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Reef Encounters: Craig Humphrey

Craig Humphrey, Manager of the National Sea Simulator at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) tells us about the aims of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation program and his hopes for the future of The Great Barrier Reef.

What is your typical day?

I have one of the best jobs in the world. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) headquarters’ is in Townsville, North Queensland right next to the Great Barrier Reef. I get to dive this incredible icon, participate in amazing research helping to ensure the health of tropical marine ecosystems, and manage the most sophisticated marine experimental aquarium facility in the world – the National Sea Simulator (SeaSim). All this as well as meeting dedicated, committed and brilliant people who are passionate about protecting marine environments around the world.

My typical day can be quite diverse and will generally involve many very different tasks. These might range from diving on the Great Barrier Reef (unfortunately far too infrequently nowadays) to sitting at my desk responding to email, working on budgets and making sure that the facility keeps running.

  • Craig Humphrey image, Craig Humphrey, Christian Miller
    Craig Humphrey, Christian Miller

Time spent in the field is mostly on-board AIMS’ 24m research vessel, the RV Cape Ferguson. I’ll spend up to a week at sea diving and snorkelling to collect reef organisms for experiments back in the SeaSim. Recently we collected a range of coral species for the annual coral spawning which will support vital research at AIMS.

I’m extremely lucky that through my job I not only get to work alongside AIMS scientists, but I get to meet a wide range of different people from around the world, discussing their research, passions and commitment to protecting our oceans. AIMS and the SeaSim attracts people from all over the globe. Some of the many amazing people I’ve met over the past years have included indigenous students, school students, an Australian Prime Minister, international royalty and my boyhood idol Sir David Attenborough. These are just a few of the people I get to share my passion for coral reefs with.

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

I grew up in a small country town in Southern Australia of around 200 people, more than 2000 km from the Great Barrier Reef, completely outnumbered by dairy cows and kangaroos. At 17, after high school, I was looking for a change of scenery and ended up at James Cook University, arguably one of the world’s leading universities for coral reef studies, where I fell in love with the reef.

What inspires you in your work?

  • Craig Humphrey image 2, Craig Humphrey and water tank, Christian Miller
    Craig Humphrey and water tank, Christian Miller

I’ve spent the greater part of my life living and working on the Great Barrier Reef and visiting reefs in other parts of the Pacific. I’m continually excited by the beauty, colour and diversity of the numerous animals and plants that make up coral reefs. I’m inspired by the idea that the work I’m involved in is helping to protect these ecosystems so that my children and future generations may get the chance to see the beauty of these reefs and experience the joy that I have been so privileged to experience in my working life.

What would your take-home message for the future of reefs be?

There are many threats facing the world's reefs today, of which climate change is the most significant. If we don’t start acting to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions now then the reefs that we know today will be irrevocably changed. There is still time but we need to act now.

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

  • Craig Humphrey image 5 - Hard Corals, Hard Coral, Craig Humphrey
    Hard Coral, Craig Humphrey

My favourite creature would be the hard corals which are the key reef-building organisms. This symbiosis between the coral host and microscopic algae continuously surprises me. In particular, their behaviour during the annual spawning event never ceases to amaze. How do these extremely simple organisms know how to synchronously release eggs and sperm at the same time across the whole breadth of the reef? Not only do they know what month and day, they also know what hour of the night. Each species of coral have a particular day and hour after the full moon in November to release eggs and sperm to ensure the survival of the next generation of corals.

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

  • Craig Humphrey image 3 - Sea Cucumber, Sea Cucumber, Craig Humphrey
    Sea Cucumber, Craig Humphrey

Early on in my career, I was swimming across the reef when I came across a sea cucumber standing straight up off the sand with what appeared to be smoke coming out of what might be considered its head. This was the first time I had come across the spawning behaviour of sea cucumbers.

What kit do you use?

  • Craig Humphrey image 4 - Underwater Camera, Craig Humphrey using an underwater camera
    Craig Humphrey using an underwater camera

Canon G16 in a Nauticam housing with two Sola 2500/1200 Light & Motion video lights. This provides a nice balance between functionality and compactness.

What’s the next big thing for your work?

AIMS is currently leading a consortium of organisations in developing a Reef Restoration and Adaptation program, in which SeaSim will play a significant role. This program aims to bring together leading experts from Australia and around the world to help preserve and restore the Great Barrier Reef. We’ll be continually looking at developing new systems and methods to assist in research around this theme. This may involve a significant increase in the capacity of the facility for which we’ve started the initial planning.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

I guess it’s a bit of a cliché but Sir David Attenborough was my initial ‘reef hero’. For a boy growing up in rural Australia, the wonder of the reef (and many other wonderful ecosystems) bought to vibrant life in my living room by Sir David provided the beginning of a lifelong passion for nature. Since I started work as a marine biologist I developed an immense respect for researchers from around the world who have dedicated their lives to studying coral reefs in order to help preserve them for future generations.