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Day 3 & 4: International Coral Reef Symposium 2012 – Eco Koh Tao



July 10th, 2012

Day 3 – If it Seems Impossible, Do it anyway! Professor Geoffrey James


Torrential tropical rain precluded my departure from the house this morning. I was faced with the added inconvenience of no running water but mega litres were falling from the sky. I briefly considered heading outside for a natural shower but of course, once I actioned such a plan the heavens had ceased to dump such torrents & I had missed my opportunity.


So thanks to the rain I was running late. That and sleeping in. The primary speaker of the morning was Dr Dennis Allemand from Monaco talking about Coral Calcification. Specifically, the title of his talk was “ From Cell physiology to Ocean Acidification”. Something nice & light for breakfast! Dr Allemand’s presentation was about half way through when I walked in and the first slide of his presentation that I saw was “The central role of hydrasses”. Followed by a schematic diagram illustrating chemical pathways littered with chemical compounds - Ca2, Co2, H+, CaCo3. For starters I had no idea what the word ‘hydrasses’ meant and despite picking up a nice strong, hot coffee en route to the convention centre it was still a tad heavy before 9 o’clock in the morning. As his talk went on I concluded had I seen the presentation from the start I would have been equally as confused and used that time to work out where to head next.


Dennis made some interesting observations though showing calcium carbonate skeletal formation in lowered PH commensurate with the higher levels of acidity expected in our oceans in the next century which I found an interesting finding. So I did get something out of the talk after all!


It certainly wasn’t Super Tuesday and I had no real agenda of people to see or topics I really wanted to hear.  All the people I knew were on Monday or Wednesday, often at the same time as my own presentation is scheduled! So I decided to go by topics rather than individuals settling on Evaluating Management Success and Human Impacts on Coral Reefs.


 Throughout the day I heard many interesting presentations. Som of the more interesting included Ron Szymczak’s, “Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Implications for the Tropical Asia/Pacific Region” and Mirian Sporcic’s “How do we Manage our Natural Environment?” I attended a talk about Turtles – Impacts of Marine Debris on Turtles which addressed the question of trying to work out the vision of Turtles and why they chose to eat what they ate. Does the debris look the same as normal food for Turtles? The answer was ‘yes’ for lighter coloured debris. So my question is, how does this study help stop turtles from eating marine debris in the first place? Do we just have to make sure the trash that ends up in the ocean is blue?


I can’t say it’s the first presentation I have heard where I have questioned the overall reason for the study and how knowing that particular bit of information is going to advance science or rather the conservation efforts of why we are supposedly here. Maybe it is the start of something.


The afternoon primary speaker followed another sensational lunch. It was a Dr Geoffrey James whose presentation entitled ‘Mission Impossible: Unlocking the Secrets of Larval Fish Dispersal on Coral Reefs’. It was an entertaining and intriguing speech and the research they had done to come to their conclusions was impressive. At one stage he implored people to go to the remote islands of the Barrier Reef & do more research in his topic. Like we’d all hate that opportunity if given half a chance! Maybe somebody should’ve asked if there was any funding to follow up that research. I’m sure there would have been plenty of takers.


And that’s what a lot of this whole conference is about. Talking about research, thanking funders & donors and working on developing new partnerships and more funding if that is what you need.


There is a mini exhibition centre where corporates have paid $4000 a booth to tout their credentials as a ‘School of Excellence’ or ‘Centre for Research’ and the like. One such exhibitor who also happens to be a sponsor is the Khaled Bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation. Based in Saudi Arabia their representatives have given a number of presentations and often begin with a small overview of the foundation showcasing the pride of the fleet, a 85-metre (I am not entirely sure) long state-of-the-art research vessel that is in the throes of a 6 year circumnavigation of the world’s coral reefs. The envy in the crowd is palpable during these moments. I guess the Saudi Royal Family can manage to cover the large bill of such an extravagant undertaking and as for the results, I can’t say. Nonetheless the whole set up is impressive.


