12 February 2015
Schooling parrot fish on a healthy Chagos reef. Copyright Catlin Seaview Survey/Jon Slayer.
Schooling parrot fish on a healthy Chagos reef. Copyright Catlin Seaview Survey/Jon Slayer.

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A team of scientists from the Catlin Seaview Survey, which is sponsored by international insurer Catlin Group Limited, today embarked on a survey to record and reveal a unique coral reef ‘time capsule’ in unparalleled detail. The reefs, which lie off the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, and are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, are purportedly some of the most complete and healthiest tropical coral reefs in the world.

The Catlin Seaview Survey’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from The University of Queensland, said: “We will be effectively taking a glimpse back in time to see what coral reefs elsewhere in the world may have looked like prior to the last hundred years of population growth and exploitation.  This survey is a remarkable opportunity to study an area almost untouched by human activity and in the cleanest seawater anywhere in the world. These ecosystems have experienced far fewer impacts than we see elsewhere, and this means our scientists can conduct baseline research for comparison with degraded reefs worldwide, particularly in the Western Indian Ocean.”

Using custom-built underwater camera technology to record reef condition over very large scale paths, the Catlin Seaview Survey is taking research on coral reefs to a new level. The specially developed SVII camera system is mounted on an underwater scooter and controlled by a scuba diver. It will take a high-definition panoramic image every three seconds. The images, and the data extracted from each image, will be added to the Catlin Global Reef Record, a growing database providing comparable data from coral reefs throughout the world.

Dr Benjamin Neal, lead scientist for the Chagos shallow reef survey, said: “These reefs and seamounts form a habitat supporting remarkably intact communities of sea life, including more than 200 species of coral, some 50 species of sharks, skates and rays, and at least 800 species of fish.”

“Despite being virtually untouched by local human activities like fishing, the Chagos Islands are vulnerable to ocean changes.  Like everywhere else in the world, these reefs are likely to be impacted by climate change in the coming years, caused by increasing sea temperatures."

"Surveying this pristine environment now, while it is still healthy, is critical to understanding the potential long-term survival for reefs worldwide. For example, monitoring recovery from bleaching here will help us understand how damaged reefs have been affected by human activity and their ability to recover and thrive.” 

During the survey, a second team will be exploring deeper coral habitats which are beyond the reach of scuba divers.  The deep-water coral reefs around the Chagos Islands remain largely unexplored, and our researchers will attempt to explore for the first time ever the corals between 60 and 100m below the surface using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).  Dr Paul Muir from the Museum of Tropical Queensland, who is leading the deep survey team, said: “Coral communities have the potential to extend to great depths around the Chagos Islands given the optimal water clarity. We have a rare and exciting opportunity to explore these depths and reveal them to the world.”

The British Indian Ocean Territory, includes a Marine Protected Area which, at approximately 640,000 square kilometres, is currently the largest contiguous ‘no take’ marine reserve in the world. It was declared in 2010 to protect the area from exploitation and to aid the recovery of Indian Ocean fish stocks.

The survey is being supported by the Chagos Conservation Trust and the British Indian Ocean Territory Administration.

Dr Heather Koldewey from the Chagos Conservation Trust said: "The Catlin Seaview Survey will not only provide invaluable data to reinforce the scientific importance of Chagos, but it will also allow the public to 'virtually' dive these astonishing reefs and see for themselves that Chagos is a sanctuary for hundreds of species, deserving of the highest level of protection."

An exhibition, Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea, featuring the work of the Catlin Seaview Survey, opens at the Natural History Museum in London on March 27th.

Images of the Catlin Seaview Survey can be downloaded in high resolution at http://catlinseaviewsurvey.zenfolio.com/chagos



Rachael Hazell, Global Change Institute (r.hazell@uq.edu.au) Tel: 0415 814 529

Rod Macrae (rod@macraecommunication.com) Tel: +44 (0)781 402 9819 or +44 (0)1491 613 715

Australia: Lorna Parry, Underwater Earth (lorna@underwaterearth.org) Tel: +61 411 54 54 59

U.S: Kristine Relja (kristine.relja@ogilvy.com) Tel : +1 (415) 677 2730



About the Chagos Survey

The Catlin Seaview Survey aims to sample a variety of sites within the British Indian Ocean Territory, which comprises the reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago, gathering images from at least 28 shallow reef transects. This represents data and imagery from approximately 50 linear kilometres of reef and approximately 20,000 images.

