Great Barrier Reef beauty not always about health: study

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Great Barrier Reef beauty not always about health: study
Amy Mitchell-Whittington
Published: October 20 2016

How do you measure the beauty of something as expansive and ever-changing as the Great Barrier Reef?  For some, the beauty lies in the colour of coral, for others, the number of fish present.

The beauty of the reef is not directly related to its health, the study has found. Photo: Darren Jew

The beauty of the reef is not directly related to its health, the study has found. Photo: Darren Jew

The reef has scored a D, for the fifth year in a row, in the 2015 Reef Report published by the Queensland and federal governments.  Although the overall condition of the reef remained poor, the report acknowledged the coral quality had improved, albeit slightly. Australia is due to report to the World Heritage Commission in December to show how the reef is being protected.

Groups of scientists, citizens and divers were immersed in the virtual reality experience. Photo: QUT

Groups of scientists, citizens and divers were immersed in the virtual reality experience. Photo: QUT

A group experiment, run by a team from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, have set out to determine how people perceive the reef’s beauty in a bid to measure its aesthetic value.  Australia is required to report to UNESCO regarding reef aesthetics along the world heritage listed area, project leader and QUT research fellow Erin Peterson said.  “The Great Barrier Reef was designated as a world heritage area in part because of its aesthetics and natural beauty,” she said.  “I think that is something that people don’t realise, it was designated because of its geological features, its ecological and biological processes and its biodiversity – and those things are straightforward to measure – but it is really hard to measure aesthetic value.”

The project uses virtual reality to immerse various groups, including the general public, marine scientists and divers, into five different parts of the reef and asks them questions regarding what they can and can’t see and what parts of the reef they found visually appealing.


Dr Peterson said the health of the reef did not always relate to how beautiful it was and varied between different groups.  “Some of the initial findings we are hearing are that marine scientists’ perception of beautiful is very strongly tied to what they perceive as healthy, whereas a diver or a citizen looks at colours, shapes and  might be more focused on fish rather than coral,” she said.  “I am a diver not a marine scientist so when QUT Research associate Julie Vercelloni (who helped developed the virtual reality experiment) would pull up a picture of a very colourful reef I would think that was very beautiful but she would point out to me that many of the coral on that reef were soft coral and that represented a degraded habitat.  “So she was looking at it thinking it wasn’t beautiful because it wasn’t in a pristine condition, it wasn’t all hard coral, and I was thinking it was beautiful because there was a lot of coral present and they were very colourful.

“Beauty isn’t always tied to health, it just depends on who you are asking.”

Dr Peterson said being able to measure the aesthetic value could greatly contribute to the management of the reef.  “If we find that there are aspects of beauty that aren’t strongly tied to health, then we need to be measuring and reporting on those,” she said.  “Hopefully if we can capture some of those aesthetic values along with the more traditional biodiversity measures, then we have a lot more information to manage the Great Barrier Reef.  “There are no good methods to try and measure the aesthetics below the water.  “We have a responsibility to track changes in the beauty, because it is one of the reasons why it was designated a world heritage area.”

The aesthetic study was part of a larger ‘Monitoring Through Many Eyes’ project aimed at creating a software platform for citizen scientists, recreational divers and the public to upload their images or footage of the reef to be geo-located within a map of a digital reef, Dr Vercelloni said.  “Thousands of underwater images are taken by divers each year and we can use this to contribute to data collection,” she said.  “The additional information, combined with a dynamic, spatially continuous map about the reef’s condition provides a quantum leap in the way we monitor.  “As a result, authorities could be quicker to respond to disturbances in the reef.”

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