Citizen science projects offer outstanding opportunities for everyday divers to contribute vital data to the scientific world while exploring the oceans that they love. But, what is citizen science, and how does it work? And, most importantly, how can you find and take part in marine citizen science projects? In this article, we’ll walk you through all the details, including how you can get involved.
What is citizen science?
Since the 1970’s scientists have tapped into the power of ‘citizen scientists’ to gather data on an incredible range of subjects. And, thanks to today’s accessible technologies, the potential for ordinary people to participate and provide accurate and reliable data for use by scientists has never been greater. ‘Citizens’ can utilise time spent taking part in an activity, such as diving, to collect baseline data from their surroundings and submit it to large national and international ‘data hubs’. Pooling the collective skills, time and effort of ‘ordinary’ people in this way has created a powerful new tool for use by scientists across the globe, helping to inform researchers about current population dynamics, sighting frequencies, and more.
Recent studies on the reliability of ‘citizen science’ have shown that data produced by volunteer scientists can match those produced by professionals. The modern development of cloud apps and data management software such as WildBook, has also made it easier for scientists to obtain, curate, and analyse “Big Data”, such as that generated by citizen scientists.
Why is citizen science important?
Marine citizen science is essential to the future of ocean conservation, as it provides a vital link between biologists, researchers and the sea. Not only is the data collected by citizens just as accurate as professionally gathered information, in many cases, a larger volume of data can be sourced in a shorter time, thanks to the size of the task force. The world has far more scuba divers and ocean enthusiasts than qualified scientific researchers. Utilising this passionate workforce helps to speed up the scientific process, allowing more information to be reviewed without delays due to logistical complexities and funding issues.
One of the greatest benefits of citizen science is the contributive and collaborative evidence that it yields, allowing ordinary people to get involved in environmental initiatives and providing opportunities for two-way engagement. Participating in scientific research also helps to educate the public on environmental factors, often encouraging changes in personal behaviours. This information sharing has the capacity to influence policy and decision-making and empowers citizens to help raise awareness amongst family and friends surrounding a variety of scientific subjects.
How does citizen science contribute to marine conservation?
About 71% of our planet's surface is covered by water, and the world’s oceans account for roughly 96.5% of that area. Clearly, collecting comprehensive information from such a vast interconnected environment presents a serious challenge - one that science has struggled with for centuries. Many marine animals also migrate across huge distances, with whales, manta rays, and sharks moving from one country to another, or crossing oceans throughout the year. Some species like sea turtles even loop the globe! Citizen science is one of the best ways to collect data from around the world, connecting more pieces of the puzzle and keeping track of individual animals, no matter where they are.
Volunteer-based science efforts also enable a larger percentage of the population, spread over a greater geographic area, to get involved with ocean conservation. This helps the public engage with our world’s oceans, building interest and personal investment along the way. It also adds eyes and ears where the sea needs them the most. Poaching, dumping, and other illegal activities don’t often take place in clear view of scientists or other relevant authorities - and citizens can help protect vital ecosystems simply by monitoring relevant criteria during their dives.
How to get involved in ocean conservation
Today, there are more citizen science opportunities than ever before. And, you don’t necessarily have to leave home to participate. Digital platforms and smartphone technology have put the power of research in the hands of everyday divers. This makes it easy to lend a hand any time you visit the ocean, even if it’s in your own backyard. Then, when it’s time to travel, you can take your new research skills on the road!
This cutting edge tech startup was founded on the belief that saving the world’s oceans depends on our ability to make faster, informed, and collaborative decisions. The planet is changing quickly, and conservationists must keep pace with that change to be effective. eOceans allows scientists and research teams to collect data in real-time, quickly analyse their results, and communicate with citizen scientists around the globe through easy to use online tools.
This project evolved from a number of research initiatives, including eShark, eManta, Great Fiji Shark Count, Global Marine Conservation Assessment, and the Shark Sanctuary Evaluation. These conservation success stories inspired the creation of a mobile app and platform, allowing scientists to scale up what’s been learned through other small projects and make their expertise available to small businesses, explorers, researchers, and communities.
