10 Days in an At-Risk Paradise- 3D Mapping Coral Reefs in the Maldives

~written by Yasmeen Smalley-Norman

I wrapped up a busy year of traveling with a feather in my cap- scuba diving in the Maldives with The Hydrous organization. Sly Lee, The Hydrous founder, had been to the Maldives before in early 2015 to establish a baseline of coral reef health, and our return trip was the first time we would use 3D technology to assess coral growth over a period of time.

Sly and I were joined by Hassan, a local scuba diving instructor, Patchi, a young citizen scientist and our scholarship student, and seven participants from different backgrounds, all brought together by a love of the oceans. With expertise in marine biology, computer engineering, underwater archaeology and exponential technologies, our unique team set out to conduct fish surveys and create 3D models, and also to brainstorm solutions for environmental issues affecting the “Jewel of the Indian Ocean.”


The Maldives is one of the most at risk countries for climate change. This low-lying island nation already experiences beach erosion, coral bleaching, rising sea levels and increased weather events, such as the 2004 tsunami that devastated the country.  All eyes are to the horizon as an El Nino is predicted to arrive in the Maldives in April of 2016, bringing with it the largest coral bleaching event since the 1977/’78 El Nino, which destroyed 90% of coral cover in the island nation.


The Maldives is made up over 2,000 small islands, which makes waste management a logistical nightmare. The photo above was taken in Malé, the nation’s capital and home to almost half of the country’s population. With an area just over 2 square miles, Malé is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Maldivian word for beach, Gon'du dho, is synonymous to “trash dump,” a mindset evident at each local beach not owned by a resort. Local organizations such as Save the Beach conduct beach cleanups, but the underlying attitude toward the environment will take longer to change.


Like many island nations, the two main sources of industry in the Maldives are tourism and fishing. Seafood is a staple in the Maldivian diet, and yellowfin tuna are highly sought-after and fetch high prices on the export market. Although most fishermen use sustainable methods of troll and pole-and-line fishing to catch tuna, the real threat is to small baitfish populations, who are caught in bulk to supply bait for commercial tuna fishing. The removal of bait fish from coral reefs destabilizes marine ecosystems, making them more vulnerable to other stressors.


The Hydrous uses 3D modeling to visualize the effects of climate change, overfishing and pollution on coral reefs. Sly and I taught our expedition members underwater photography and photogrammetry, which utilizes photography to create 3D models. Our participants were soon creating their own 3D models, including this model created by our scholarship student, Patchi. We’re working with Autodesk and other software developers to build an online 3D coral model repository, which will be used worldwide to create open-access oceans, viewable to anyone with a computer or smartphone.


Our most important contribution while in the Maldives was the creation a youth program, Maalimi, designed to improve education, environmental awareness and marine conservation. The program was created from collaboration between our participants and local partners, and aims to support education and marine conservation in the Maldives by creating and empowering “island ambassadors.” These ambassadors will conduct beach cleanups, lead educational snorkel trips and teach fish and coral identification workshops, in addition to working on a long-term project to improve island resiliency in the face of climate change. Visit www.maalimi.org to learn more about Maalimi and how you can help.

10 days, 20 scientific transects, hundreds of 3D coral models, thousands of fish surveyed and the creation of a youth program- a successful expedition for The Hydrous. We look forward to returning in 2016 and mapping more of the Maldives’ beautiful coral reefs. Happy New Year!

Rapa Nui: Hangaroa Bay


Six days after the Chilean Armada closed the port, the black flag was raised at the harbor, and we resumed diving operations.

Finally we had the chance to dive within Hangaroa Bay, at a site called Manavai.

The site was dominated by mountainous lobe coral, known to scientists as Porites rus. Some of these pinnacles extended 5 meters (15 feet) high of the ocean floor! Remnants of the storm could still be felt underwater as we were rocked back and forth by the swells, and visibility reduced to only a few meters.


Another interesting site in Hangaroa Bay was a sunken Moai ( a replica, not original), down at the bottom of the ocean at 22m (75ft). It was quite surreal seeing a giant resting among the reef, becoming part of the community as corals and urchins settled on it.


