More on Through the Surface, the Reef Mapping Project

Last week, we told you about a competition some surfer scientists have entered a National Geographic contest to get funding for a project to map our reefs. Voting is open until Sept. 29 so we got back in touch with Cliff Kapono and Clinton Edwards for more details on their project, the difficulties of finding funding for science these days, and the technology they’ll use when they get out in the water. Read the interview below, and vote for them here.

Vostok Island (March and April of 2009)

You’re studying chemistry, but this seems like marine biology research project. How are the two related? 

We are really trying to separate ourselves from other reef conservation projects by not just delivering never before seen high resolution imagery of these reefs, but also give people an opportunity to see the chemical signals that are also associated with reef health. If you ever have gotten a physical exam, there are sometimes a series of tests (ie. blood, urine, fluids) that are also taken. This allows for a more comprehensive understanding of your health that may not be apparent by just looking at the patient. Though the images we will provide do help to interpret reef condition, being able to see the molecules (or chemistry) associated with images will give a much deeper understanding of reef health.

How did you and your research partner settle on this project?

My good friend, Clint Edwards, has been wanting to use the imagery methods developed in his lab at famous surf breaks for quite some time. My studies at UCSD directly relates to mapping the chemistry found on coral surfaces back onto images of the reef. Clint asked me if I wanted to join forces and give the surf community something that has never been seen before. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity and we started to make the plan.

Flint Island (March and April of 2009)

What information will you learn from mapping the reefs? How will that be used to help them?

We will get a baseline understanding of 1) what the reef looks like now and 2) see the chemistry that is associated with these specific locations. We then can compare this information to all the different breaks. We hope to answer questions like ” is the reef at pipe alive?” , “does the reef at Teahupo o express more chemicals than the reef at couldbreak?” or ” is the reef at Padang Padang possesing the next cure for cancer?” Things like that. We also will map and profile a reef pretty much untouched by humans to compare what human impact has on the physical make up and chemistry of these surf breaks.

Palmyra (2008)

What technology do you need to do this?

Basically we use the same technology that makes panoramic images in your iphone. Notch that up several thousand times and you have coral reef photo mosaic technology. To understand the chemistry, we use ultra high power analytical instruments that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Collectively, we use a million dollar system to look at reef health.

Palmyra (2008)

Is this type of grant a unique way to get funding for academic research? 

This may sound harsh, but everyday scientists waste a lot of time trying to convince small groups of people why their research deserves national funding and after the fact try to educate the public about its importance. It may be a great idea, but if it is not important to the community, what’s the point We believe that this Nat Geo grant opportunity is an excellent way for the people to choose what is most impactful to them and let us scientist get back to the science. Though it is not typical, I am a huge fan of democratized funding and wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes implemented more in high impact science research.

When will you begin if you get funded?

If all goes well, we hope to start this winter in Hawaii.

Don’t forget, vote daily until Sept. 29 here.


  • Brownknees

    sweet……………