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Underwater Science Dives Deep into Coral Reef Research

Around the world, The Nature Conservancy’s scientists conduct research in some very extreme conditions, including deep beneath the ocean’s surface.

Researching in an underwater laboratory takes a unique set of skills—you have to be an adept Scuba diver and a scientist at the same time, and be willing to share your “office” with sharks.

James Byrne, the Conservancy’s South Florida and Caribbean Marine Science Program Manager, is also a Dive Safety Officer, working with researchers in Florida and the Caribbean to ensure scientific diving expeditions are conducted safely.

Nature.org talked to James to about what life is like underwater for a scientist diver, and why he’s definitely not afraid of sharks.
"Being able to get out and see the positive impact our scientific research is having on coral reefs really reinvigorates me."

-James Byrne, Marine Science Program Manager

Nature.org:

How did a kid from Illinois become a marine scientist?

James Byrne:

When I was 5 years old, I watched the movie Jaws and said to my parents, “I want to be the guy who dives down into the water with sharks.”

Nature.org:

Really?! That movie makes most kids never want to swim in the ocean again.

James Byrne:

I just developed an instant fascination with the underwater world and wanted to be a part of it. Now Scuba diving is an integral part of my job, both as a researcher and as a Dive Safety Officer for the Conservancy.

Nature.org:

What happens during a typical scientific research dive?

James Byrne:

Our underwater research sites are up to 60 feet deep. We spend about an hour underwater at every site we are studying.

To record data, we use special underwater paper and pencils to enter our findings on a data sheet. On coral reef projects, we’re identifying coral species and taking measurements to determine how much live tissue is left and if the coral has been bleached or shows signs of disease.

We have to be very deliberate with our movements underwater as some corals are so fragile that even the brush of a diver’s fin can kill them.

Nature.org:

In addition to coral, you’re also surveying fish populations, right?

James Byrne:

Yes, our fish surveys involve swimming along a set line and recording every single fish that comes into view. It’s such an intense process that sometimes we don’t notice large sea life like sharks swimming nearby, just outside our field of vision.

Nature.org:

Yikes! That kind of tunnel vision seems treacherous.

James Byrne:

Sharks aren’t a concern. They ignore us and go about their own business. In fact, we consider it a privilege when we are able to see them.

Nature.org:

What safety concerns are you focused on with underwater research?

James Byrne:

There’s a fine line between getting the science done and making sure we’re safe. When you’re conducting underwater research, the diving has to be second nature. So getting our scientists to that high skill level is critical.

During a dive, everyone always has a “buddy” who they’re in visual communication with at all times.

We also make sure that everyone is in good physical condition, especially their respiratory and circulatory systems. Decompression sickness, or the “bends” as they’re commonly known, is a major concern during any dive operation.

Nature.org:

Most of your scientific research focuses on coral reefs in Florida and the Caribbean. What are you finding?

James Byrne:

What we’re finding is that some coral reefs are doing better than others in the face of climate change. How these reefs are actively managed plays a big role in how resilient they are to warming ocean temperatures, a major climate change impact. When ocean temperatures rise, corals undergo stress that causes disease, bleaching and eventually death.

Since active management of our coral reefs is so critical, one of the Conservancy’s top priorities is to train and educate coral reef managers from more than 30 countries.

Nature.org:

All in all, you have a very cool job.

James Byrne:

I do have to sit behind a desk sometimes, but being able to get out and see the positive impact our scientific research is having on coral reefs really reinvigorates me.

When I’m underwater, I get to see how vibrant and resilient coral reefs are, even when they’re under great pressure. Our work really can help get these reefs back to the way they once were.


James Byrne is the Conservancy’s Marine Science Program Manager for South Florida and the Caribbean and provides technical and scientific leadership for marine conservation initiatives in south Florida, the Florida Keys and the Caribbean. James came to the Conservancy from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A diving instructor and Dive Safety Officer for the Conservancy, he helps set standards for the Conservancy’s scientific diving operations and also trains partner organizations in safe and effective diving practices. James is an avid surfer and is committed to conserving the fragile marine world.

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