We finish our expedition with a dive site at Motu Nui (the island where the annual Birdman competitors used to retrieve their eggs). This was by far the most extreme site we visited- waves smashed into the shores around the island, the reef, starting around 2o ft below the surface, abruptly falls away to 100+ feet to the bottom of the ocean floor.



It has been a long and eventful 19 days, and I'm glad to be heading home. Rapa Nui is beautiful because of its isolation and mystery, and sadly a classic case of an ecosystem that is almost completely stripped of its natural resources. I hope our work documenting this massive bleaching event can provide insights into coral reef conservation strategies and aid in the efforts to make Hangaroa Bay a MPA.

We will be working up our data and developing 3D visualizations and models very soon for anyone to see and use! Stay tuned!

Rapa Nui: Stranded


Deteriorating conditions on the water caused the Chilean Armada to close Hangaroa Bay and all water activities. (For the next 6 days we are stranded on land due to storms)

We spent the day post-processing pictures, data, and exploring the island. Here are the many wonders of Rapa Nui:


On the south west corner of this island lies Orongo, a filled in crater that extends some 300 meters deep (that’s over 1,000 feet!). Ancient stone houses were carved into the side of the hillside for past peoples to escape the constant winds. In tribal times, the Birdman Competition, would be held here. The ritual was an annual competition to collect the first sooty tern (manu tara) egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui, carefully strap the egg in a forehead basket, swim back to Rapa Nui and climb the sea cliff of Rano Kau to the clifftop village of Orongo with the egg unbroken.


Ranu Raraku

The monolithic Moai statues were painstakenly carved from the sides of a crater at Ranu Raraku on the eastern part of the island, and transported to the coasts all around the island. Seeing these giants buried up to their shoulders was truly awe-inspiring.


As with many cultures throughout time and around the world, there once existed much tension between the villages and peoples on this island. In the midst of conflict, most of the Moai were toppled over, their red hats (archeologists still don't know the significance of these hats) sometimes rolling all the way into the ocean.



In the 1950’s- 1960’s archaeologists restored Moai around the island, the pinnacle of their effort being Tongariki, a collection of 15 Moai side by side on the east coast. Some of these giants were 18 meters high, and only basic instruments were used in their resurrection- stones, trees, and rope.


Rapa Nui: Desolation


The shifting of the South winds to North allowed us to work at the southeast coast of Rapa Nui today.

In a place this remote, where the nearest recompression chamber is across the Pacific ocean on Chile, we try to work safely as much as possible. 

We take our fishermen captain’s boat 45 minutes around the island to reach our site of interest. In stark contrast to the reefs at Anakena, this reef is dominated by small branching corals, Pocillopora, and an abundance of sea urchins. I’ve never seen such a dense population of urchins in my life. Like Anakena, there is a eerie lack of fish; only small damselfish and the occasional butterfly fish can be seen darting about.


As the day progressed, swells picked up and James and I are thrown side to side 15ft at a time while attempting to finish our surveys.


Part of Nicolas’ project includes analysis of fish stomachs for micro-plastics. The size of the fish caught on reefs is shockingly small, a prime example of what scientists have observed as “fishing down the food web”, as large/top predator fish are taken first for food; when big fish are gone, the next biggest fishes become prime targets for fishermen until only the smallest fish remain.

We were successful, albeit cold and tired at the end of the day.

The Hydrous stands with President Nasheed


On Sunday, February 22, 2015, former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was arrested on charges of terrorism related to political decisions made in office in 2012. Since his arrest, thousands of protesters in the Maldives have been flooding the streets to protest the charges, citing political motivations behind President Nasheed's resignation and subsequent arrest. Nasheed's environmental and humanitarian work and his title as the first democratically elected president made him a favorite with many Maldivians, and supporters in the United States and United Nations are calling for his release.

The Hydrous worked with former president Nasheed during our expedition to the Maldives in 2014, and share his goal of an environmentally-healthy Maldives. Coral reefs in the coral atoll are extremely fragile, due to factors such as pollution, over-fishing and climate change. Unfortunately efforts to correct these environmental issues often get put on hold during political unrest.


