Thank you so much Bobbie Renfro for doing this interview. I have learned so much from you about coral reefs, and I think others will too. To start us off, can you tell our readers a bit about your background?
I am originally from Austin, TX and grew up playing in the rivers and springs of the Edward’s Plateau. I always enjoyed being outside in the water and attended marine biology camp through Texas A&M University in high school. Even so, it didn’t dawn on me that this was my calling for a career until college.
I attended The University of Texas at Austin, as a biology-pre-med major. I thought if I was good at science and liked talking to people, I should be a doctor.
After taking courses that studied freshwater systems around Austin and marine systems along the Texas Coast, I finally realized the underwater world is my true passion.
I took a year off after undergrad to work for a Seagrass-monitoring project aiming to protect the Texas Coastline. As well, I worked for the City of Austin as a biology intern in lake management. After those jobs concluded, I applied to Auburn University for my master’s degree.
During my Masters program, I studied coral reef fish behavior and sustainable management of reef-based ecotourism in Mexico. Once I completed my thesis, I set off abroad to manage a research project. I am now back in America and applying for positions to teach marine biology and sustainability to university students. I am also currently working to publish four studies from my research. The main components of a career in marine biology include teaching, research and scientific writing; I love all three!
Thank you for sharing your background with our readers. What a fascinating journey so far!
Okay, let’s jump in:
- You did your Masters thesis on the effects of human contact with coral reefs. That’s amazing! Could you tell us some of your discoveries?
From my master’s work, we have learned that coral reef fish exhibit a short term, but not a long-term change in their behavior due to contact with divers and snorkelers. They will forego foraging to escape or hide. While disturbing fish foraging isn’t good, the fact that the disturbance is short term is good!
It means that while we do affect fish behavior in the moment, we aren’t permanently running them off from the reefs we visit.
Therefore, humans can share the coral reef with the fish by either setting limits on the number of people in the water each day, or by managing the times people are in the water. This way fish have a chance to eat in peace, and divers have a chance to be out on the reef.
Unfortunately, unlike the fish, I found that the benthic organisms (those animals living on the sandy bottom like corals) are more sensitive to our presence.
Physical damage from people breaking or kicking sand onto corals and other non-mobile organisms reduces their ability to survive and decreases the number of reef-building animals.
This not only risks conservation goals, but it also risks the longevity of the tourism industry that depends on the reef.
It’s a win-win for tourism and conservation if we carefully plan sustainable limits to the number of people in contact with these environments each day.
- How long did you spend working on your thesis? Did you do a lot of diving and snorkelling?
I spent two years at Auburn to complete my thesis. For my fieldwork, I lived on a palm tree lined beach in Mexico for several months at my research site.
Each day I either dove or snorkeled on the reef to gather data.
My home was an ecological center called Centro Ecologico Akumal. Our bunk-bed-filled room housed nine of us strangers-turned-friends from all over the world.
During my stay at the Centro Ecologico Akumal, the internet access was limited, showers were whatever temperature it was outside, and the beach was our front yard. It was one of the most unique and exciting experiences of my life. People in Mexico were kind and helpful when they found out why I was there. They wanted to help save their reef too.
- Eco Tourism you’ve mentioned can help to conserve Reef systems. What do you recommend Reef managers in the tourism industry to do when they are faced with an ever-increasing flow of passionate snorkelers who love seeing the fish?
This is an excellent and difficult question! I advise managers, first to monitor their reef closely and determine the carry capacity for the number of tourists the reef can sustain. Second, provide free education to visitors in forms like interactive museums or meet-a-scientist talks to explain why there is a limit on the number of snorkelers entering the water each day.
It’s important to share how tourists can be conscientious of living organisms when out on the reef.
As well, Reef Managers should always take into account that these people are likely on their vacation, so make the learning fun! Providing alternative ways for visitors to enjoy the area, such as sea turtle hatchling releases can help to facilitate an enjoyable experience. Or, hiking trails to give people something else to do if they cannot snorkel that day.
Lastly, adequately publicize that it is best to sign up for a guided tour early. I went to Costa Rica last year as a tourist. I was signed up for a snorkel tour at a marine reserve, yet the tour was canceled due to a recent storm that had disturbed the reef. That storm brought increased wave action, causing coral breakage and sediment suspension. Rightly so, the managers didn’t feel it was safe for people, or for the reef to conduct tours at that time. The hotels did such a good job of explaining why the tours were canceled, that instead of being disappointed we were impressed with their commitment to their environmental conservation. As I was unable to visit the reef last year, I now have something to look forward to seeing when I go back to Costa Rica.
- Let’s chat Sea Urchins! Why are they such an important part of the oceans coral reefs?
Sea urchins are grazers; they’re like the little spikey cows of the sea!
They often even move in herds. They feed on macroalgae that competes with reef-building hard corals for space on the reef. When corals are damaged space is opened for these algae to colonize, but urchin foraging can help keep the algae at bay.
Sadly, there was a mass die off of urchins in the Caribbean in the ‘80s that was followed by excessive algae growth and reef degradation in areas where herbivory was too severely reduced.
Urchins are complicated. Interestingly, if their predators, like triggerfishes are over-fished you can get too many urchins, and they will over graze the reef; sort of like if you put too many goats on a piece of land. You can see from talking about urchins alone how complex the balance of life is on a reef!
- What’s your take on the oceans warming up? Is there really a need to be concerned?
Yes, there is need to be concerned.
While our climate has changed several times in the history of earth, it used to change over a longer time period. Now the change is occurring rapidly and nature is struggling to keep up. Mobile organisms may be able to move if their local temperature is not ideal, but creatures like corals will struggle to do the same as quickly.
We are going to have to get creative and find ways to save these unique coral habitats. Everyone’s support counts, whether it’s through donations to marine conservation, or by discussing the threats facing our oceans with friends and family.
- What can snorkelers do to help maintain these beautiful coral reefs? Curious, do you think the sunscreen people wear while snorkeling affects the coral reefs due to long term exposure?
Great point! Choosing your kind of sunscreen protection is actually one of the things each snorkeler can do to help the reefs. Your best option… Wear a swim shirt and other protective clothing to reduce the amount of sunscreen you need to apply. Then, choose a sunscreen that is ‘biodegradable’ or ‘reef safe’. Sunscreen labels tell you to reapply after exposure to water, because they wash off.
Snorkelling is often done in bays and lagoons where the water is calm and enjoyable for snorkelers. This calm water also means currents are not cycling the water out to sea as quickly. Sunscreen that washes off our skin can build up around the reefs in these waters and suffocate the polyps that are the living individuals making up a coral colony.
Aside from sunscreen, snorkelers can also sign up for guided tours. Even if you are a seasoned ocean goer, it’s still good to have a guide with you. Guides typically use underwater paths for their tours. This helps concentrate human-reef contact in certain areas, allowing other parts of the reef to take a break from visitor disturbance.
If you’re new to snorkeling, guides can teach you techniques to keep you and the reef safe, while you enjoy the underwater environment. They can also show you some of the reef’s tiny inhabitants that you may have otherwise missed, making the adventure even more exciting!
Connect with the Bikini Biologist: