3 August 2018
The expedition boat anchors just offshore
The expedition boat anchors just offshore

MANADO, Indonesia — Scientists have discovered surprisingly healthy coral reefs off Indonesia, despite the multiple bleaching events around the world that have killed a large number of the planet’s shallow-water corals.

Marine scientists from The University of Queensland have produced and analysed more than 56,000 images taken in the Coral Triangle, near the island of Sulawesi, during a six-week expedition.

Using underwater scooters fitted with 360-degree cameras, researchers photographed up to two kilometres in single dives.  Artificial intelligence was then used to analyse those images much faster than human scientists could.

The expedition, funded by Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, aimed to evaluate how global-warming-induced coral bleaching between 2014 and 2017 had affected the Coral Triangle.

Researchers found reefs that had experienced little impact had bounced back or were in better shape than when they were originally surveyed in 2014. The findings can help plan how best to target coral restoration programs elsewhere.

UQ Global Change Institute’s Dr Emma Kennedy led a team of researchers for the survey from the UK, USA, Australia, Indonesia and Trinidad.

“After several depressing years as a coral reef scientist, witnessing the worst-ever global coral bleaching event, it is unbelievably encouraging to experience reefs such as these,” she said.

“It means we still have time to save some coral reefs through the science-based targeting of conservation action.”

Coral reefs support roughly a quarter of all ocean life and provide over 500 million people with food and income, contributing about US$ 375 billion annually to the global economy.

They are extremely vulnerable to temperature changes because oceans’ upper layers absorb more than 90 per cent of the heat generated by carbon emissions, which has devastated reefs.

At the current rate at which CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere, most coral reefs are not predicted to survive past 2050.

Art Min, vice president for impact with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, said Paul Allen believed that by using data, technology and science we could solve some of the world’s most intractable challenges.

“The data gleaned from this survey will help us better understand coral resiliency and inform critical conservation efforts,” he said.

“It’s a sign of hope for coral reefs and the ecosystems that depend on them.”

If reefs that are less vulnerable can be protected from other stresses, such as plastic pollution and overfishing, until ocean temperatures stabilize, they could rapidly replenish surrounding reefs that have been more affected by climate change in a domino-like effect.

Chief scientist of the initiative, GCI’s Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg said the future of coral reefs depended on finding reefs that were “most likely to survive until global warming is brought under control.”

“Technology is now allowing us to do just this,” he said. “It is very exciting.”


In a related project, the expedition team has been using the latest satellite data and climate-change predictions to map vulnerability across the planet, identifying areas where coral reefs may be less exposed to heat stress and storms.

Scientists are limited by how long they can physically stay underwater, and photography has already helped by giving them the time to analyse images of reefs back at the lab. Now, AI image recognition is accelerating the painstakingly slow process of identifying and cataloguing coral reef data.

D Kennedy said the use of AI to rapidly analyse photographs of coral had vastly improved the efficiency of what marine scientists could do.

“What would take a coral reef scientist 10 to 15 minutes now takes the machine a few seconds.

“It means we can start scaling up from studying reefs at the meter scale to looking at patterns of coral communities at the kilometre scale.”

The recognition software uses a form of Deep Learning AI to detect patterns in large amounts of data. It uses algorithms and its own judgment after a period of “supervised learning,” in which scientists show it how to recognize corals, groups of algae and other invertebrates from increasingly complex contours and textures.

“The machine learns in a similar way to a human brain, weighing up lots of minute decisions about what it’s looking at until it builds up a picture and is confident about making an identification,” Dr Kennedy said.

The program is usually able to perform well after it has been shown between 400 and 600 photos. Then the learning stops and it can process images on its own.

The software is being used to assess more than 56,000 images taken during the expedition, which ended in June, comparing them to images taken of the same reefs during the 2014 Coral Triangle survey that was part of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey led by The Ocean Agency and The University of Queensland. 

Initial observations show that there appears to be little to no deterioration of the corals in the 3851-square-kilometre assessment area.

The team is also starting to use cloud-based analysis to auto-generate comparison reports, dramatically reducing the cost of monitoring while expanding the scale at which measurements can be made. Full reviewed results from the science team are expected later this year.

The expedition program was conducted during the International Year of the Reef 2018, declared by the International Coral Reef Initiative in collaboration with UN Environment and supported by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation.


The Ocean Agency
Melissa Smith (USA)
 +1 407 616 1805   

Paul G. Allen Philanthropies
Janet Greenlee (USA)
+1 206 310 0402

The University of Queensland
Global Change Institute
Ron Hohenhaus (Australia)
+61 0438 285 283


Paul G. Allen Philanthropies is a key part of Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen's commitment to improving our planet through catalytic philanthropy, inspirational experiences, and scientific and technological breakthroughs. Empowered by Paul's vision to create a better world, we take an unconventional approach to tackling hard problems by integrating technology, data, policy, and powerful storytelling to drive positive change in our community and around the globe.

The University of Queensland advances discovery, develops solutions and advocates responses that meet the challenges presented by climate change, technological innovation and population change. It has partnered with The Ocean Agency on a number of projects including the XL Catlin Seaview Survey which established the world’s first global baseline for coral reef health in 22 countries using semi-autonomous technologies and computer learning. 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 6500 staff, UQ’s teaching is informed by research, and spans six faculties and eight research institutes.

The Ocean Agency is non-profit dedicated to supporting ocean science and conservation through creative communication and technology innovation, providing media with stories and imagery to help raise awareness of ocean issues. The Ocean Agency developed the concept and cameras for the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, which has become the most comprehensive visual survey of coral reefs ever conducted, carried out in partnership with the University of Queensland.

International Coral Reef Initiative has declared 2018 the third International Year of the Reef (IYOR). This year-long celebration is a great opportunity to come together to raise and strengthen awareness on the plight of coral reefs, and to step up and initiate conservation efforts.

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