This past February The Hydrous presented our work in the Maldives at the REAL 2015 conference, the world's first reality computing conference. We spoke about our collaboration with Nasheed and the broader aims of our work, which is to link humanitarian and environmental crises and work to solve both through imagery. We will be returning to the Maldives later this year to help the cause.



Rapa Nui: Far From Home

A long flight from Hawaii to Chile to Easter Island deposited me on one of the most isolated and unique islands in the world: Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the local dialect. Seeing the “downtown” area was a surprise to my pre-conditioned sense that Rapa Nui was a desolate, isolated island, a once thriving culture full of mystery.

In fact, tourism has increased dramatically in recent years as the Chilean middle class expanded. A plethora of restaurants, two dive shops, and bars line the streets along Hangaroa Bay.


Upon closer inspection, however, one can still get a sense of the isolation on this small bit of rock in the middle of the Pacific. Plastic containers, such as strawberry containers, are sold in stores. Items most people normally discard with little or no regard to where they end up, in landfills for 1,000 years, are sold here for their utility.

And of course the iconic Moai statues of Rapa Nui do not disappoint. More background on them later. 


Our Purpose Here

El Niño, the natural phenomenon which creates warming of the oceans, affected many parts of the world last year and carried into this year as well.

We documented coral bleaching after the El Niño in Hawaii and Maldives last year, and here in Rapa Nui, we are also seeing signs of mass coral bleaching.

I’m here working with James Herlan, a Ph.D. student of the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile. Together we are making great efforts to document this bleaching event, capturing imagery of the reefs in the form of photo mosaics that are 25m x 10m in cover, 3D modeling sections of the reef, conducting fish surveys, and gathering coral samples for microbial analyses. The data from this endeavor will go towards a massive effort to make Hangaroa Bay a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Most of the tourism is concentrated in Hangaroa, and many Chilean scientists believe a collaboration with citizen scientists would greatly benefit the health of the reefs in this area. 


Our first dive was on the northern shores of Rapa Nui, off Anakena beach, the only sand beach on the island. I’ve never experienced a coral reef quite like this one- incredibly high coral cover, but low coral diversity-one or two species of coral dominated the reef. One of the most immediate and disheartening signs we saw was the nearly complete lack of fish. All large predators and top herbivores were absent from this reef, only very small Kyphosis (chubs) and wrasses dotted the reef.

In addition, a post-doctoral student of ESMOI is sampling the prevalence of “micro plastics” in the waters and fish around Rapa Nui. A plastic bottle in the ocean is fairly easy to retrieve, but how does one recover that plastic when the bottle disintegrates into 1,000 pieces? Usually it ends up in the guts of marine life.

We have much work ahead of us as we plan to survey the southeastern shore as well as Hangaroa Bay.

Solomon Islands: Journey to Tetepare

Sly + Mikayla + Andrea Constellation
Sly + Mikayla + Andrea Constellation

Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. It is chock full of lush rainforests, old strangler fig trees, sky-scraping coconut trees, and a myriad of flowering plants.

Heated battles over land rights and usage have plagued the island since the head-hunting tribes a few hundred years ago. Today it houses an eco-lodge for visiting scientists and adventurous honeymooners, but is still a topic of heated debate. The riveting history of Tetepare is captured in the book, The Last Wild Island, and chronicles the establishment of the Tetepare Descendent's Association, and the fight to save it from international logging.

We have been trying to arrange transport to Tetepare for 2 weeks, which should seem easy given that it is only a few hours boat ride from our current island of Lola. However, boats and reliable outboard engines are scare in Munda, especially one hearty enough to haul the 16 scuba tanks and scuba gear along with us.

Right at the end of our stay, we were finally able to secure arrangements to make our way to Tetepare for 2 nights, relying on our guide, Sunga, to do most of the logistical legwork. A brief 2 hour boat ride in our 16ft, 40 horsepowered boat lands us at the most beautifully lush island I've ever witnessed.

By Andrea Reid
By Andrea Reid

After settling into our spacious leaf huts (which were built by hand without the use of nails or screws) we chatted with Toumey, our local guide and station manager. At the island's "eatery," Toumey acquainted us with the local "kastoms," dangerous plants and animals of Tetepare. We conduct our first dive on the windward shore of Tetepare amid underwater swells that rolled us back and forth as we searched for bumphead parrotfish and 3D modeled corals. Immediately we saw more bumpheads here than we had during our entire time in the water in previous weeks.

