SExual COral REproduction Workshop, Curacao

Workshop Motivation

In 2015 I received £600 from the ‘Kristin Bruhn Endowed Memorial Scholarship Fund’. This award contributed towards my participation in a coral reef restoration project on the Caribbean island of Curacao in October of that year. The workshop was run by ‘SECORE International’. SECORE is an organisation that combines research, education, outreach and active reef restoration for the conservation of coral reefs.

I was very keen to attend the workshop since my Ph.D. project is centered upon the early life stages of stony corals. I aim to understand how environmental experiences during these stages affect their fitness in later life. In order to experiment in this field I must be able to rear coral larvae into young adults. This is a very sensitive process and requires specialised husbandry techniques, which had presented a challenge during my first field season. Participation in SECORE workshops is not widely advertised and is often by invite only. I was the only Ph.D. student on the course with the remaining participants invited from national aquariums and research centres.

Dr. Mark Vermeij coral reproduction workshop jessica bellworthy

Team meeting led by Dr. Mark Vermeij – Taken by Vanessa Cara-Kerr

coral reproduction workshop jessica bellworthy

Mixing gametes with Valérie Chamberland and founder Dr. Dirk Petersen – Photo from SECORE.org

One of the defining moments of my scientific career

The workshop began with theoretical lectures, explaining the wider importance of our work in Curacao. I was inspired by the current research conducted at the island’s marine lab, CARMABI, and encouraged by the larval rearing success they reported. In the days that followed, the annual mass coral-spawning event began. This is a sight I had not yet observed working in the Red Sea since the corals there are not so predictable in their spawning times. In response to seasonal sea warming, lunar periodicity and the timing of sunset, colonies synchronously release sperm and eggs that float up into the water column. Soon after, fertilisation occurs and the embryos begin their development into coral larvae. Witnessing this natural phenomenon was one of the defining moments of my scientific career. It served to ignite an even deeper passion for these fascinating organisms.

Siderastrea siderea releasing eggs coral reproduction jessica bellworthy

Siderastrea siderea releasing eggs – Taken by Ben Muller

Siderastrea siderea releasing sperm coral reproduction workshop jessica bellworthy

Siderastrea siderea releasing sperm – Taken by Ben Muller

brittle star spawning coral reproduction workshop jessica bellworthy

Other underwater highlights included a brittle star spawning – Taken by Skylar Snowden

Take home experiences

Coral ecologists and aquarists who have world leading experience in this field ran the workshop. As a result of working within this group, I gained rare insights into the finer details of successful larval rearing. I learnt the most innovative techniques for in situ gamete collection, optimising fertilisation rates, and ensuring the highest possible survival rates. Although the workshop was conservation based, these are also important consideration for my research. For example, I must ensure I have enough larvae to experiment with and produce replicable and reliable results.

In addition, there was a German film crew with us, producing a nature documentary series (teaser here). I was selected to feature in the footage and help with scene setting. This meant I was ‘buddied’ with the founder of SECORE, Dirk Petersen, for the entire workshop, conducting extra, specialised dives and lab work on top of the group timetable. Therefore, I gained even more experience than I otherwise would. Working so closely with the Dirk, we discussed my work at length and he advised me on how to resolve some of my initial issues. Science communication is also something I am passionate about and by featuring in the filming, I was able to concomitantly satisfy that interest.

Not only did I learn important techniques for my research, but also I made made brilliant industry contacts and have been encouraged to remain involved with the foundation. I am very grateful for the lessons and the opportunities I have gained from attending this workshop. My participation would not have been possible without the fund and the support from my supervisors.

Sunset at CARMABI SECORE workshop Jessica Bellworthy coral reproduction

Sunset at CARMABI – Taken by Wes Grey

More information and photos can be found in this SECORE blog post.