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This coral scientist is fighting to save the world’s coral reefs

It was the first time he had seen a coral reef – at seven on vacation with his family in the Bahamas. It was also the time when Camp fell in love with the ocean. “It was the fascination of this unknown world that really attracted me,” he recalls.

Now 33, the British-born marine biologist is a leading researcher on coral conservation and resilience at Sydney University of Technology and fights to save the marine wonders she was first fascinated by as a child.

Camp’s work involves researching around the world to find the toughest and toughest corals in the world, the species with the best chance of surviving the climate crisis.

He studied corals growing in mangrove lagoons around the world, including the Caribbean, Seychelles and Indonesia. In 201

6, she and her team were the first to find mangrove corals in New Caledonia in the South Pacific. In 2019, for the first time, they documented similar mangrove corals in their backyard … on the perimeter of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Mangrove lagoons are shallow bodies of water, found near the coasts of the tropics, lined with trees and shrubs suitable for growing in salt water.

Marine biologist Emma Camp studies mangrove corals on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

In the lagoons, “the water is naturally warm, naturally acidic, and has low oxygen conditions,” says Camp. On coral reefs, coral is dying as climate change makes ocean conditions similar, with warmer, more acidic water and reduced oxygen levels, but in mangrove lagoons, corals thrive. The purpose of the camp is to identify the special qualities that allow mangrove corals to survive in a hostile environment.

Camp and his team collect coral samples from mangrove lagoons, bring them back to his laboratory in Sydney, and conduct DNA analyzes to learn more about their genetic makeup and how they differ from coral reef corals.

In Australia, Camp swaps coral fragments between mangrove lagoons and the main body of the reef.

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Mangrove corals are transplanted onto the reef to test which species can thrive there, he says, while reef corals are moved to mangrove habitats to assess how they react to a more challenging environment. The goal of the field is to understand whether scientists will one day be able to use these resilient corals to replenish areas of the reef that have been degraded by climate change.

The operation is strictly controlled with the coral fragments attached to small frames with straps, to prevent them from spreading beyond the test area. This ensures that there are no unwanted consequences for the movement of species between different habitats.

Camp says he remains an “ocean optimist”, but ultimately his job is just “buying time” against climate change.

“Time is running out and it’s urgent,” he says. “If we don’t act, these critically important ecosystems … will be lost or at least severely degraded to the point where we can’t go back.”

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