Bumpheads By Andrea Reid
Bumpheads By Andrea Reid

Photo by Andrea Reid

By Andrea Reid
By Andrea Reid

After lunch we set out for a marathon snorkel. The size of the fish I saw underwater scared me because of their size. I've dived on coral reefs in a variety of locations including Hawaii, Palau, Saipan, Guam, Bahamas, Florida, and the Maldives. In those locations a snapper that is about 50cm long is considered a large one. In these protected waters surrounding Tetepare, I witnessed schools of snappers twice that size, or 1 meter and over! I was also graced by the presence of a dugong, which once resided in the seagrass beds of Tetepare, but are more rare since the Tsunami a few years ago. Toumey tells me it has been one year since one has been spotted in the lagoon.

dugong and friends
dugong and friends

The next day we spent more time in the water than out, conducting 2 scuba dives and 2 snorkels on the leeward side of Tetepare, in the shallow coral gardens. These corals were undoubtedly the healthiest I've witnessed in the Solomon Islands, and also the largest.

coral garden aerial
coral garden aerial
At night we soaked in the solitude, wishing we had more time on this remarkable island.
Tetepare is still struggling with environmental issues, and you can help support this last wild island by visiting their website and helping via spreading the word, volunteering, or even visiting in person. All information can be found at their website.
stars above the dock
stars above the dock
stars above the dock
stars above the dock

Solomon Islands: Corals and Skulls


I awake at 6am to a dozen roosters on the property, a swollen lower lip from some strange bug bite, and the buzzing of a mosquito that apparently slipped past my bug net fortress.

Despite the itchy morning start, I'm keen to start our scuba dives for the day in the stifling heat of the Solomon air.

After assembling our scuba gear and photography equipment, Mikayla, Andrea, and I board our little speedboat to a field site. Mikayla and Andrea have already spent a month in the Solomon Islands before I arrived, so today I got my first glimpse of Solomon Island coral reefs.

After conducting a bumphead parrotfish survey (in which we only saw 3), Mikayla photo-modeled a few corals in order to compare structural complexity of the reef. I also photo-modeled a few corals, and documented the local stressors in the area, noticing a multitude of crown of thorns starfish, which feed on corals. We also measured water quality parameters, documenting the pH, and levels of nitrates (which are indicators of nutrient run off, usually from waste water).

After a quick lunch on a nearby beach, we launched the drone, a DJI Phantom 2+ vision quadcopter, equipped with a HD camera and electronic gimbal for smooth video capture. Donned with a hand-made flower lei, our guide, Sunga, was as thrilled as we were to see the drone soar to 100m above the ocean, and even more thrilled to catch it as it landed.


The next day we visited the infamous Skull Island, the location of dozens of human skulls. Dating back 100 years ago, these skulls were trophies of the head hunting games that once took place in these islands. The memorial is littered with dead coral skeletons and shell money that was once the currency for these islanders.

In coming days we will be attempting to visit Tetepare, the world's largest uninhabited island. Highlighted in the book, The Last Wild Island, this lush island gem was and still is to some degree a contentious place in the battle between pro and anti logging parties.


Solitude of the Solomon Islands


After crossing the Pacific Ocean, an overnight in Brisbane, and another plane ride to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, I touched down in one of the least visited tropical islands in the world.

Yet another commuter airplane ride to the island of Munda, then a 20 minute speed boat ride landed me on the island of Lola, the base of our operations for the next 10 days.

I'm greeted by Mikayla Wujec and Andrea Reid, two National Geographic Young Explorers studying Bolbometopon muricatum, the bumphead parrotfish, and documenting effects of Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) on their well being. I will be 3D modeling coral reefs to see how benthic structure and complexity further influence these underwater giants.

This island feels like a mash up between the Hobbit shire and the Bahamas. Orchids line every square foot of the property. Coconut trees clump between houses, and a dozen mysterious birds call to us from the dense rain forests behind our leaf huts.

