The unique and relatively unexplored waters of East Timor have inspired me to return to this young country to conduct field work for my PhD thesis. Unlike the first trip where the XL Catlin Seaview Survey conducted transects across the entire north coast, we will be focusing on the capital area of Dili to assess the coral health. Although the total population only amounts to 1.1 million people, a quarter of the population is housed in Dili. The effect of anthropogenic influences on coral reefs is a very complicated and relevant question, especially on the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific. For this work, I am aiming to determine whether corals living adjacent to highly populated areas in Dili are less healthy than reefs located farther outside of the capital such as Ataúro Island.
You might be asking yourself at this point, what is coral health and who cares? Corals are animals (not just colorful rocks) and have immune defenses just like people. In fact, recent research has shown that specific processes in coral immune systems are ancient versions of human immune systems. A major difference is that as sessile, or non-moving organisms, corals are at the mercy of their environment for their entire lives. This can be a significant factor toward decreased coral health if the environment promotes disease through factors such as poor water quality, sedimentation, and higher than normal temperatures that corals are unable to ‘escape’ from. Just like the annual flu season for people, there can be ‘outbreaks’ of coral disease under the right conditions. As coral reefs are currently facing a myriad of negative impacts from overfishing to climate change, understanding how to mitigate coral disease is an important step in ensuring the world’s reefs have a hopeful future.