Ocean Conservation Through Citizen Science


Photo by Milos Prelevic

Raise your hand if at least one of your childhood dreams involved you becoming a researcher, exploring uncharted territories, and unravelling some of nature’s biggest mysteries! Obviously, I can’t tell if you’ve raised your hand or not, but I can speak from my own experience and the small bubble of peers that surround me. For some, the dream of becoming an adventure-seeking researcher became reality, but most of us are actually stuck behind a desk, exploring spreadsheets rather than remote ecosystems. Fortunately enough, there is this great concept called citizen science which allows literally every single person on this planet to collect, submit, and sometimes even analyse data. Sounds too good to be true? Just wait until you find out just how easy it actually is.

Research projects around the world are relying on data. Data is key and the base for any credible study yet to be published. Without data we are nothing. Now the problem is that data does not collect itself. Especially for environmental and nature-based studies, huge data sets on both a timely and spatial scale need to be gathered in order to produce some kind of credible output. As you probably know, environmental issues do not enjoy the highest of financial support from governments, economies, or banks which often leaves them understaffed and without resources. And this is where we come in! Over the past decades citizen science approaches have really stepped up and changed the way data can be collected. But let’s dial back for a second and look at what citizen science actually is: Citizen science approaches and projects allow people from the public (you, me, your neighbour, …) to contribute to important research and make an impact. All we need is some simple guidelines provided by the entity collecting the data (instructions of what to look out for, handling of wildlife, support in documentation process, etc.) and, most importantly, you. Depending on the scope of the research, the data that is seeked after can be more elaborate, include photographs, or GPS coordinates. The procedures are usually very simple and easy to follow to allow as many people as possible to participate in such collective efforts – and to avoid errors by having too much and too complex data. The simpler, the better. In terrestrial environments citizen science has helped a lot in the past to monitor population stocks of certain species or mapping the routes of migratory birds. 

In marine environments, citizen science approaches are becoming more and more popular. And the great thing is that they can be easily integrated into the tourism industry. Let’s take the whole scuba diving business as an example. At the moment there are approximately 9 million active divers registered through official dive operators. Imagine all these people enjoying the underwater world through scuba diving on a regular basis. Now imagine what could happen if only a small share of these divers would become active citizen scientists. The amount of data that can be gathered would be immense! The best part about this example is, that scuba divers around the globe are already being mobilized through great initiatives such as the PADI Aware courses that focus on issues such as marine litter: A diver takes a bag and starts collecting rubbish that he or she finds throughout the dive. Back on land the trash can be categorised following an easy format and then submitted to the global initiative Dive Against Debris. This data is not only openly accessible to everyone with a stable WiFi connection, but also allows to gain a better picture on the type, the size, and the characteristics of found rubbish which can then in turn help scientists to find the source and eliminate the tap on land.

You are not a scuba diver but would love to get involved either way? No problem. The array of citizen science projects related to marine environments is immense. Let me give you another example: imagine you are on your beach vacation in some tropical destination and just went out for your afternoon snorkel session to explore the house reef. Wanting to show friends, family, and Instagram followers back home what an amazing and exciting life you are living, you obviously took your GoPro with you. On this particular afternoon you are extremely lucky and cross paths with a beautiful and really relaxed sea turtle. Not only is this turtle the perfect motive to send home, but at the same time you can collect valuable data on an endangered species and submit it to research projects. A lot of projects that study marine life use photo identification. Nature has been so kind and equipped various species with unique body paintings and markings. Taking our turtle as an example you can see that the facial scales on each side are quite unique-looking and actually help us to identify individuals and keep track of their movements and populations. Same accounts for manta rays which have a spot pattern on their ventral surface (fancy word for “belly”) which acts like a fingerprint. Whale Sharks have a beautiful spot pattern all over their bodies and by taking pictures of a specific area we can, again, identify the individuals. You might be wondering what use this type of data could be and you’d be surprised at how much research projects are relying on your contributions these days. Studying marine megafauna such as manta rays or whale sharks is time consuming and often tricky in terms of finding the animals as they move around a lot and the ocean is rather big. One researcher based on a small island with little to no fundings can not collect the data needed to produce some useful science which is needed to conserve these animals. But now imagine, that adding to this one scientist we have dive centres from other islands instructing their staff to also collect data on marine megafauna whenever they encounter any during dives or excursions. And then imagine these dive and tour operators would offer special courses, instructions, guidelines, and trainings to tourists who then again can collect data and might even continue doing so on their next tropical vacation. You see, a type of snowball effect is happening and all for the benefit of building large data sets. 

Me, personally, am a huge advocate for citizen science projects. Environmental issues are complex and often cover large timely and spatial scales which can hardly be tackled by only a few individuals. I like to think of citizen science approaches as a symbiotic relationship between “normal” people and science as both parties benefit from it. Obviously, the research projects receive huge sets of valuable data, but what is in it for the citizen scientist? Well, in addition to contributing to important and meaningful research, collecting, and submitting data is a hands-on learning experience that might lead individuals to understand complex natural connections better. Furthermore, it gives you a great feeling knowing that you are doing your part to make conservation efforts happening. 

So, you see it is fairly easy to get engaged in citizen science projects and let your inner researcher lose every now and again – especially when on vacation. There is always a way to get involved – maybe at your next destination check at the dive centre what specialty courses or initiatives they offer. I can guarantee you there will be a few to chose from. Or maybe they might even be able to refer you to local NGOs, introduce you to the sustainability initiatives the resort you’re staying at is involved in, or even have resident marine biologists on site who can give you plenty of information on how to start your holiday research. Trust me, once you get sucked into the world of citizen science it will shine a whole new light on how you perceive and interact with nature – in the most positive way.

Sea Going Green is a sustainable tourism consultancy that advocated for the conservation of marine species and biodiversity through our work with clients in the marine tourism industry to lower their environmental footprint and take care of the environment around them.

Is marine conservation a value that you’d like to incorporate into your business? Get in touch.

 Citizen science allows literally every single person on this planet to
collect, submit, and sometimes even analyse data. Sounds too good to be
true? Just wait until you find out just how easy it actually is.Read MoreSustainable LivingBlog – Sea Going Green


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