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Are you a budding marine biologist interested in gaining some hands-on experience? Fancy taking part in one of our Reef Ecology Courses but not sure what that actually entails? Well you’ve come to the right place to have those questions answered!

At all of our marine sites there is the option to complete one of our Reef Ecology Courses:

Photo by Jack Hague.


Whilst the content of these courses differs depending on where in the world you join us, the structure is the same, and we complete standardised surveys across all of our sites allowing for both temporal and spatial comparisons!

All our Reef Ecology Courses are split into three components:

  1. Lectures – the lectures teach you about the ecology of coral reefs and the importance of this ecosystem, to help you understand why we are collecting certain data for our projects
  2. On-land workshops – a series of workshops is used to complement the lectures and allow you to practice the in-water practicals on-land before jumping in at the deep end
  3. In-water practicals – these sessions allow you to put what you’ve learnt in the classroom into practice. You’ll start the course with ID sessions, getting up to scratch with your coral, invertebrate, and fish ID skills before diving in to transects, quadrats and some amazing citizen science projects!


Standardised Surveys:


Benthic Assessment Using Quadrats

A benthic assessment using quadrats allows us to survey the benthos in-situ and compare its composition. The benthos underpins all life on reefs through several key functions and processes such as providing refuge for juveniles and prey species.

You will carefully lay a 1m2 quadrat on the benthos, being sure not to damage any coral or substrate in the process. On your dive slate you will then estimate the relative percentage cover of hard coral, soft coral, sponge, macroalgae, rock and sand. You will repeat this process a number of times to allow comparisons to be made.

Photo by Kuyer Fazekas Jr.


Benthic Assessment Using Video

A benthic assessment using video allows us to survey the benthos but not in-situ and acts as a great contrast to our quadrat surveys in terms of challenges faced during underwater data collection. We produce a video which we are able to analyse on-land post-dive/snorkel, which is more efficient and often more accurate, as we are able to ID species precisely using guides and textbooks.

You will first lay a transect as flush to the reef as possible, which is a tricky skill in itself and requires some good buoyancy practice beforehand. Once the transect is laid you slowly swim along the transect with a GoPro, stopping every 25cm to pause and generate a steady image. These periods of stasis are used as the intercepts from which the data will be taken to complete a line-point intercept transect. Your DMs and survey leaders will be on hand to help you lay the transect and collect the best recording possible!


Fish Abundance Transect Dive

An Underwater Visual Census (UVC) is a widely accepted methodology to survey the mid-water communities. You will first begin by laying a 50m transect (this is the standard transect length for data collection with Operation Wallacea – during training surveys you may lay a shorter transect for practice) and then wait 2-minutes before commencing your survey. You will then complete a belt transect by slowly swimming along the transect and recording all of the species seen 2.5m either side and 5m above the transect.

This is a really fun survey and a great opportunity to practice your fish ID skills! It is also quite challenging and prone to observer bias so, at some sites, we will also introduce you to Stereo-Video Surveys (SVS). A stereo-video system is composed of two precisely calibrated cameras which can act the same as a pair of eyes. You swim along the transect with the stereo video collecting a video recording which is then analysed using specific software once back on land! It allows for accurate measurements of fish to be taken, which in turn allows us to calculate biomass!

Photo by Kuyer Fazekas Jr.


Citizen Science

As well as the site-specific standardised surveys, there are also several citizen science projects which you can get involved with. This introduces you to survey practices which you can get involved with globally, actively contributing to data collection whether your travels may take you! The two most popular citizen science projects we are involved with are Coral Watch and REEF Survey.



CoralWatch is an organisation built on a research project at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. The survey uses a Coral Health Chart as a cheap, simple, non-invasive method for the monitoring of coral bleaching, and assessment of coral health.

In the field, users simply compare colours of corals with colours on the chart and record matching codes – this can be done via diving or snorkelling. By contributing to this long-standing project you can help them become aware of when and where coral bleaching events are occurring and help assess healthy/struggling areas of hard coral.


REEF Survey

REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) surveys are an excellent survey practice which can be completed by all students snorkelling or diving. REEF surveys utilise the roving diver method, also referred to as a timed swim. This is a very free-form survey technique whereby you get in the water, identify which species you can and tally the number seen, and record the amount of time spent doing it. You also note down variables such as time, site location and depth recorded to give context to the data collected.

You can also gain a free certification from this too by going to and completing ID exams and surveys to raise through the ranks as a surveyor!

Photo by Frances Budd.


Hopefully this has given you a taste of the main survey methods you’ll be getting involved with on one of our reef ecology courses, and the science you’ll be able to dip your toes into! Whichever site you choose to go to you will gain vital hands-on experience and a wealth of knowledge both inside and outside the classroom, helping you on the way to pursuing a career in ecology and conservation, or whichever career path you may choose!


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