Blacktip reef sharks circle the dock like sentries. The gargantuous Kolambangara mountain towers over us at 1770 meters (or about 5800 ft for my fellow Americans.) The stifling heat and malaria packed mosquitos increase as the day progresses. My daily malarone pills and hole ridden mosquito bed net are all that prevent me from a 5 week bowel and sweat intensive sickness. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to our days ahead.


The Maldives: The Last Stand Pt. 3

Reef slope
Reef slope

We wrapped up our work in the Maldives with a heavy heart, but also with scientific data from 48 transects, 50 hours underwater, 212,000 photos and 1.5 terabytes of data. Our three-week expedition was the first of its kind, as we utilized a new 3D coral imaging methodology and made our first official expedition as a non-profit organization.

The team bid farewell to our new family: "Grandpa" the boat owner, his son Ambade and friend Patchi. Our time with them reinforced our respect for those who depend on the ocean for their livelihood.

Patchi and Ambade
Patchi and Ambade

After wrapping up our scientific work, we began the multi-day journey back to Male, the capital of the Maldives. With a population of about 100,000 people and size of 2.2 square miles, Male is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. After our arrival (following a harrowing journey by sea-plane, ferry and taxi) we met with President Nasheed, the former president of the island nation. Despite not being in power, he remains very involved with the country's social and ecological concerns, including working with international environmental organizations including Mission Blue, IUCN, UN, and other activists. President Nasheed and his team of inspiring young professionals focus their attention on the future, and how they can save their country from the rising waters of climate change.

Baa town, located
Baa town, located

Two days after meeting with President Nasheed and his team, I presented the research and findings of three-week expedition on the heels of the Asia-Pacific Business Forum (APBF), a conference discussing sustainable business and growth among stakeholders. At the APBF, President Nasheed gave the keynote address and spoke at length of the importance of sustainability in tourism and the important role the ocean plays in the economy of the Maldives and other Pacific island nations. I presented the findings of our project to a packed room; conference attendees included the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), scientists and local non-profit organizations and businesses. The conference was covered by all four Maldivian news channels.

Our first expedition as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization was a success; we collaborated with local scientists, decision-makers and the public, began a 3D model catalog of coral species and collected scientific data for future research. Our work in the Maldives will be featured in Wired UK this January, and in Wired US in March. We hope that the increased publicity will bring worldwide attention to the plight of island nations and their precious coral reefs.

Many thanks to our collaborators at the Korallian Lab and Dr. Michael Sweet, who assisted our research. We're looking forward to a 2015 full of awareness, change and new policies to protect our ocean resources. Stay tuned for more. We will be producing a documentary of our epic journey soon!

Our team becomes a family
Our team becomes a family

The Maldives: The Last Stand Pt. 2

We're making great progress here in the Maldives as we continue to survey reefs around Lhaviyani atoll. Our 10-12 hour dive days are followed by nights of data processing and organizing.

So far, we have had quite surprising anecdotal results. As one would expect, we have found that most of the inhabited islands have degraded coral reefs, and most uninhabited islands have pristine reefs. However, we surveyed an inhabited island's coral reefs at the southernmost point of Lhaviyani atoll recently, and observed fairly high levels of coral cover and complexity, despite high nutrient levels in the surrounding waters. We suspect the healthy levels of herbivorous grazers (e.g., parrotfish), are playing the vital role of preventing algae overgrowth. It demonstrates that all parts of an ecosystem are important in maintaining reef health.

In addition to showing human impacts on coral reefs, our 3D coral reef imaging methodology is also able to help answer questions that have plagued scientists for decades. We're able to quantitatively measure coral surface area, volume and complexity, all without touching the reef.

Above is a table coral (of the Acropora genus) captured in the reef right offshore of Vavvaru, the island where the Korallion lab is based.

We recently surveyed our 4th island in the atoll, Naifaru. The capital of the Lhavyani atoll, the island's economy is primarily driven by fisheries. Naifaru is famous for its fishing markets, which is the largest in all of the atolls, with the exception of Male, the city capital.  Unfortunately, such success comes at the price of marine health, as much of the coral reefs surrounding the island are dead or in pieces, including once massive table corals. The island now relies on artificial barriers to protect against wave action and erosion, taking the place of now destroyed coral reefs. It costs $4,000/square meter to build such a break water barrier, as boulders are shipped from India.


