A researcher's paradise
UQ Digital Content Producer Matthew Taylor and Senior Communications Officer Katie Rowney travelled to Heron Island with a team of researchers to learn more about the work taking place at the research station
Maybe it's the lack of mobile phone coverage or the way everyone is dressed in thongs and boardies, but Heron Island Research Station doesn’t feel like a place of business. There’s a relaxed "not a problem" attitude from almost everyone you encounter. But underneath the smell of sunscreen and salt is a team of staff and researchers fiercely passionate about their work.
The station is on the south beach of Heron Island, a coral cay in the Bunker Group of islands at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s a two and a half hour, 80 kilometre trip offshore from Gladstone, on the Heron Islander, a catamaran run by the resort that shares the island with the station. The origin of the island’s name is immediately clear on arrival, with a white reef heron perched in scrub near the jetty.
With no land-based predators, birds have the run of the island and can be found almost everywhere. A large population of black noddy terns nests in the pisonia trees, using large flat leaves and their own droppings to build small platforms in the branches. It’s not uncommon to see 20 birds nesting in the same tree, but the trees can be the birds’ downfall. Pisonia seeds form a sticky residue that glues birds feathers together, preventing them from flying away or seeking food. Their bodies eventually end up fertilising the same predator tree that killed them. Some researchers take pity on the birds, washing off the resin that binds them, but most let nature take its course.
Researchers first travelled to Heron Island in the 1930s, drawn by its unique setting in the Great Barrier Reef. Initially, they used the resort facilities for their research. The island was declared a national park in 1943, and plans took shape to establish a purpose-built research station.
In 1950 the Great Barrier Reef Committee applied for a five-acre lease on the island for scientific research. Heron Island Research Station construction began in 1951, and the station was operated by the Great Barrier Reef Committee until it was acquired by The University of Queensland in 1980.
Today the station is a world-class teaching and learning facility that attracts researchers from across Australia and around the globe. It has wet labs, teaching labs, seminar rooms and a library and computer room. There’s a flotilla of research vessels, a host of diving equipment, commercial kitchens and a range of facilities to cater to research and school groups. The station is equipped with high speed internet and can comfortably accommodate 120 guests.
An evening walk around the island during November through to March turns up more than seaweed and sand. Visitors have to dodge large turtles making their way to up past the high-tide mark to lay their eggs. Resort guests and researchers spot the tell-tale trails of the turtles in the sand and settle in to watch them dig out a large body-pit and lay their eggs.
It’s a far cry from the 1920s, when Heron Island was best known for its turtle soup cannery. The cannery was converted into a resort in the early 1930s, with turtle-watching a big drawcard for tourists. Researchers also travel from around the world to observe these old souls of the ocean in their natural habitat.
From January to June the turtle hatchlings can be seen scurrying down the beach. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service volunteers patrol the beaches to make sure enthusiastic tourists don’t hurt the hatchlings’ chances of survival by picking them up or obstructing their paths. UQ honours student Chelsea Waters spent a season protecting the tiny turtles, later returning to the island to study the effects of climate change on solitary coral polyps.
Climate change research
Heron Island is home to an extensive and long-running climate change research project, the Coral Reef Ecosystems Lab. The project involves a team of researchers monitoring 12 coral reef mesocosms –natural environments kept under controlled conditions.
Researchers hope to show the impact of climate change on coral reefs by subjecting the mescosms to increased temperature and CO2 levels. The research looks at the impacts on individual soft and branching corals and on the creatures that rely on them for survival.
An interesting aspect of the project is the control method used to maintain a current day baseline. In addition to the two control mesocosms, the team maintains a set of six mini-reefs out on the Great Barrier Reef, used as the control of the control. The mini-reefs project is conducted under the watchful eye of Marine Biology masters student Lilianna Pap.
Growing up in a country known more for its canals and dykes than its corals hasn’t stopped UQ’s Dr Chris Roelfsema from developing a mission to protect the Great Barrier Reef. It’s more than 15,000 kilometres from the Netherlands to Heron Island, but Chris’s dedication to diving led him from chilly European climes to the coral cay, where he works to map the Great Barrier Reef so it can be better managed.
Chris learned to dive in cold, dark lakes in the Netherlands, where he was lucky to spot a single fish in the murky depths. When he finally dived at a coral reef in Jamaica he was amazed at the vibrancy and diversity of coral and fish. It wasn't until he studied a post-graduate diploma at UQ that he realised the Jamaican reef was badly degraded.
Chris has been travelling to Heron Island for the past 15 years, using field-data to capture the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. His research aims to map coral reefs so that governments and marine authorities can make informed decisions about managing these natural wonders. He uses satellite and remote camera images and field data to track what’s on the reef and how it’s changing over time. Chris works with a team of scientists, divers and researchers from many different agencies, but it’s a big job and there are ways for the public to help.
The Great Barrier Reef covers over 344,000 square kilometres - it's roughly the size of Italy. There is no way scientists can monitor the health of the entire reef, but field data collected by citizen scientists can help.
Programs such as CoralWatch and Reef Check provide members of the public with practical activities that turn them into citizen scientists. Designed for young and old alike, you can take part by reef-walking, snorkelling or scuba diving, and the data you collect is shared with global reef care organisations. Get involved by visiting CoralWatch or Reef Check Australia, or contact UQ’s UniDive club.