Blancpain and Biopixel team up to push the importance of ocean conservationBorna Bošnjak
Chewing on an ice cube on the stern of the Reef Magic, I contemplated my life choices covered in cold sweat, my breakfast coming back up to visit. In the last few minutes, I realised that I am, in fact, susceptible to seasickness, and quite violently so. I thought that the nerve-racking highlight of this trip would be a man wrangling a lethal fish an arm’s reach away (more on that later), but the choppy water was proving me wrong. With the water as calm as a Karen in Walmart, the two-hour trip from Cairns to the Marine World pontoon was rough.
Thankfully, my misfortune ended there. Coming back to my senses, I noticed that the thick fog that had become a feature of the rolling, rainforest-covered hills of Cairns was out of sight. The horizon stretched for kilometres, meeting the clear skies at a barely visible curve. Take that, flat Earth society.
The pontoon sat atop Moore Reef, serving as a starting point for diving adventures and as a reef research lab. Having gathered my gear and received instructions from the dive leaders, I zipped up my sting suit which highlighted all the wrong curves in all the wrong places, and set out to see just some fruits of labour of the Blancpain and Biopixel partnership.
Founded in 2013 by Richard Fitzpatrick and Bevan Slattery, Biopixel is one of the leading natural history filming companies, owing to their vastly experienced team. Collaborating with the James Cook University in Cairns, they operate a large underwater filming facility, and are able to capture never-before seen animal behaviour. If you’ve watched any nature documentary featuring the ocean, chances are high that you were watching Biopixel footage. Biopixel’s Oceans Foundation focuses on the scientific side of things, looking for niches in existing research while raising awareness of it through film productions.
Blancpain has been involved in ocean conservation since their early days, mainly through their Ocean Commitment initiative, partnering with notable experts such as Laurent Ballesta on numerous expeditions. Their goal with Biopixel is to create a documentary series focusing on areas protected by the partnership and the people responsible for it, all the while funding research essential to conservation projects. Though Blancpain has pledged €1,000 from sales of each Ocean Commitment watch, I have to commend them on not basing this partnership with a shiny new object. While this will surely be a fruitful relationship for Blancpain regardless, it’s encouraging to know that a new release wasn’t the primary driving force.
The Reef restoration project
It was time to dive in. From the changing pressure in my eardrums to the dry, pressurised air that parched my throat, it was hard to appreciate the spectacle around me. Once I gathered myself, the scenery completely changed. I was no longer bothered by the ill-fitting mask nor the cold water, taking in the sights and sounds of the reef. I find the experience impossible to explain fully. Saying I felt in the presence of something truly remarkable and significant comes closest.
Combining AI-powered coral larva-dispersing seastar-eliminating robots and the Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System, the project hopes to combat the many dangers that coral reefs around the world are facing. On the Great Barrier Reef, the Mars Reef Stars have shown huge success, with coral coverage on some sites improving by almost 50% in just 18 months. Seeing the progression of the staggered set-up which began in 2020, now totalling 348 Reef Stars was astounding. The earliest sites leave little evidence of the metal structures which are covered by dense populations of coral.
The LarvalBots on the other hand, deploy more than 10 times the amount of coral larvae when compared to using human divers, and are able to place them in prime substrate locations. This technology was developed from existing algorithms, previously used for recognising crown-of-thorns starfish which prey on corals and are capable of eradicating entire colonies. Responsible for controlling starfish population, COTSBots are able to deliver lethal injections before human divers sweep the area for surviving individuals.
The turtle project
Turtles – icons of marine conservation initiatives worldwide (“boring”, according to shark fanatic Richard Fitzpatrick) are hugely important to Biopixel’s efforts. Currently enduring a difficult period the effects of which will only be visible in decades’ time, the Raine Island project and the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation centre are hoping to give them a leg (flipper?) up.
A crucial site for nesting green sea turtles, Raine Island sees up to tens of thousands of turtles visiting every season. Recently, through efforts by the Queensland Government, the island has been re-profiled to prevent drowning of turtle nests, which had become an increasing issue due to rising sea levels. What can definitely not be solved by heavy machinery is global warming. With rising temperatures, more baby turtles are born female, which will have a devastating impact on the nesting population in 30 or 40 years time, when the current turtle generation comes back to the island.
Heading up the rehabilitation centre at Cairns aquarium, Jennie Gilbert outlines all the dangers that turtles face. Known offenders such as fishing lines to newfangled culprits in the form of facemasks all pose a threat to turtles. The personal connection Jennie has with every single turtle that comes through the centre is remarkable and her passion for the cause undeterred – even by Richard’s constant reminders that sharks are superior animals. Her efforts in finding, helping and releasing turtles back into the wild have resulted in more than 170 animals being helped by the volunteer-run organisation.
The (Mega)fauna project
Remember the deadly fish from the introduction? That is where Dr Jamie Jelly Dude from Nemo Land Seymour, comes in. With unrivalled enthusiasm, he explained how his research with the James Cook University on venomous marine creatures could be crucial in advances in the medical field, from combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria to battling pancreatic cancer via box jellyfish venom. The research facility also contains a reef filming setup, along with part of the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Surrounded by tanks of all sorts, he explained all this and more, while holding a reef stonefish in one hand. On occasion, the fish would wriggle into a more comfortable position, much to the chagrin of the gaggle of journalists (including yours truly).
Fauna research has always been a great area of interest for Biopixel and is not limited to their work at James Cook University. With Blancpain, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef under the watchful eye of Dr Adam Barnett, they are proud of the Megamouth project which tracks whale sharks and manta rays. Describing the eye-watering prices of the tracking devices they use (about U$1,700-$5,500 per device) and the pain in the neck of trying to recover some of them, he expresses his surprise at the successful tracking of the largest extant fish species. Through Blancpain’s support, they were able to turn a dry 2020 into success, tagging several of these gentle giants, along with some manta rays, with three trackers still active at the moment.
The future is in our hands
In the end, it boils down to this. Mother nature is far more capable than we give her credit for, and given the opportunities it needs, it will recover by itself. But giving it a shot is the issue. With increasing temperatures and pollution levels, we’re grabbing that chance away as we still can’t feel the effects of climate change on a global level. One thing is clear, “band-aids” such as lifting the coastline of Raine Island and human-accelerated reef restoration via coral larvae and Reef Stars are not the final solution. However, more of these band-aids might just be enough to give nature the chance it deserves.
A wiser person than I once said: “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation who can do something about it.” Having had the chance to meet the people I’ve met has really helped me understand why their efforts matter so much. Should we fail to act, my privilege of experiencing the beauties of the reef will be lost with the next generation.