The smell of burning trash lingers as our research team tries to sleep; Maldivians have limited options when it comes to trash. The only options in this isolated island country is to incinerate trash or toss it in the ocean. Problems with waste management are common among island countries, and are exacerbated in more populated islands such as Naifaru.

There is hope in the Maldives, however, especially in the uninhabited islands. We finished our day by diving on Veva, an uninhabited island with 100% coral cover, a site described by Hydrous founder Sly Lee as "easily the most pristine coral reef I've seen in my life." The awe-inspiring site mirrors what healthy reefs might have looked like hundreds of years ago. It is a glimmer of hope in this sinking country, and hopefully we can inspire the protection of these last pockets of healthy reefs.

veva crest
veva crest

The Maldives: The Last Stand Pt. 1

On November 23, 2014, The Hydrous began an expedition to the Maldives to implement the first real-world application of our 3D coral modeling methodology. Our project's goals are threefold: 1. Conduct a rigorous scientific experiment and gather baseline data of the reefs before the projected El Niño in early 2015. 2. Create beautiful, interactive 3D models of Maldives' coral reefs for education and outreach. 3. Foster collaborations with local resource managers, educators, and visionaries.

Reef at the southernmost point of Lhavyani atoll
Reef at the southernmost point of Lhavyani atoll

The Maldives is an ecological last stand, a window of what may come of other island nations; located only 1.5 meters above sea level, the country is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters and rising sea level. In 2009 the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed unveiled a plan to make the island nation carbon-neutral by 2020, the first country to make such a promise. He also made great strides at attempting to convince industrialized nations to take charge of the situation, but was not successful. Today, unfortunately, political uncertainty threatens progress in the Maldives as President Nasheed was ousted from office.

Veva reef
Veva reef

The Hydrous aims to provide essential insights and visualizations of coral reefs to local resource managers, and to use visualizations to encourage the government to increase enforcement and protection of their marine protected areas. Coral reefs are an essential buffer against storm damage and weather events, and their protection can help counter the rapid erosion of shorelines. By assisting research and providing visualizations of this ecological last stand we hope to focus the political conversation on curbing global carbon emissions, and the importance of coral reefs in countering its effects.

Of course, getting to this remote island nation is the first challenge. A 35-hour travel day deposited Hydrous founder Sly Lee in Male, the capital of the Maldives. A seaplane from Male to Kuredo, and a speedboat from Kuredo to Vavvaru finally led to the arrival at the Korallian Lab, a new lab dedicated to undertaking and sustaining world-leading marine research. The Hydrous is collaborating with local expert scientist Dr. Michael Sweet of the University of Derby, and will begin investigating coral reef resilience and fish habitat preferences- research which is made more important by the impending El Niño.


Taking a seaplane is only one step in the multi-day travel to the Korallian Lab on Vavvaru Island.

Snorkeling around the island revealed a diverse range of habitats, including shallow forereef, backreef and a dropoff. Initial dives have started on degraded sites, and show both coral degradation and some promising healthy coral. Research will continue over a two-week period to photograph and create 3D models of reefs of inhabited islands and of uninhabited ones.  Surveys will include recording fish species, size and abundance, 25 meter benthic photo surveys and 3D coral models. Utilizing both scientific and photographic surveys will provide valuable insights on fish diversity, coral reef biodiversity and topographic complexity.

The three-week expedition in the Maldives will provide crucial visual and scientific information, and will establish a benchmark view of coral health before the El Niño event, which is anticipated to occur in January 2015. The 1998 El Niño caused up to 90% bleaching and subsequent death of coral reefs around the Maldives. Potential damage to coral reefs during the El Niño could have great impact on the ecology of these marine habitats, the political conversation of climate change, and most importantly, on the lives of people living on this island nation.


A glimpse into the beautiful corals of the Maldives and the people who protect them.

