Monday, January 7, 2019

Citizen Science

What does Citizen Science mean? Citizen Science is scientific research conducted by non-professional scientists. What does this mean? It means that everybody can help in collecting data for a specific research topic. Citizen Science is not a specific thing from the diving industry or within the marine biology community, but is a general thing for every kind of research. There are Citizen Science projects in astronomy and butterfly counts. The good thing about Citizen Science is, that everybody without special skills or specific knowledge can help in a research project. This helps the researcher collect a big amount of data from all over the world and much faster compared to if they would have collect all this data by themselves.

The marine biology community and the dive industry have some Citizen Science projects as well. ConnectOcean work hard on a few of them. We also initiated some projects. More about them later.  We have a multitude of projects that all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle! Our projects engage participants with hands-on place-based learning through data collection aimed towards conservation of our oceans. 

One of the projects is the Marine life census. In this project, we collect data through roving fish surveys, Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations (BRUVS) and laser photogrammetry units. The Baited Remote Underwater Video Station is Video Station who is placed on the bottom of the ocean or free flowed in midwater or nearly on the surface. The Camera is focused on the bait and records all kind of fish who come and investigate the station. Back in the office we review the footage and count all fish by species in the video. This information is really valuable for us because it tells us which species are living in this area and how many they are. And this without disturbing the fishes. We try to use the station as often as possible and send it out on the different dive sites while we are diving.

We use the laser photogrammetry units to measure sharks, rays, and turtles. The Laser photogrammetry unit is designed by our partners at Ocean First Institute. The laser dots accurate a frame of calibrated 50 cm. We can record these laser dots with a Go-Pro Camera and process the footage afterword in the office. For example, to measure a shark, point them to two laser dots in a 90° angle on the shark and records this with the Go-Pro. Back in the office upload the footage on your computer and start the measuring software. With this software is it now possible to measure the shark on the non-invasive way. We try to bring the laser units to every dive and collect as much data as possible. If you dive with ConnectOcean, you get the possibility to help in a Citizen Science Project and can help us measure sharks and rays and conduct a roving fish survey. 

The Photo ID database of Oceanic Manta Rays Project is a project where we collaborate with MantaTrust. ConnectOcean is Costa Rica’s regional liaison MantaTrust. The general idea is to upload pictures of Oceanic Manta Rays from all over the world in a database. Oceanic Manta Rays have unique markings on their abdomen, like a fingerprint. This fact allows us to identify and track individuals. The logarithm in a software helps us to identify individuals through "face perception" with their marks on their abdomen. It allows us, when divers from all over the world upload their pictures from Oceanic Manta Rays, to follow the individuals and learn more about their movement and their migration. We collect as much data as possible from the dive center up and down the Costa Rica's Pacific Coast to populate the database we house and update. 

We also collect data on Vessels and user groups of the waters surrounding the Las Catalinas Islands. We try to write down and identify all types of vessel that we see during our dives in this region. For example, how many fishing boats can we spot and what kind of fishing boat is it? Is it a commercial fishing boat with longlines or is it a small artisinal fishing boat owned by a local fisherman?  By layering the data from our fish surveys and vesselsurveys and combining the results we can see correlations and maybe draw some conclusions. For example, if we don’t spot any sharks in a particular area but many longline fishing boats, we can interpret it as the fishing boats fishing for the sharks. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to talk with the fishermen from the community and we may be able to negotiate with them for temorary non-fishing areas to protect the species in there, so they have the chance to multiply themselves again and restore the population. 

We work on an application where all this Citizen Science Project get combined. The generation from today spends so much time on their smartphone. If we want attention from this generation and engage them in these issues we have to keep up with the time. The idea is to build an application that everybody can download for a small amount of money. With this money future project can be financed. The application is divided in four topics. Photo ID for Oceanic Manta rays, Collecting Data on vessels, Laser photogrammetry, and Marine life census. Anyone who has downloaded the application can now collect data and upload the pictures and counts. All these information helps us, to understand more about the marine life and why at some places just a small amount of fish can be found. With all these data and together with the local community, we may be able to build a marine reserve like Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo and protect the local marine life.

