The second Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour (LICRST) took place in October 2023, generously supported by the Corella Fund. The below account and reflections, written by the two teachers and 16 NSW biology students, highlight the exceptional educational experience the 7 day program offers.  

Sixteen students from across NSW and two teachers were lucky to be selected to spend a week on Lizard Island studying Coral Reef ecology and marine biology. A week that was to be filled with countless moments of awe, curiosity and non-stop learning. The willingness of Dr Andy Lewis and Dr Cristiano Damiano to share their extensive knowledge and passion about coral reefs and the marine environment was the driving factor behind the level of learning of this trip. From impromptu discussions in the kitchen while cooking breakfast to delivering lectures in the classroom environment, or even while floating in the ocean. We were all so fortunate to have these two as our trip leaders.

Being able to walk out of our classroom, put on a wetsuit, board our boats and be snorkelling on magnificent coral reefs in less than 15-20 minutes was mind-boggling. This provided the students with an unparalleled opportunity to make real world connections of the learning through exploration. It was awesome to see the high level of questioning that the students (and teachers) would then have for Dr Andy and Dr Cristiano. Every snorkel answered questions and led to more insight to this incredibly complex ecosystem. On some occasions the students would ask Dr Andy a question, and his response was, “we still don’t know the answer to that, maybe in a few years one of you might undertake that study for your PhD and answer it for us”. What an inspiring thought to have placed into the minds of these budding young scientists.

Video highlights of the study tour by Dr Andy Lewis

More video links at the bottom of this page.

Day 1 – Sunday 1st October – Excited, we flew out from Cairns. Met each other and the research station staff, were allocated our rooms and had dinner together. All students pitch in with the cooking and cleaning of each meal.

Day 2 – Monday 2nd October – An intro into the skills and practice of snorkelling from Dr Andy Lewis, before we jumped on the boats and took advantage of our highest tide of the week to snorkel amongst a blue water mangrove forest. We then were back in the boats and off to see our first taste of the Great Barrier Reef with a snorkel at Trawler beach. We then returned to the Station, had lunch and then a lecture from Dr Lewis on the Great Barrier Reef and Reef Geomorphology. We then snorkelled in Watsons Bay where the students had to manage writing on underwater slates while they collected data along transects, recording density of coral cover, fish abundance and the rugosity of the reef. After dinner we then gathered in the classroom and all the data was collated into a spreadsheet and graphed. This gave the students a better understanding of the interacting components of a reef system.

Day 3 – Tuesday 3rd October – We started with Dr Andy informing us of the two Category 4 cyclones that hit the island in 2014 and 2015, this was followed by the well publicised mass bleaching events of 2016 & 2017. We were then shown photos of the decimated reefs with almost zero coral cover. This was an incredibly sobering moment for us. Amazingly we then were taken to the same sight at North Point and were able to witness the incredible recovery power of a coral reef. We were snorkelling over an incredibly colourful coral reef with 100% cover in some areas. To think that this recovery has occurred in only six years is encouraging and demonstrates to us all how important it is to have protected marine areas. Today lunch was followed by a lecture on identifying reef fishes. Following this the students were back in the water at Clam Gardens with their slates and pencils again to draw and identify two species of fish from five different families, Damselfish, Parrotfish, Rabbitfish, Butterflyfish and Wrasses. After dinner we gathered in the classroom and used the Research Station library and the online Lizard Island Field Guide to identify the fish we had drawn. It is an incredible opportunity to be able to conduct field exercises and then draw on the accumulated knowledge of the research facility and staff, which this year has been operating for 50 years.

Amphiprion percula Eastern Clown Anemonefish

 

Day 4 – Wednesday 4th October – Calm conditions, snorkelling at south wall drop off. A quick stop at the deserted beach of South Island. Lecture on feeding habits of Butterflyfish, then a snorkel at Horseshoe Reef where students observed three different species of Butterfly fish and what they were feeding on.

Samples of students’ work

Day 5 – Thursday 5th October – Hike up Cook’s Look, the highest point on the island. We then collated yesterday’s data into a spreadsheet.  Dr Andy also gave an insightful talk into what level of data you would need to collect if you were to publish your research in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Then we had a snorkel at Osprey Reef with Dr Andy identifying coral species and other invertebrates.