Coral Research in Pearl Harbor


Pearl Harbor is an active harbor rich in history, and steeped in cultural significance. The site of the Japanese attack on the day that will "live in infamy," December 7, 1941, the harbor is known for its role in involving the United States in World War II. The harbor is also the site of several sunken battleships from the attack, including the USS Utah and USS Arizona, the latter which is open to the public and whose gun turrets protrude from the water at the memorial.

The USS Utah Memorial

Despite the harbor's rich cultural significance, it is not known for it's biological diversity. The harbor's silty and brackish water prevent significant coral growth, but how much coral lives in the harbor is, as yet, a mystery. Recently The Hydrous, in collaboration with the National Park Service, began some of the first research in the harbor to monitor coral settlement and growth. The team placed the first coral settlement tiles around the park, which will be retrieved, analyzed and replace over the course of a year to monitor coral recruitment, the rate at which various coral species settle on different substrates.

The project began from park divers noticing an unusual amount of corals and sponges growing on the USS Utah and Arizona, prompting questions about coral growth in the park. The amount of coral came as a surprise to divers due to the conditions surrounding the battleships: heavy metals and oil constantly leak from the wreckage, but as yet, do not seem to affect the corals. The results of this research will give scientists an insight into the relationship between the wrecks and the coral in the park, and a glimpse of the future where both are understood and protected.


A drop of oil floating at the surface of the water near the USS Arizona Memorial.

Digitizing Corals- The future of coral reefs

Coral Reef_Guam_The Hydrous
Coral Reef_Guam_The Hydrous

We have recently pioneered a method to create ultra high resolution 3D models of corals for novel scientific and visualization tools. Using nothing more than a camera and 3D software, we can produce an accurate, interactive 3D model that doesn't require any specialized 3D viewing software.

Furthermore we have developed a workflow to quantitatively measure surface area of these coral models, opening doors to scientific possibilities not available until now. The response from the scientific and tech community has been resounding.

“The (coral) models are incredible. I see many areas where such high resolution models would be useful. We need a non-destructive way to accurately measure surface area and volume of corals. I think this would be incredible as a visualization and would definitely get people talking about how fabulous coals are.”

Ruth D. Gates, Ph.D.

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

Our last project included a massive team of 10 scientists, technologists, and photographers, including environmental photographer Naomi Blinick, National Geographic Young Explorers Andrea Reid and Mikayla Wujec, US National Park scientists, and Autodesk legends Pete Kelsey and Shaan Hurley.

In 5 days we took over 27,000 photos, generating over 2 terabytes of data, and photo-captured over 100 corals. To see behind the scenes video and pictures from our latest project in Kalaupapa, HI, visit here and here.

We are now scaling up our efforts, creating large coral reef “scenes”, with the end goal of capturing entire coral reefs in interactive 3D for immersive experiences. With the burgeoning field of virtual reality (like Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift) and 3D printing, the possibilities are immense.

The ground swell is building, and we are honored to have been featured in these various venues:

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Autodesk's main blog: In the Fold

 2014 TEDx Sonoma Talk (The Hydrous work mentioned at 10:28)

Autodesk Blog by Shaan Hurley

 UPDATE (8/21/14): We were featured in theses 3D websites:



Set Sail for a 3 Hour Tour

Today we visited Dr. Ruth Gate's laboratory at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island, more famously know for being in the opening shots of the TV show, Gilligan's Island. The island boasts an impressive complex of laboratory and office space, hosting more that 30 professors/ research staff, plus graduate and undergraduate students.


The Gate's lab investigates a wide array of fascinating topics, from coral growth to transcriptomics (very cutting edge science). Dr. Gates is a world renown science communicator, and we are excited for collaborative efforts in the near future.


Sam, the dedicated boat shuttler to and from Coconut Island, ferries us across.

Photos by Jennifer Lam

Kalaupapa's 3D Corals

This week we ramped up our efforts and conducted a project further investigating Autodesk's software, ReCap, and its viability to make high resolution 3D coral models (The more accurate technical term is 3D textured geometry).  We are very interested in the novel ability to measure coral surface area.

This has the potential to revolutionize coral reef research and outreach.

