasons why it was designated a World Heritage Area,” said Dr Peterson.
The aesthetic study was part of a larger ‘Monitoring Through Many Eyes’ project aimed at creating a software platform for citizen scientists, recreational divers and the public to upload their images or footage of the reef to be geo-located within a map of a digital reef, Dr Vercelloni said.

“Thousands of underwater images are taken by divers each year and they can contribute to data collection on the reef,” she said.

“The additional information, combined with a dynamic, spatially continuous map about the reef’s condition provides a quantum leap in the way we monitor.

“As a result, authorities could be quicker to respond to disturbances on the reef.”

More information about ACEMS.

More information about the Monitoring Through Many Eyes Project

Find out more about research at QUT.