The group on the top of Cook’s Look, the highest point on Lizard Island.

Day 6 – Friday 6th October – Straight after breakfast we went and had a snorkel at the lagoon entrance on a large bommie. A circular coral reef that was about 25 – 30m in diameter rising from 12-15m depth up to 1m depth. It was a spectacular site and it was excellent to see all the students snorkelling with confidence in water that was a bit choppier as the wind was stronger today. We then returned to the classroom where Dr Andy Lewis delivered a lecture on the invertebrates of Lizard Island, including the major families of corals and the competition between different types of corals. The talk also covered anemones, starfish urchins, feather stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, clams, octopus, cuttlefish, nudibranchs, shrimps and crabs. A comprehensive presentation that provided us with the knowledge to appreciate even more aspects of a coral reef during our next snorkelling session.

After lunch we were introduced to using digital cameras embedded with GPS to record coral cover percentage on a section of reef near Clam Gardens called Granite Wall. Dr Andy Lewis walked us through the method to ensure the scientific accuracy of our data and that there was no bias in our photographic record. After a very entertaining evening session where we got to view the students’ photos of the reef and themselves, these photos were then uploaded to Reef Cloud https://reefcloud.ai/ which uses AI to identify coral species and calculate coral cover. This was a great practical session where we all learnt just how many ways collecting data can go wrong, no GPS coordinates on the camera or measuring poles, camera straps and fingers obscuring the shot. The students had a great afternoon experiencing what it is like collecting data in the field. A real day in the life of a Marine Biologist. The fact that this data will be used in the future to measure coral growth made the exercise even more meaningful.

Kai swimming with a cuttlefish

Day 7 – Saturday 7th October – We have been blessed with great weather this week and today we took advantage of the conditions and took a dive boat to the Outer Reef to the world famous dive site, The Cod Hole. The trip across the ocean took just over an hour. The snorkel was fantastic, the clearest blue water we had experienced all week. It was interesting seeing the different species of fish and coral that were present on the outer reef compared to the reefs we have visited closer to the island. When we returned to the island the boats were pulled out of the water, a bit of a sad moment as it meant we would snorkel no more, and flying home tomorrow. In the afternoon we were lucky to have Dr Cristiana Damiano present a very informative lecture to the group on Shark and Turtle Biology.

Our last day was finished with a lovely BBQ on the beach in the evening.

On behalf of the two teachers and sixteen students who were provided with this opportunity, we would like to pass on our gratitude to the Australian Museum and the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation for making this trip possible. We would also like to thank the Lizard Island Research Station for hosting us. Thank you just doesn’t seem enough.
Simon Patterson (Science Teacher, Great Lakes College Senior Campus)

Potato Cod Epinephelus tukula

White Tip Reef Shark Triaenodon obesus

We would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the Lizard Island Group. We pay respect to the Dingaal People and Ngurrumungu People for sharing Jiigurru with us for the duration of the LICRST.

Without the determination of Dr. Anne Hoggett, the LICRST would not have been possible. We will be forever grateful for your hard work in gaining sponsors, organising the selection process for candidates and the study program. It needs to be acknowledged that Anne persisted with this pilot program for two years throughout the COVID pandemic to ensure the original selected participants could complete this tour. From all students and teachers, we are eternally grateful for your hard work and persistence to make your vision a reality. We hope that our pilot group becomes the inaugural LICRST group.

To Dr. Andy Lewis and Dr. Cristiana Damiano. We could spend hours thanking you for sharing your knowledge, skills and experience. Your support, both professionally and personally, for each and every one of us, has made the LICRST special, beyond comparison. To see how much we have appreciated your time and effort, please read below…

Thank you to all sponsors who made LICRST possible. In particular, we would like to thank the Lizard Reef Research Foundation and the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station for their involvement and support to make this study tour a success. We would also like to thank Dr. Lyle Vail, Ruth Carr and Arthur Davie, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running for the duration of the tour.

Personal reflections by the participants

What I thought I knew about coral reef ecosystems has certainly been altered after being exposed to the reefs around Lizard Island. I will still be teaching about the fragility of corals but will now be dispelling the misconceptions that corals are unable to recover after catastrophic events such as cyclones, COTS outbreaks or bleaching events. I will now be spreading the message that reef ecosystems are resilient, that they come back, that there is hope. I will be showing my students the same photos shown to us of the devastated reefs 7 years ago and then my own photos and videos from the vibrant reef systems here today.