Users can download the free eOceans mobile app to document their observations in a variety of fields. Current projects include documenting individual species like whales, sharks, turtles, and even small creatures like seahorses and jellyfish. Users can also map shipwrecks and underwater caves, track the effects of pollution, and note where they witness invasive species, ocean disease and fish die-offs. You can even submit dives where you saw nothing at all - after all, sometimes no data is good data.
Manta rays and algorithms
MantaMatcher was the first global online manta ray database that uses the unique pattern of spots on the belly of a manta ray to identify individuals. Any diver or snorkeller with a camera can take and upload a manta ray photo to the database, where a sophisticated algorithm - which works similarly to facial recognition software - is used to match images of the same individual. This allows researchers to use individual sightings to determine the abundance, trends, movements, and population structure of manta ray populations around the globe.
Uploads to MantaMatcher have already contributed to the better scientific understanding of these species, having been instrumental in achieving protection for mantas across all of Indonesia's waters, and used as scientific justification for the Convention on Migratory Species listing of reef mantas in November 2014.
Similarly, the Manta Trust’s IDtheManta programme was created to harness the power of citizen science to aid in the research and conservation of the world's manta rays. This database receives over 5,000 photo-ID submissions each year and, since its global roll-out in 2012, the IDtheManta Database has become the largest of its kind. Over 10,000 individual reef and oceanic mantas have been identified through more than 100,000 photographed sightings from over 70 countries.
Spot my spots - whale sharks and Wildbook
Wildbook for whale sharks has successfully identified nearly 9,000 whale sharks, from over 44,000 reported sightings from thousands of citizen scientists and hundreds of researchers. This technology has pioneered a new generation of global, collaborative wildlife projects that blend citizen science and computer vision to help researchers get bigger and more detailed pictures of some of the world's most mysterious species.
The Wildbook for Whale Sharks photo-identification library hosts a visual database of whale shark encounters and of individually catalogued whale sharks. This vast cache of data is maintained and used by marine biologists to document whale shark sightings and analyse their movements to learn more about the species. The Wildbook uses photographs of the detailed skin patterning behind the gills of each shark, along with any scars, to distinguish between individual animals. The library’s cutting-edge software supports rapid identification of each animal using pattern recognition and photo management tools. Divers can assist with whale shark research by submitting photos and sighting data, and the information submitted will be used in mark-recapture studies to help with the global conservation of this threatened species.
Read more about Wildbook for whale sharks and how you can contribute your photos.
Underwater camera innovator Paralenz, recently released a new model, the Vaquita. This hands-free underwater action camera comes loaded with new sensors and faster processors for better imaging and exciting updates to add scientific impact to every dive.
Through collaborations with organisations such as NOAA divers can contribute scientific data about what they see and experience during a dive without lifting a finger. The camera’s GPS sensor makes it possible to document where dive footage was captured, represented as pins on a map, and made available in the Paralenz app. This feature enables users to view dives from all over the world, research conditions for future dive trips, and contribute to creating a baseline of ocean knowledge.
The vaquita’s sensors also capture information on ocean temperature, depth, and other topographic details. Additionally, the online platform will allow divers to document where they spot ocean hazards, like ghost nets, as well as exciting progress including coral reef recovery. This open-source data is made available to scientists and marine biologists, contributing to wider-scale research initiatives.
Some other noteworthy citizen science projects include the Elasmobranch Project Indonesia, which aims to map the biodiversity and distribution of sharks and rays in Indonesia, and Ocean Sunfish Research, which allows users to identify individual mola molas by submitting images to a database.
CoralWatch is a not-for-profit citizen science program from the University of Queensland, Australia, that has created a standardised Coral Health Chart for use by citizen scientists. Using the colour-coded chart, divers can easily quantify coral health and document their findings on the website.
It is also always worth asking any local dive shops if data can be submitted for local abundance surveys. Conservation groups will often liaise with dive centres for up-to-date information on sightings of species such as sharks, turtles, and rays.
Volunteer opportunities go way beyond these citizen science examples, with hundreds of chances to take an active part in scientific research and ocean conservation all around the globe. Check out our in-depth guide to marine conservation volunteering abroad for expert advice on choosing the right programme, what to expect, and how to prepare for your trip.
Are you excited to get involved?
For more citizen science ideas and sustainable travel inspiration, search from ZuBlu's Ecoventures programmes!