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At Work Among the Coral Reefs

WWF's Helen Fox is working to protect marine resources for generations to come


WWF scientist Helen Fox in the waters of Raja Ampat

I bite off a piece of toast and check my watch. Almost 8 am. Time to grab my gear and start the first round of surveys. I climb down the ladder and take my seat. I check my tank, hold onto my mask and lean backwards off the edge of the boat. Splash.

For the past two weeks I have been surveying the reefs of the Raja Ampat islands and observing the health of the corals. The islands lie off the tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua, Indonesia—a marine oasis in the Coral Triangle. I am part of a joint initiative of WWF, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy to assess the state of coral reefs in sites outside marine protected areas (MPAs). We have a lot of information on reefs within MPAs—but we must gather data from areas outside MPAs for comparison’s sake.

As the bubbles dissipate, I get my bearings and slowly descend to 40 feet. A handful of small yellow fish scatter beneath me as I reach the top of the reef. A sea fan bends gracefully in the current, as if waving hello. I scan the multicolored sponges and corals beneath me and locate the bright white measuring tape transecting the reef, laid earlier by my research colleague.

For the next twenty minutes or so, I’ll swim along this line, pausing every couple feet to record what’s there— algae, sponge, soft coral, hard coral. Along another transect line I’ll focus just on corals, counting how many different types I see and recording their size.


An abundance of large and diverse corals will indicate this is a healthy, mature reef. Less diversity and more “weedy,” fast-growing species are typical of a recovering reef. Certain corals are resistant to bleaching and their presence in the survey will tell us about the reef’s resilience.

A school of bumphead parrotfish gnaws on a patch of nearby coral and distracts me from my transect. This feeding behavior helps produce the white sand that ends up on nearby beaches. I’ve only seen a few of their larger cousins, the humphead wrasse. There haven’t been many large fish on the reefs—especially predators like sharks—as the region suffers from overfishing. The protected areas in Raja Ampat were created to allow fish numbers—like humphead wrasse— to recover and to provide more fisheries benefits to local communities. We hope the information gathered on this trip in these non-protected sites will show the value of MPAs over time.

As I finish up today’s surveying, I realize it was my 1000th dive. Hard to believe, as I’ve spent so much time in front of a computer in recent years. To be out in the field, diving and seeing the wonder and beauty of a place like Raja Ampat, reassures me that the work we’re doing will help protect these valuable resources for generations to come.

Helen Fox is Director of Marine Science at WWF-US