Dr Lewis and Dr Damiano have an amazing ability to disseminate complex scientific research outcomes to students in an understandable and exciting way. Their energy and enthusiasm are infectious. Every conversation with them is enlightening, both the teachers and students hang on every word, impressed with their vast knowledge. The experiential education planned for the students included organised, thoughtful, and engaging practical activities.

Evolutionarily, cycles of destruction and regrowth have formed complex interactions between all organisms on the reef. Fatalistic viewpoints are portrayed in mass media, and even our current teaching resources. Upskilling teachers to be able to communicate the current science and reinforce the modern viewpoints of marine scientists is important. The resilience of reef systems, the need for more research to understand mechanisms such as recruitment and the fact that marine park conservation areas work, are key messages I will take back. I will certainly never look at reef fish assemblages the same again.

I can’t thank Dr Anne Hoggett enough for her vision for this program and the generous donors who brought it to fruition. As teachers, we will be communicating the importance of future research, development of marine parks, the reduction of carbon emissions and aquatic pollution to ensure the future health of these biodiverse ecosystems.
Barbara Brighton (Science Teacher, Sydney Technical High School)

Coming into the LICRST I didn’t know what to expect, following bleaching events and Crown-of-Thorns outbreaks, social media had portrayed the Great Barrier Reef of the past as dead and dying but on the plane from Cairns to Lizard I could already tell this was wrong. Under the professional teachings and guidance of Dr Andy Lewis and Dr Cristiana Damiano, I’ve not only learned but understood through guided observation, the complex recovery processes and competition that have shaped the truly amazing Lizard Island reefs since their essential reset from cyclones, bleaching and COTS outbreaks in the early 2010s. Day by day, each reef was spectacular, tens of green sea turtles feeding at arm’s reach and hundreds of species of incredible reef fish fighting to feed and maintain territory throughout the reef. Thank you Dr Anne Hoggett and everyone involved for the opportunity to Study Lizard Island’s biodiverse and scientifically critical reef, all whilst bringing me together with lifelong friends and giving me the life changing and lifelong memories of experiencing such a unique and beautiful marine world! Kai Hampson (Student)

The Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour was a truly phenomenal opportunity, one which took us out of the comfort and boredom of normality and into the fascinating lives of marine scientists. Andy and Chris did the most amazing job at engaging us every minute of the day, from pointing out the colourful rabbit fish to talking about their experiences in reef restoration. Not only did we have an unbelievable time with great weather and beach activities, but we also learned about the reef in an interactive experience that assisted our biology understanding to a depth that could not have been possible in the classroom. The extraordinary biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef on Lizard Island was a testament to the vast number of wonders within the subject of marine biology. And I am so grateful that I was able to experience it here with the support of the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation! Rebecca Ju (Student)

Lizard Island is such an amazing place and this was such an incredible and eye-opening experience that will be remembered for a long time. Snorkelling on the reef everyday teaches you so much and the knowledge of the scientists is extensive leading to lots of learning. I have made lots of great friends on this trip and have made memories that will last a lifetime. Otis Waratah (Student)

This study tour has been extremely eye opening on how the reef is able to recover after natural disturbances. My favourite part of the experience was snorkelling with the many green turtles that feed around the island. A big thank you to Dr Andy for organising and guiding us both in and out of the water and teaching us invaluable knowledge about one of Australia’s natural wonders. Ema Thompson (Student)

Seeing the recovery of the reef first hand has been eye opening and a contrasting perspective to what I’ve heard from the media and news articles. Coral reefs are extremely complex, vital to the marine environment and have an amazing ability to adapt. Dr Andy has been so knowledgeable and through showing us these reef ecosystems, I understand their resilience and flexibility and have hope for the future of this stunning reef system. This trip, which would not be possible without Dr Hogget, has been an amazing opportunity and being out in the ocean each day, I couldn’t stop smiling. I am extremely grateful for The Coral Reef Study Tour which has provided me with a valuable insight into tropical reef biology. Looking ahead, this trip has strengthened my interests in tropical marine biology and I am eager to educate others and contribute to preserving and restoring the coral reefs, ensuring the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef remains for future generations. Katie Cimilli (Student)