Our massive team included:

  • Shaan Hurley (Technologist) and Pete Kelsey (Strategic Projects Executive) from Autodesk
  • Mikayla Wujec (CEO Concordia Sustainability Fund)
  • Andrea Reid (
  • Naomi Blinick (Photographer @ www.naomiblinick.com)
  • US NPS: Dr. Eric Brown (Marine Ecologist), Randall Watanuki (Boat mechanic), Scott Pawlowski (Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources at VALR) and myself (Marine Science Technician and Science Communicator Specialist) from the KALA US National Park Service.

In preparation for this project, we were featured twice in Shaan's blog, www.autodesk.blogs.com! In his posts he highlights some of our models and previous work. The full article can be found here and here.

We are very excited about the results, which are soon to come! Check back for more details!

Farewell Palau

My two weeks in Palau have come to an end. Palau's hospitable people and underwater wonders have surpassed all expectations.

I end my trip with a Bolbometopon muricatum (humphead parrotfish) spawning dive with Sam's Dive shop at 6 in the morning. As the sun rose, highways of parrotfish swirled around us. Visibility was poor but that didn't hinder them from getting it on.

The green humphead parrotfish is the largest species of parrotfish, growing to lengths of 1.3 m and weighing up to 101 pounds. This species is slow-growing and long-lived (up to 40 years), with delayed reproduction and low replenishment rates. Over fishing of the humpheads in Palau led to rapid population declines decades ago and are now "vulnerable" status according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Next stop: Saipan

13 Million Jellies

This post is dedicated to the ~13 million  jellyfish that inhabit Palau's world famous Jellyfish Lake. Watch the video in full screen for maximum euphoria!

Ongeim’l Tketau (OTM), also known as Jellyfish Lake, is a 30 m deep basin filled with seawater indirectly connected by cracks and crevices to the lagoon. There are actually two species of jellyfish that live here: the golden jellyfish, Mastigias papua etpisoni, and the less common moon jelly, Aurelia sp.

Jellyfish lake's exact number of inhabitants fluctuates quite a bit, and that's why Patrick Colin and his team at the Coral Reef Research Foundation quantitatively monitor the population of these jellyfish each month.

These incredible creatures have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae, called zooxanthellae, which is also found in many corals. These microscopic animals generate energy through photosynthesis, providing its host jellyfish with energy. In return, the jellyfish gives these zooxanthellae a place to live.

These anemones prey upon jellyfish that drift to the end of the pond

These anemones prey upon jellyfish that drift to the end of the pond

Native anemones, Entacmaea medusivora, prey on the golden jellies and can eat jellyfish many times their size. However, in this lake also exists a similar non-native species of anemones that have the ability to displace the native ones, potentially becoming an invasive species.


The Adventure Continues

It's been a while since the last update so this post is going to be meaty. [dropcap]As the science continues, the dives become more epic. Yesterday I joined the "Mala-crawl",  a kayak bar crawl on the island of Malakal. Along with the amazing vistas and company, I photo-captured some giant clams and a WWII Japanese Zero wreck.[/dropcap]

Today while kayaking and snorkeling for more coral models, my friend and CRRF employee, Gerda Ucharm (the ch is silent), spotted an ancient Palauan drawing on one of the rock islands, right next to a construction site.

Ancient Palauan drawings
Ancient Palauan drawings

At dusk we went to look for Mandarin fish at Sam's Dive Shop Harbor. Little did we know we'd be in for the best photography dive of my life.

Gerda's eagle eyes spotted a crocodilefish, a devil scorpionfish, a filefish, pipefish galore, and a plethora of Mandarin fish.


R.I.P to my beloved Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter, who died in service at the Coral Reef Research Foundation harbor. I will establish the site as a new wreck dive and begin running dive tours next year.

For Science!

Today Julia Mason and I began preliminary tests of capturing coral heads for 3D models.

Palau has an overwhelming amount of coral cover. My head ached after the day was over from my mind being blown each time I entered the water.


Internets are very slow here, so I won't be able to produce 3D models for some time. Meanwhile, enjoy some purdy pictures.

Below are pictures of the beautiful jellyfish, Mastigias papua. With their long tentacles, they are the ancestor to the nematocyst-less (and thus stingless) jellyfish of the famous jellyfish lake (Which I will hopefully visit very soon).