Reporter: Emma Carmichael
The oceans are vast and scientists find it hard to map marine species on their own, so they’ve asked the Australian public to help them out.
The Range Extension Database Mapping Project has fishing, boating and diving communities photograph any uncommon marine species people might come across in their local area and log it on the website, where a scientist can verify the sighting.
Emma Carmichael takes a look at the citizen science behind Redmap.
This story is part of a summer podcast series produced by journalism students from RMIT University: read more about the project.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: For many people, science means bubbling test tubes and white lab coats, but without on-the-ground – or should I say in-the-water – contributions from the Australian public, Redmap would not be a success.
It relies on citizen science and uses its contributors’ vast knowledge of the ocean to map species.
Redmap Chair Dr Gretta Pecl says the success of citizen science is that contributors feel invested in the project, that some of the information is theirs rather than being the output of a complicated scientific model.
GRETTA PECL: I think it would be a much better process if the fishers and the divers are actually involved in that data collection then when we are having these discussions with them about what changes in the environment might mean in the next 10 or 20 years, they’ve actually brought something to the table.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: Regular Victorian Redmap contributor Mary Malloy is based in Queenscliff and has been scuba diving since 1983. She says Redmap values the same things she does in diving: discovering the extraordinary.
MARY MALLOY: The highlights of my dives are when I find something new. After 30 years of diving and photography you swim around going got it, got it, got it, and it’s just a checklist for me, and so I’m thinking now ‘Where is something I haven’t got before’ and that’s where I’ve found Redmap has really revitalised my interests.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: Now Redmap extends to Victoria, Ms Malloy has been able to recover old photographs from the deep.
MARY MALLOY: I’ve got a photograph of a what’s called a, its common name is called a black fish and I knew it was out of range back in 1996 when I took the photograph, and technically it’s not a good photograph, but I kept it because of that fact.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: Redmap contributing couple Sarah Speight and Anthony Pearson met on a diving forum when they were both looking for a dive buddy in the Melbourne region, and now joke about meeting online. Ms Speight says she makes a point of looking for unusual species.
SARAH SPEIGHT: There was this fish, warty prowfish, I’d seen it on my open water course at Pope’s Eye and they are quite rare, and I’d been told that they’re at this site, so every time I dived this site I went looking for it, and I think about three years later I found another one and that’s the one that’s on Redmap. Cause I’d seen… It’s just the most bizarre looking fish, it’s like this big lumpy triangle.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: Ms Malloy says that marine photography is about the hunt and the kill, metaphorically of course. Though when underwater, taking the best shot does not always go swimmingly. Fish can be timid, too far away, or turning from the camera.
MARY MALLOY: Often you have to pretend you are not interested in them and look the other way and sort of make big circles around them and sort of slowly
creep up to them without looking at them, because eye contact in any sort of animal kingdom is very threatening.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: As an increasing number of marine communities around Australia begin to use Redmap, Dr Pecl is surprised with the absence of phony sightings logged on the site.
But when Canberra’s famed Skywhale hot air balloon flew to Hobart for the Dark MoFo festival this year, some cheeky loggers couldn’t resist the opportunity to upload a rare sighting.
GRETTA PECL: Whilst we don’t encourage dodgy sightings at all, that kind of struck a chord with us a bit because it was supposed to be a marine creature and we were kind of happy that different people that hadn’t participated in Redmap before saw this giant floating marine whale thing and thought ‘Oh that’s unusual. I’ll log it on Redmap’.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: Although the sighting was not officially verified, it was posted on Redmap’s Facebook page.
GRETTA PECL: We had people saying things like ‘Oh I saw it too, is that repeat observations and does that mean that your data is more robust?’ And another person saying ‘Well I last saw it in Canberra, it is definitely shifting south, that’s definitely a range extension’.
EMMA CARMICHAEL: From the Facebook banter, and growing number of logs on the site, it is clear Redmap is being charted, one photo at a time.