The Chagos Archipelago is comprised of seven major atolls enclosing approximately 60 islands, located approximately 300 nautical miles south of the Maldives. It has the largest living coral atoll on the planet. The area has shallow limestone reefs and associated habitats, and about 300 seamounts and abyssal habitats. This Marine Protected Area is the world’s biggest contiguous ‘no-take’ marine reserve and has the cleanest sea water ever tested. 

More than 200 different species of coral have been identified and it is home to 50 species of sharks, skates and rays, 800 species of fish and 2 species of endangered turtle.

The specialist SVII camera technology

The Catlin Seaview SVII camera has been as revolutionary for coral reef research as the use of satellites has been for the study of the atmosphere and surface of the Earth. Rapid-fire 360-degree images are taken every three seconds whilst traveling at a speed of approximately 4km/h. Images are then stitched together and published online at the Catlin Global Reef Record for scientists and the public alike to access. Each image is geo-located.

Take an Online Dive Experience

The Catlin Seaview Survey has created reef dive experiences from these images which can be accessed by anyone with a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone. They can self-navigate a ‘virtual dive’ in stunning high-resolution. These can be seen on Google Maps.

Climate Change and Oceans

Globally, coral reefs are facing major challenges due to overfishing, pollution, ocean warming and acidification. As a result, coral reefs are deteriorating at the rate of one to two percent per year. Fifty percent of corals have been lost in the last 30 years.

About the Catlin Seaview Survey

The Catlin Seaview Survey is a pioneering scientific expedition revealing the impact of environmental changes on the world’s coral reefs. The Survey aims to significantly expand the data available to scientists about global coral reef systems. The Catlin Seaview Survey is currently focusing on the Indian Ocean, having previously completed groundbreaking scientific studies of the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Triangle and the Caribbean. The images are captured in order to provide a vital scientific baseline study of the world’s coral reefs. These images monitor change and reveal it to the world through Street View in Google Maps, in partnership with Google. More information about the Catlin Seaview Survey can be found here: http://www.catlinseaviewsurvey.com

You can also engage with the Catlin Seaview Survey and its 3.8 million followers on Google+ here: https://plus.google.com/+CatlinSeaviewSurvey/posts 

About Catlin Group Limited

Catlin Group Limited is a global specialty property/casualty insurer and reinsurer operating worldwide through six underwriting hubs: London, Bermuda, the United States, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Canada.  The Catlin Seaview Survey is the second major scientific project sponsored by Catlin. The Catlin Arctic Survey (2009-2011) investigated the impact of environmental changes in the Arctic. Catlin believes that insurers must take a leading role in improving the understanding of potential changes to our environment, changes that could affect how risks are managed in the future.  Catlin’s contribution is to sponsor independent, impartial research that is freely distributed to the world’s scientific community. http://www.catlin.com/

About The Global Change Institute, University of Queensland

The Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, was established in 2010 as an independent source of game-changing research, ideas and advice for addressing the challenges of global change. GCI advances discovery, develops solutions and advocates responses that meet the challenges presented by climate change, technological innovation and population change. UQ is one of the world’s premier teaching and research institutions. It is consistently ranked in the top 100 in four independent global rankings. With more than 48,000 students and 6,500 staff, UQ’s teaching is informed by research, and spans six faculties and eight research institutes. www.gci.uq.edu.au

About the Catlin Global Reef Record

The Catlin Global Reef Record is a first-of-its-kind global database and standardized online research tool for coral reef ecosystems. As an open source database, it is accessible by everyone. www.globalreefrecord.org 

It is a benchmark in coral reef science. Hosting standardized scientific data across important coral reef regions worldwide, it enables scientists around the world to collaborate on understanding changes to coral reefs and related marine environments.  The Catlin Global Reef Record will support and host follow-up monitoring programs and provide an important and extensive source for coral reef management and protection.

About the Chagos Conservation Trust

The Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) promotes and conducts research and environmental conservation work in the Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory) to advance international understanding of the global importance of the Chagos, and to ensure its protection for the wider public benefit. For more information on Chagos and the Trust visit www.chagos-trust.org

The Catlin Seaview Survey is undertaking its survey with the support of the British Indian Ocean Territory Administration and the Chagos Conservation Trust

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