When marine biologist and explorer Dr Emma Camp was growing up in urban England, the ocean was not a big part of her life. But that all changed when she went on a family holiday to the Bahamas as a child.
“My mum didn’t swim and my dad had ear problems, but he wanted to take me snorkelling. I remember thinking that above the water you can’t see anything but under the water you could see this beautiful reef. That was a pivotal moment.”
While studying for a science degree at Belmont College in the US, Camp was awarded a research internship that saw her travel to the Cayman Islands. It was there she immersed herself in coral reef science and started to learn more about how they were being damaged or lost due to climate change and other human impacts.
More than half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost since 1950 and there are predictions that they could all be gone by 2030. But in 2016, Camp led a dive team in New Caledonia that discovered 20 species of coral living in murky mangrove swamps—in conditions that were previously thought to be too warm and toxic for them to survive in.
Researchers had discovered these kinds of corals before, Camp says, but they hadn’t been linked to the continued survival of coral reefs elsewhere. For her, these “super corals” were a glimmer of hope because they might be able to adapt to the conditions that humans were creating: rising temperatures, acidification and very low oxygen levels.
“I’m trying to understand how and where they exist and why, and to help find new ways to manage reefs given the threats they’re experiencing and are likely to continue experiencing if we don’t change.”
In 2019, Camp was named a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate and the financial support she received allowed her to continue her research. That same year, her team discovered two more highly resilient habitats in the Great Barrier Reef. They are studying the behaviour and genetic makeup of these corals to explore their potential to help repopulate reefs affected by disease or bleaching (where corals expel the bacteria that sustain them, turning bone-white as they starve).
Camp is quick to point out that reducing emissions and other pollutants is the best way to save the world’s coral reefs. But that isn’t happening fast enough. Global carbon emissions bounced back to record levels in 2022 after a Covid-related dip in 2020 and that’s why her research and the research of other scientists is so crucial.
“This can help buy time for the reefs, so that in time we get the policy and action we need on climate change.”
Camp, who is now the team leader of the Future Reefs Programme at the University of Technology Sydney, says being a Rolex Laureate has certainly helped increase the awareness of her research and the plight of coral reefs. Greater awareness tends to lead to more action and, in Australia, where many had been calling for a ban on a huge new coal mine in Queensland that would have increased emissions and further imperilled the Great Barrier Reef, growing environmental concerns played a crucial role in political change.
Being part of a network of other Laureates who are using science to solve global problems has also been a great benefit.
“It’s a bit of a family, really… In this era, scientists globally need to work together, and work with industry and other stakeholders. Global challenges, like climate change or loss of biodiversity, require connection not just to scientists but to other disciplines to get the solutions we need.”
On the Great Barrier Reef, Camp has also walked the collaborative talk with the tourism industry and was a co-founder of the Coral Nurture Program, which aims to protect, plant and propagate coral.
Eco-tourism operators are dependent on a healthy reef system, so they are playing an important role in research—and restoration.
“As scientists we can learn a lot from the people who have been out there for a long time.”
So far, she says, more than 76,000 corals have been planted in areas that have been damaged or affected by bleaching events or death since 2018.
Camp says it’s a privilege to work in this field and she hopes her research will play a role in ensuring this generation doesn’t have to say “we lost the coral reefs”—and the ecosystems and livelihoods they supported.
“I love it. And I feel that I can make a difference. I might not do the pivotal bit of research that saves the reefs but if I can inspire anyone to know more about why reefs are important and how to conserve reefs and our environment, then it’s worth it. It’s an honour to feed back into the knowledge that society ultimately needs.”
While she finds her work rewarding, it is also “emotionally turbulent” because of the stark reality we face.
“There are places that I’ve studied for years that have had a bleaching event. I’ve put all this effort in, trained up students, employed staff to work on this problem and yet it’s still happening, despite our best efforts.”
Unlike a marine reserve, where the health of an ecosystem can be improved by protecting a specific area or animal, cooling the water down or reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean is not so simple. There are bigger, systemic issues at play and many of them—like agricultural runoff—are interlinked and exacerbate the stresses on coral that are caused by climate change.
Some climate change solutions (like geoengineering or carbon capture) were seen as extreme a few years ago, but they are becoming more palatable as the level of desperation rises, Camp says. And the same is true when it comes to the idea of transplanting coral species and repopulating reefs, something that has been done successfully on numerous occasions in the Caribbean.
“There is a real focus from researchers, especially at the Great Barrier Reef, on the potential for loss. The pendulum has shifted from research being done to look at the problem, to research that translates to real world benefits, impacts and conservation.”
Every superhero has its kryptonite, however, so she says the question is ‘How super is the super coral going to be?’ And ‘should humans be intervening in and influencing these complex ecosystems?’
“We need that knowledge before we decide that human intervention is the best approach,” she says. “Ninety-nine per cent of the coral community are united on the impact of climate change [on reefs], but they are divided when it comes to intervention and whether scientists should be doing something to help them. There are some who see it as being a distraction from climate change, but the majority realise we may need to do something eventually.”
While she says we may not need to do anything right now, we do need to have enough scientific knowledge behind us to “ensure we do the best that we possibly can if interventions are required to preserve reefs in the future.”
Despite the ongoing loss of coral reefs, she remains optimistic. Camp regularly speaks about her research at schools and she says young people know a lot more about the threats to the ocean and to the broader environment than she did at a similar age.
Their understanding of the issues, their drive for more action, their changing consumer choices and the way they’re voting give her confidence that “if our generation doesn’t quite get it right, then the future generations are going to”.
Camp has also attended two UN Climate conferences. “We’ve been hearing about what needs to happen for a long time,” she says. Now it’s time for change.
“If we were having this conversation and the reefs were dead or we only had five per cent of the Great Barrier Reef left I wouldn’t be as optimistic. We have a real cohesion and networks of scientists working on these problems, along with other industries, and we know what the problem is. If we were losing reefs and we didn’t know why, that would be terrifying. They’re not easy problems to solve but we do have the capacity to do it.”