Kimberley corals offer hope for reefs
Underwater at Shell Island near Cygnet Bay. Picture: Chris Campey

Marine scientist Ali McCarthy popped out of the turquoise water at Shell Island, grinning around her snorkel and holding a purple-tipped staghorn coral - one of many colourful reef specimens turning the shallows near Cygnet Bay into an underwater wonderland.

Despite being bombarded daily by the biggest tides of any tropical reef system in the world, early studies suggest the Kimberley corals survive big fluctuations in temperature, water flow and light intensity to grow at a phenomenal rate.

"The ranges in parameters that they cope with on a daily basis are beyond the thresholds for most other coral reefs throughout the world," Ms McCarthy said.

"Learning what's different and what makes these corals able to adapt and cope with the environment up here may well hold part of the key to helping other reefs elsewhere to be able to survive in a changing climate."

The corals are one reason scientists are flocking to the Kimberley Marine Research Station, on the tip of the Dampier Peninsula at Cygnet Bay, to dive into its pristine waters.

James Brown, a third-generation pearler and marine biologist, established KMRS in 2009 to give students low-cost and easy access to three marine bioregions - King Sound, Canning Basin and the Kimberley.

The area is highly biodiverse and scientists suspect many species are yet to be discovered or understood.

Mr Brown said now that the State Government's investment of millions of dollars into the Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy was starting to hit the ground, interest in the region was growing.

In the past year, more than 20 teams of scientists have visited to begin projects - some of which will last years.

As research officer, Ms McCarthy co-ordinates a busy schedule of scientists studying everything from cetacean distribution and abundance to coral bleaching and sedimentation in what she says is a "remarkable environment".

"Because it is so isolated, there is a huge amount of diversity up here and relatively very little human impact," she said.

The West Australian

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