Being able to be involved in the Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour has allowed me to learn and gain a deeper understanding of coral reefs and the complexity of their structure. Being a part of this trip has allowed me to see so many marine animals and ecosystems I wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to see or spend so much time in such an amazing place. This trip has let me meet so many new people who I have shared this experience with. I would like to thank the Australian Museum and Kate for offering this trip and LIRS, Anne, Lyle, Kris, Andy & Naomi for facilitating the trip. Natalie Hay (Student)

Experiencing Lizard Island for a week is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s not often you get the chance to snorkel on a new reef every day, meet an awesome group of like-minded people and spark an interest in marine biology all in one place. My highlights have been swimming with the turtles near the clam gardens and the boat rides with Andy. So stoked to have been privileged enough to be on the 2023 trip, can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested. Lizard Island is a truly incredible place, a huge thank you to everyone involved in getting us here. Elani Plummer (Student)

The Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour has been such an amazing trip that I am extremely grateful to have been a part of. It was an incredible experience filled with guided snorkels, lectures and more and I enjoyed it so much! The trip leaders were absolutely amazing and helped me understand the Great Barrier Reef so much more than I ever could have. They pointed out and showed me so many small details about the reef as well as complex interactions between organisms that I would have never noticed without them. I especially enjoyed being able to learn in an environment other than the traditional classroom setting and thought it was really cool to see what was shown on paper in person only minutes apart. I was inspired by the knowledge of Dr Lewis, Dr Damiano and D. Hoggett who were frequently teaching the group both in the water and classroom. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity which has provided me with life long memories and definitely wish to revisit the island in later years. Thank you so much to everyone who made the trip possible. It is such an incredible program and has taught and offered me so much. Thank you! Mia Marzic (Student)

This was one of the most interesting trips I have ever been on that definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one. Having the chance to stay at and experience such a beautiful place was truly rewarding along with lectures that ranged from identifying fish species and coral reefs. Going out and seeing the reefs in action was an eye-opening experience and one that I greatly recommend everyone experience at least once in their life. Andy, Anne, Cristiana, Naomi and Kate also worked to help organise and make this week as enjoyable as possible and they are all amazing and supportive people. Jessica Sengmany (Student)

From the Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour 2023 my scope on the unique ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef has been entirely transformed. Prior to the trip, I was absolutely oblivious to the truly complex nature of this unique biome and its significance within the aquatic realm. All the teachers and educators on the trip have expanded my knowledge on marine and coral life exponentially. Much further than ever could be achieved in a traditional setting. Having the opportunity to witness this complex network personally has reignited my passion in conservation biotechnology. I now hope to specifically work in the realm of the development/use of marine science conservation biotechnology to aid in the increasing coral bleaching events. It is because of this trip that these profound organisms now hold great significance to me and have guided me to pursue my passion in protecting them. Thank you to the donors, teachers and Anne for making this trip possible! Teagan Vernon (Student)

Knowledge is a powerful skill that the LIRS has full throttle provided. There was never a dull moment and the learning never stopped. We snorkelled daily, and put into action the educational lectures about the reef and ecosystems that have helped the rebirth of the Great Barrier Reef. I really enjoyed the presentation Anne Hoggett gave about what has impacted the reef and how it is slowly recovering to the healthier reef we get to see. This tour has furthered my knowledge with great lectures from Dr Andy Lewis and then putting it into practice with the help of Dr Christiana Damiano (Chris) and Naomi. Everybody has been awesome and made the experience a million and one times better than I could have expected. The two teachers that also came along, Barbara and Simon, have been great additions to the tour, adding on their own knowledge and contributing to the education of the tour. We also were lucky to have Kate Hayward, a main volunteer to the Island, come on the trip with us. She provided greater insight as to the importance and speciality of the tour and island. I am thankful for the opportunity which has immersed myself straight into the functions of the reefs and ocean, and will forever remain grateful for the experience.  Jasmine (Student)

