Seachanger in search of bright spots in Great Barrier Reef

Published 7 June 2018
Researcher Kay Davis at One Tree Island Researcher Kay Davis at One Tree Island

The first time Kay Davis ever saw the ocean, the then 10-year-old who grew up more than 2000 kilometres from the coast, found her passion.

Now the American’s postgraduate research is helping save coral reefs along Australia’s East Coast.

Kay grew up in Minnesota, a Midwestern US state bordering Canada and Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. As World Oceans Day rolls around again this Friday (June 8), Kay vividly remembers watching the waves roll in for the first time at age 10 on the shores of Los Angeles, California.

“I think the first time I saw the ocean I was so interested and so dedicated to being near it and understanding it – I just fell in love,” she said.

Fast forward to 2012 and Ms Davis embarked on the journey of a lifetime, swapping Minnesota for the Northern NSW city of Lismore, to study abroad during her environmental science degree.

“It was like a dream for me studying in Lismore, just half an hour away from the beach and an hour from my favourite mountain trails,” she said.

“When I finished my degree I came back to Australia for my Master of Marine Science and Management at the University’s National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour right in the middle of some of the best marine research happening in Australia.  All along I have wanted to get into scientific research.”

Ms Davis has long held a passion for chemistry and ecology, especially in regards to climate change research. Following her Masters research into the ‘ecological performance of construction materials subject to ocean climate change’, Kay was recruited by NMSC Professor Isaac Santos to undertake her PhD into how climate change affects oceans, which she said was “the perfect fit”.

Ms Davis is partway through collecting water samples at three locations to test how well coral is calcifying and changing over time.

While some areas of the Great Barrier Reef have been devastated, Ms Davis has found there are pockets of coral growth even in the southernmost sections, including One Tree Island, a coral cay near Gladstone.

“We found the rate of calcification is relatively high for this reef, and that One Tree Island has actually experienced an increase the coral cover,” said Ms Davis, who is conducting her research under the supervision of Professor Santos and Professor Brendan Kelaher.

“This is completely the opposite of what we expected, based on earlier work predicting a decline in calcification. This reef remains healthy regardless of changing seawater chemistry.”

She explained how corals use calcification to continue growing, drawing calcium carbonate from the water to build their skeletons.

“We are looking into the rates of calcification throughout the day and night to match all the environmental conditions of previous studies,” Ms Davis said.

However, it seems the same research at Lizard Island may tell a different story.

“We are yet to extract all the data from our Lizard Island trip, but we know the coral bleaching event of 2016 claimed more than 90 per cent of coral in the area which is now completely degraded,” said Ms Davis, who will continue her follow-up research in coral reefs across Australia.

The research team is also measuring changes in the photosynthesis levels.

“It seems there is more may be more photosynthesis happening in Lizard Island and less calcification, as we observed a lot more algae present than before,” she said.

With increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels (due to ocean warming) and pollution creating more algae and fewer resources for coral, Ms Davis said coral and algae were constantly competing for space.

Next month Ms Davis will travel to Lord Howe Island to conduct another study of coral calcification.

“This research is important because it adds another layer of understanding to our knowledge of coral reefs and enables us to make assumptions based on what we observe. Chemistry gives us another tool to better understand reef health by investigating beyond what our eyes can see,” she said.

“It’s great to see so much new research coming to light which will help safeguard the future of these ecosystems.”

Photo: Ash McMahon

Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794