[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Reef Encounters: Dr James Guest

Marine biologist, Dr James Guest, who works at Newcastle University, tells us about his work focusing on tropical reef research, understanding how reefs regenerate and recover.

What is your typical day?

Currently, I am the lead researcher on a five year project called CoralASSIST that aims to examine the feasibility of an approach called coral assisted gene flow. I am interested to know whether it is really possible to seed areas of reef with corals that are more tolerant to thermal stress and what risks and trade-offs are involved.

My time is split between the office and the field. In the office, my day involves writing papers and grant proposals, discussing and designing experiments, ordering equipment and materials and all the mundane stuff involved in running a research project (this probably takes up 70% of my time).

The rest of the time is spent in the field - this is the fun part of my job - as it involves diving and snorkelling on reefs to set up experiments, or doing experiments in aquarium tanks, collecting coral spawn, rearing coral larvae and monitoring the results of long term studies.  

  • Brain coral, Brain coral underwater, Pixabay CC.0
    Brain coral underwater, Pixabay CC.0

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area?

I went snorkelling on holiday in Croatia when I was about 8 or 9, then I learned to dive in England when I was 17. I became completely hooked on diving from that age.

I then got a job as a photographer on a ship and I started diving on reefs in the Caribbean and taking underwater pictures. Eventually I returned to the UK and took my degree in marine biology at Newcastle University, an institution that has a long tradition of doing work on tropical coral reefs.

I was particularly fascinated by corals because they are really simple organisms, but they build these amazing, diverse and beautiful ecosystems. During my summer holidays at University I went to Central America to survey coral reefs and that was really my first step into the world of coral reef research.

What inspires you in your work?

The scientific process and finding out things about the how the world works.

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

Well, things look very bad for reefs and much has been lost for ever.

There is still time to turn things around, but there has to be more action now if we want to conserve coral reefs in the future.

This has to start with further reducing greenhouse gas emissions in tandem with much better local management. There may also be some innovative techniques we could try to help corals adapt, but much research is still needed before they can be applied. 

  • Reef squid, Reef squid, Betty Wills (Atsme) Wikimedia Commons License CC-BY-SA-4.0
    Reef squid, Betty Wills (Atsme) Wikimedia Commons License CC-BY-SA-4.0

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

I am particularly fond of a genus of coral called Goniopora. They have these beautiful swaying polyps that are always extended during the day. But I also love reef squid because of their amazing ability to use colour change to communicate with one and another and to camouflage themselves.

  • Goniopora, Goniopora, Peter Young Cho MD, Wikipedia Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0
    Goniopora, Peter Young Cho MD, Wikipedia Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0

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

I once found a large metal combination lock safe sitting on a reef in Singapore, the type you would find in a bank. It was too heavy to lift and bring back to the boat. I wonder if it was full of money...I will never know!?

What photography kit do you use?

For work, currently I'm a fan of the Olympus Tough TG-5. It's an amazing workhorse camera and is not too bulky. 

What's the next big thing for your work?

Trying to establish whether it really is feasible to breed corals that are more resistant to higher thermal stress. If we can, then we need to see if these traits are heritable and whether lab reared corals can really be seeded to reefs at large enough scales to have a meaningful impact in terms of mitigating the impact of climate change.

Who's your 'reef hero' - someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

There's no one person in particular, but I have a lot of respect for people around the world who work directly with local communities (often with little or no funding) to continually raise awareness about the importance of nature conservation.