I’ve loved the ocean for as long as I can remember, and this trip has been absolutely incredible. Since stepping off the light aircraft and onto Lizard Island, every moment has been full of excitement and learning, and I’ve been spellbound with awe more times than I can count. The reef is so complex, and between all the snorkelling and the lectures, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation of this. Something interesting I’ve learnt is that some damselfish farm algae and guard their territory very fiercely, and it’s so cool to be able to directly apply this knowledge in the truly immersive classroom of the reef by spotting certain species and interactions. Practical exercises like transects and observing butterflyfish feeding have shown me some of the challenges when collecting data and studying reefs. We also learnt about the Indigenous history of Jiigurru (Lizard Island) and hiked to Cook’s Look just as James Cook would have done in 1770. None of this would have been possible without the expertise and insight of Dr Andy Lewis, Dr Cristiana Damiano, and Naomi Longa. Massive thanks to each of them. This trip has shown me just how valuable the work done at the Station is – and more broadly, the whole field of marine biology – in preserving the reefs and understanding them better. Thank you to Dr Anne Hoggett and Dr Lyle Vail for facilitating this experience and supporting us since even before the tour. I hope I can return someday as a fully-fledged scientist and see these reefs again. Evelyn Zhu (Student)

Participating in LICRST was an eye-opening experience. I never truly understood the intricacies of coral reefs until I witnessed their extent first hand. What amazed me most was their remarkable ability to recover from adversity. Exploring these underwater worlds and diving into the waters which many species call the reef their home was nothing short of a thrilling adventure. From snorkelling and swimming with turtles and even free diving alongside sharks, each moment was unforgettable. One of the best parts of this journey was building connections with individuals and the other students who share a similar passion for marine life.  However the best part of the trip was the dinghy Sarah, who made travelling around reef to reef a unique experience. The research tour profoundly influenced my perspective on marine conservation, leaving me forever grateful for this transformative opportunity. I would also like to say a huge thank you to everyone on and involved in this trip. Khoi Donarski (Student)

The true beauty of Lizard Island, the Great Barrier Reef and its endless reefs can only be truly understood when viewed firsthand. Upon arrival on Jigurru, the spectacular turquoise waters and intriguing reefs and underwater landscapes encaptured us all, as we questioned how we had been so blessed to be surrounded by such a pristine, beautiful environment. As we learnt, studied and explored the many reefs and landscapes of the island thanks to the Lizard Island Coral Reef Study Tour 2023, under the expert mentorship of Dr Lewis and his legendary team, we developed a deeper connection, understanding and respect for the reef. The beauty and intricate processes of the corals, marine animals and the natural environment have inspired us to continue our exploration of the reef through our education, to help this incredible natural environment to thrive and prosper into the future. Liam Lehane (Student)

Being able to attend the coral reef study tour at Lizard Island has been the best experience in my life and has taught and open my eyes to multiple opportunities there is when studying marine biology. From the insightful lectures to the engaging pracs of snorkelling twice a day to multiple different reefs I was able to understand a marine biology career thoroughly. Through the program I have become clearer upon the issues that the reefs face and only a couple of days in, my passion for marine science only grew. Thank you so much to the scientists Dr Andy Lewis, Dr Christina Damiano, Ms Naomi Longa who have taught us everything about reefs and the different types of species of marine animals. This educational trip has allowed me to gain knowledge and experience about marine science and I feel prepared to begin my career as a marine scientist. I just want to thank Kate who is a volunteer who has helped get sponsors to contribute to fund the program that has allowed me to go on the amazing experience. Also a big thankyou to Anne Hoggett and Lyle Vail who has welcomed us on Lizard Island and allowed us to come and learn on the reefs. And thank you so much to all the people and sponsors who supported the program. This has been a once in a lifetime experience. Thank You so much!! Deanna Simione (Student)

My trip to Lizard Island was an incredible and eye opening experience, the insane natural beauty and biodiversity of the reef was more than I could have ever imagined. Our snorkelling trips with surveying practicals in combination with lectures from the amazing team facilitated my understanding of the reef’s species, recovery processes and interactions.  Overall, this trip was such an amazing opportunity that I can hardly put into words, but I’m sure that I won’t shut up about it to my friends and family for years. It was so insanely cool, I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time. This experience was not just enjoyable; it was undeniably beneficial, expanding my knowledge of marine ecosystems and fostering a deep appreciation for conservation efforts. I wholeheartedly recommend this trip to anyone seeking an unforgettable and educational adventure. Alice Campbell (Student)

 

A video by student Kai Hampson (Student, Northern Beaches Secondary College Manly Campus)