Citizen Science: How Your Holiday Photos Can Protect Marine Life

Who doesn’t love a good photo of a manta ray? Or a whale shark?

Manta Ray
Manta Ray

Besides serving as facebook-bragging material and the undeniable proof to your divebuddies that you weren’t that narced, your photos of these majestic animals might actually help scientists.

Despite their enormous popularity, we don’t know much about these gentle giants. For example, we know that whale sharks migrate, but not what their migrating patterns are. When and where do they go? We don’t even have any accurate estimate about how many there actually are, which makes it hard to track the probable decline of the population through fishing activities, pollution and other environmental impacts. The same goes for manta rays and several other charismatic marine creatures.

As divers we have the privilege to encounter these animals up close, and with grand-scale scientific projects often being cost prohibitive, researchers need to find other ways to collect data. This is where you come in!

Marine Citizen Science Projects in Souteast Asia.

There are a lot of research projects that work with the public to collect (some of) their data. We discuss a few below. Some of the most interesting ones identify individual animals from photos according to the patterns on their skins, others allow you to submit sightings or counting reports.

Whale Sharks

Whaleshark ID area
Whaleshark ID area. SOURCE.

The Wild Me database of whale sharks uses pretty cool pattern recognition software to identify individual sharks. The software looks for the spots behind the gills to establish an individual pattern for each shark, as well as any visible scarring. Divers can upload photos and sighting data of their shark encounters to the database, where they are being compared to earlier entries. This way, reseachers can track the movements of individual sharks. You can also adopt a shark to help fund the organization: they’ll send you updates if your adopted shark is sighted again. You can read more about the project in this article from WIRED.

Spot comparison. Source.
Spot comparison. SOURCE.

Sharks, Skates and Rays

The Shark Trust also has a database where you can submit your sightings. Not only of whale sharks, but of any kind of shark or ray.

Manta Rays

The Manta Trust also uses software to identify individual mantas, identifying them by comparing the spots on their underbellies. On the website you can submit your photo’s along with other sighting data. They also run expeditions and occasionally have programs for volunteers.

Manta Identification Area
Manta Identification Area. SOURCE.

At Manta Matcher (another project run by Wild Me) you can submit your photos and data too, and they’ll be checked by local scientists to confirm the sex and species of the manta, before they run the photos through their recognition software.


Seahorse with diver. Source.
Seahorse with diver. SOURCE.

While sharks and manta rays might be hard to observe due to the fact that not very common, seahorses are hard to observe because they are, well, tiny. Besides tiny, they’re also masters of camouflage, blending in with corals, seagrass or even debris! They’re insanely cute and under threat because they make popular souvenirs, aquarium inhabitants, or are used as an ingredient in Chinese medicine. While some species of seahorse are listed as vulnerable or endangered, for the vast majority of species there is not enough data to determine how bad or great they’re doing! That’s why iSeahorse started their seahorse identification project where you can submit sightings and photos for identification. There’s even an app!

Coral Reefs

The Australia-based Coral Watch organization has a handy DIY guide to coral reef monitoring, including a watherproof chart that allows you to check the health of your local reef by looking for color changes that indicate coral bleaching.

The CoralWatch Coral Health Chart. Photo by CoralWatch.
The CoralWatch Coral Health Chart. Photo by CoralWatch.

The US-based Reef Check organization has some very active local projects in the Indo-Pacific area. They train divers in coral reef identification and monitoring and organize surveying expeditions. Check out the local branches of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore or Thailand.

Microplastics & Marine Debris

Not directly marine life, and hard to take a photo of, but microplastics are threatening the health of rivers, lakes and oceans. Marine animals mistake them for food or accidentally ingest them. When they, in turn, get eaten by bigger fish, they can even end up in our food system.

The Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation (ASC) has a program where volunteers are trained to collect water samples that will be checked for the presence of microplastics. You can sign up on their website and they will send you the information you need.

And of course there is Project Aware that has a big Dive-Against-Debris project. They encourage divers to report whatever marine debris they find, sometimes leading to pretty hilarious (but sad) results. If you are organizing a beach or reef cleanup project, they’re a great resource too!

Have you ever participated in a citizen science project? Did we miss anything? We hope to keep expanding this list so if you know of another project (in Southeast Asia), let us know!


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