My Road to Reefs

Two butterfly fish swim among the branches of an A cropora palmata  colony.

Two butterfly fish swim among the branches of an Acropora palmata colony.

The photos on this page are my first ever underwater images, taken during my semester abroad in Bocas del Toro, Panama in Spring 2016. Although I look back at them now and regret their relatively poor quality and minimally-thought-out composition, they represent an incredibly important turning point in my career and life.

From my first snorkeling expedition in Panama when I caught a glimpse of the underwater world for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the beauty and diversity of the tropical coral reef ecosystem around me. Teeming with life great and small, from huge, branching, tree-like coral colonies to stout, rainbow-colored parrotfish to urchins with sharp spines as long as steak knives to tiny shrimp hiding in every little crevice, I had never seen a place so stunning and fascinating as a coral reef.

Boulder brain coral ( Colpophyllia natans ).

Boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia natans).

A nurse shark ( Ginglymostoma cirratum ) swims over a patch of elkhorn coral ( Acropora palmata ).

A nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) swims over a patch of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata).

I soon learned that in tropical marine environments, the three primary ecosystem types - coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests - are closely interconnected and essential for supporting coastal communities. 

Together, they provide nurseries and habitat for countless species of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and echinoderms that sustain livelihoods and serve as primary sources of protein for millions of people that live by the sea. They stabilize marine sediments and protect coastlines from waves, erosion, and storm damage. They create beautiful, diverse, aesthetically-pleasing underwater scenes that attract tourists from across the globe and generate billions of dollars for local economies annually. 

To my dismay, I also learned that coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves are all under threat in Panama and around the world by human activities such as overfishing, nutrient pollution, and coastal development. In addition, each of these ecosystems is impacted by global climate change, particularly in the form of ocean warming and acidification.

In order to maintain the essential ecosystem services that coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves provide, scientists, government officials, and local stakeholders need to work together. Local conservation and management actions coupled with global efforts to combat climate change will be essential for protecting and restoring habitats in danger of being damaged or lost.

A young hawksbill sea turtle ( Eretmochelys imbricata ) rests on the reef.

A young hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) rests on the reef.

A massive, healthy colony of  Orbicella faveolata , also known as the mountainous star coral.

A massive, healthy colony of Orbicella faveolata, also known as the mountainous star coral.

A southern stingray ( Hypanus americanus ) rustles up the sediment on a seagrass bed.

A southern stingray (Hypanus americanus) rustles up the sediment on a seagrass bed.

Two grey angelfish ( Pomacanthus arcuatus ).

Two grey angelfish (Pomacanthus arcuatus).

I was totally hooked. It sounds cliche, but as I floated above the bustling schools of iridescent fish and dove down to investigate spotted lobsters under a ledge, I just had this overwhelming feeling that I belonged in the ocean, that I needed to keep diving for the rest of my life, and most of all that I needed to dedicate my studies and my work to protecting and preserving extraordinary scenes like this for generations to come.

I borrowed an old SeaLife point-and-shoot camera to take on every snorkel or dive, and snapped thousands of photos of pretty much every living thing I saw amidst Bocas del Toro’s reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds. The vast majority of those photos were sadly out of focus or poorly lit, since I had no education on the challenges of shooting underwater. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be able to share images of the animals and scenes I witnessed with family, friends, and people back home who had never taken a breath through a snorkel or regulator, let alone laid eyes on a coral reef. I wanted so badly to share my newfound passion with everyone I could.

There is perhaps no better way to captivate a diverse audience than through the lens of a camera. Since ecosystems below the ocean’s surface remain out of sight and often out of mind, underwater images reveal their beauty and vulnerability while igniting a viewer’s desire to preserve them. Films and photographs serve as uniquely persuasive tools for communicating the urgency of threats facing marine organisms. They tell vivid, compelling narratives, evoking an emotional response and spurring viewers to take action.

While I slowly began to use social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to educate about threatened marine species and champion ocean conservation, I hoped to expand my use of media and imagery to serve as a better advocate for the underwater world I loved so dearly. I aspired to take photographs and make short films that communicated the importance of marine resources and helped motivate the next generation of ocean researchers, policy-makers, activists, and conscious consumers.

A snorkeler dives down to get a better view of the reef.

A snorkeler dives down to get a better view of the reef.

A bluehead wrasse ( Thalassoma bifasciatum ) seeks shelter amidst the branches of an elkhorn coral ( Acropora palmata ) colony.

A bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) seeks shelter amidst the branches of an elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) colony.

As soon as I (reluctantly) bid farewell to my underwater friends and left Panama, I applied for graduate school, intent on pursuing a Ph.D. studying coral reef conservation while continuing to share my experiences with a broad audience. Today, as I am about to finish the second year of my Ph.D. at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the reefs of Panama feel like a distant memory. However, I know I owe everything I’m doing now to those early days of curiosity and discovery.

A batwing coral crab ( Carpilius corallinus ) stands beside a colony of knobby brain coral ( Pseudodiploria clivosa ) amidst a seagrass bed.

A batwing coral crab (Carpilius corallinus) stands beside a colony of knobby brain coral (Pseudodiploria clivosa) amidst a seagrass bed.

An octopus camouflages while crawling along the ocean floor.

An octopus camouflages while crawling along the ocean floor.

Colpophyllia natans,  also known as the boulder brain coral.

Colpophyllia natans, also known as the boulder brain coral.

A moon jelly ( Aurelia aurita )

A moon jelly (Aurelia aurita)

A flamingo tongue snail ( Cyphoma gibbosum ) clings to a purple sea fan ( Gorgonia ventalina ).

A flamingo tongue snail (Cyphoma gibbosum) clings to a purple sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina).

A cushion star ( Oreaster reticulatus ) amidst a seagrass bed.

A cushion star (Oreaster reticulatus) amidst a seagrass bed.

Many diverse species of branching, boulder, and soft corals in one reef.

Many diverse species of branching, boulder, and soft corals in one reef.

A stoplight parrotfish ( Sparisoma viride )

A stoplight parrotfish (Sparisoma viride)

A moon jelly ( Aurelia aurita )

A moon jelly (Aurelia aurita)

A school of Caribbean reef squid ( Sepioteuthis sepioidea )

A school of Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea)

A nurse shark ( Ginglymostoma cirratum )

A nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum)

An octopus crawls beneath colonies of elkhorn coral ( Acropora palmata )

An octopus crawls beneath colonies of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)

Mangrove roots are nurseries for a vast array of juvenile fish..

Mangrove roots are nurseries for a vast array of juvenile fish..

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Like this article? Want to learn more? Email Liv at olivia.williamson@rsmas.miami.edu to get a quick response.

For more information on my story or my research, please visit livwilliamson.com.

All the best,

-Liv


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