Marine scientist Ali McCarthy popped out of the turquoise water at Shell Island, grinning around her snorkel and holding a purple-tipped staghorn coral.
The coral is 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, which create extreme fluctuations in temperature, flow and light intensity, early studies have suggested these Kimberley corals not only survive the conditions but are growing at a phenomenal rate, confounding scientists.
“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 just one of many reasons scientists have started flocking to the Kimberley Marine Research Station, on the very 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 different marine bioregions: King Sound to the south, Canning Basin to the west, and the Kimberley to the north-east, including the first of thousands of islands in the Buccaneer Archipelago.
As well as being stunningly beautiful, the area contains huge biodiversity and the scientists suspect many species are still yet to be discovered.
Mr Brown said now 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 ramping up.
In the past year alone, more than 20 teams of scientists had visited Cygnet Bay to begin projects – some of which were likely to last for several years, he said.
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”.
“To contemporary marine science a lot of it is new and there hasn’t been a whole lot of marine research done up here in a strategic, broad-scale manner … the region is characterised by such a dramatic climate and is so remote,” she said. “Because it is so isolated, there is a huge amount of diversity up here and relatively very little human impact.”
Mr Brown said he expected that within the next few years, as scientists gained a better understanding of the area and gathered data, its coastal waters would join neighbouring parts and gain marine park status.