I spent some of my afternoon at a booth hosted by a consortium of US NGO’s and universities. I hadn’t planned to but as I admired the whiteboard and conceptualized ecosystem that someone had drawn I was invited to create my own. (See attached pictures). It was one of those creative activities which was great fun. I started out thinking it would be a 5 minute process but an hour later I left having drawn a complex diagram of interactions and ecological relationships, and had a couple of good conversations in the process!


Geofrey James’ talk was very interesting, with some detailed and complex analyses of fish colonies and their spawning tendencies. It appeared that the research was hard work searching for specific goals without knowing if he’d even get close. It made sense therefore that he concluded his presentation with the comment, “If it seems impossible do it anyway”


Weather research or life I think this is great advice.



July 11th, 2012 Day 4 – The Future Seems Bright


The sun was out and the promise of clearer skies did not help the headache that I woke with. Typical! On the day of my presentation and that of many people I wanted to hear I would have a headache, that would by lunchtime become a debilitating migraine and force me to rest. Maybe that is a good thing.


I wasn’t late today though, and the only primary speaker of the day was a Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, an US based NGO, one of the largest conservation organisations in the world. What is interesting is that Peter isn’t a marine biologist, knows very little about corals and has worked primarily in terrestrial spheres. It is good to have variety and a broad spectrum of viewpoints and his was no exception.


Recently I have been working in a café in Melbourne. To stop my shirts from getting creased while I ride to work I wear them along with my board shorts. It is a good look and one that for the functional purpose of riding a bicycle to work is acceptable. But as an invited major speaker at an international conference I thought it took Peter some balls to walk onto the main stage in just that, a pair of board shorts and a shirt. I like him already.


Peter’s discussion was on whether ecosystems are resilient or fragile and argued that most conservationists have stuck with the fragile side of the coin for one simple reason. By stating that ecosystems are fragile it provides a basis for an argument of no compromise.  That if you want to challenge oil drilling in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico, or the clearing of jungles in Guatamala, Brazil or Indonesia if ecosystems are seen as resilient then a debate ensues.


Unfortunately I wasn’t in the best state of mind to capture too much detail, but Peter was an extremely charismatic speaker and worked the angle of positive attitudes and actions. At the beginning he asked the question, How many people in the audience believe the young generation of today will have a better life or lifestyle than their parents? Very few people stood up. (I would have but wasn’t feeling so hot). As it turns out the seated, according to his own survey data, are in the minority which is a good thing I guess. It means generally speaking people are positive about the future of Planet Earth and our ability to preserve and protect our environment enough to improve our quality of life. That will be a huge achievement.


I made a presentation today. It was very short. A whole 5 minutes. The major speakers get 45 minutes. A few hundred others get 15 minutes, and the rest that they need to fit in get 5! That’s me. I was presenting on behalf of Chad Scott and the Save Koh Tao Community Group presenting Effective Community Based Management of Reefs Faced with Coral Bleaching. My originally prepared presentation spoke nothing of bleaching which I figured I should change considering that’s what was listed in the program book. It was irrelevant really because almost every major speaker had mentioned the bleaching event of 2010 and its associated damage, and our ‘community based approach’ is a model that addresses any issue that we may be facing environmentally not specifically bleaching.  


My presentation was not as time limited as I had planned thanks to the cancellation of the previous talk. So once I stumbled over my initial nerves I managed to cruise through relatively unscathed. The hall of about 300 seats wasn’t full. What with about 14 rooms receiving presentations concurrently and with some 2000 delegates in attendance an even spread of listeners would not have filled each room. But it was nice to hear and see genuine interest in the things I had to say, with a number of people commending me on our work after the show.


By this stage my head was pounding. I managed to get along to see my colleague Dr Suchana ‘Apple’ Chavanich presenting in a nearby room at the Sebel hotel in Cairns. She was presenting on the sexual propagation of corals from spawning to replanting on natural reefs. It is a project I hope to visit sometime and one we are in the process of trying to replicate on Koh Tao.


Once again lunch was spectacular. A mix of fresh salads and roasted vegetables. The conference has been great and the quality of the fare even better. But that was me done for the day. The headache took its toll and I figured I’d be better off resting and preparing for a big final 2 days. With the Symposium Banquet on tomorrow (Thursday) night I would be disappointed to be laid up for that.


Nathan Cook

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