The Citizen Science Projects initiated by ConnectOcean are 5 place-based learning excursions to engage participants of all ages.

1)      Sources of the sea – During this excursion the participants explore the rivers and looking for macro invertebrate indicator species. We start Program in the Monte Verde Cloud Forest and follow the rivers down to the Guanacaste Coast.

2)      Intertidal Explorer – In this course the participants learn more about the five tidal zones (splash zone, high tide zone, mid tide zone, low tide zone and submerge zone) and the different species who live in the different zones. Part of the course is as well to investigate the species with microscopes and magnifying glasses. So, you get a closer look at these fascinating animals and their adaption to their environment. We also talk about the challenges and benefits of living in each zone.

3)      Mangrove Explorer – This course is linked to the Source of Sea Course. Because the rivers who are coming from the mountains cross the Mangrove Forests before entering the sea. In this course, we take small river boats and explore and experience the mangroves. During this trip the participants learn more about the importance of the mangroves. On one hand, the mangroves buffers storms and flooding who comes from the ocean and on the other hand the mangroves and their root system creating a nursery habitat for marine species to grow.

4)      Reef Explorer – The participants will go snorkeling in this course and explore the Reefs next to the beach. Here in Costa Rica, we don't have the typical coral reefs, they are made up of volcanic rocks. It is a habitat for a few species of corals as well as coralline algae. During this course, we learn more about the species who live in this area and how they interact to create a unique ecosystem.

5)      Open Ocean Explorer – Even though the ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and it makes 99% of the earth’s living place, only 10% has been explored by humans. In this course, we dive into the depths to see and track species and learn more about their interesting adaption they use to survive. We discuss ocean life and migratory species. And we can combine this course with a laser photogrammetry dive and measure sharks and rays.
Through all these courses a bunch of data can be collected for these different ecosystems. And all this without special skills or specific knowledge. And data collection has never been so much fun as with these projects. During these courses, you learn more about the different ecosystems get to experience amazing environments and at the same time you help to protect them. That's just great. 

 During our internship here with ConnectOcean, we are involved in all these projects. And we help to teach the participants. But to be able to teach, first, we have to learn more about these ecosystems. We join all the lessons from our Instructors when they are teaching to listen and to learn. Like with the kids from Futuro Brillantes who did the intertidal explorer (see the post before).

On the majority of our dives we bring laser photogrammetry units. We have learned how to handle and prepare the units, and how to control and calibrate the laser dots. One day we went with clients to Las Catalinas Islands to measure sharks and rays. The clients did this dive as part of the citizen's science program. On the dives we saw a guitar shark, different types of rays and seven whitetip reef sharks. We were able to measure some of them, and that is what we try to do on most of our dives. 

One day we teached five students as a part of their Open Ocean Explorer Level 2 Course how to build up the Baited Remote Underwater Video Station and to place it in the water. 

We also showed them how to use the laser photogrammetry unit. We did an exercise where the students had so measure a shark in the pool. Since there are no sharks in our pool, Matthias acted as shark for the students and they tried to measure him with the laser photogrammetry unit. After the pool session, we uploaded our footage on the computer and measured Matthias body size. 

The students saw how important it is to measure in a 90° angle and that it can be very difficult to see the laser dots in the video. But they goy super excited to try it out on a real shark in the ocean.  

One week later they got that opportunity. When we went diving to complete their Ocean Explorer course together with their Shark Aware Speciality Course we encountered several white tip reef sharks and the students got the opportunity to measure them. It was such a memorable experience and hopefully they now have more knowledge about why it's important and how to protect the apex predators of our oceans; our friends, the sharks. 

After two successful dives we had happy students and four new certified Ocean Explorer Level 2 divers!

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