Mapping the coral reefs of the Colombian Pacific

Latest update June 15, 2019 Started on December 7, 2018

I am working on a project headed to measure at very high resolution the coral reefs of the Colombian Pacific Coast. Climate change threatens these priceless ecosystems, and we aime to deeper understanding these actual changes.

December 7, 2018
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In The Field

Mapping La Chola coral reef

The Utría National Natural Park is located in the North of the Pacific Coast of Colombia, one of the highest rainfall places in the world. Well known also for its high biodiversity and conservation state mainly due to its isolation. Few villages are located there, so we needed to be well prepared to have a successful fieldwork.

Arriving was the first adventure and not an easy task. It is necessary to take different transports as an airplane (the really little ones), motorcycle and boat.

In 2017 we made our first attempt to measure the coral reef 'La Chola' located inside the cove of Utría, this first expedition was really productive in terms of the knowledge about the local weather conditions and the difficulties that we would have to overcome in the next expeditions.

Last February we had a field work again at the park, we counted only with six days to wait for the right conditions, taking in care that unexpected rain and clouds are far common in the park area and we needed to flight a not waterproof drone. Another aspect was the tidal conditions, to measure the coral reef is always much better to take the pictures in low tide so the surface of the reef is more clear to recognize and reconstruct. The reflection of the sun on the water surface and the short time windows to place the control points (GPS references) were other main variables. This was a really productive fieldwork where we obtained a lot of knowledge and expertise concerning the local conditions.

Many aspects of the coral reefs are not very visible or recognizable from the aerial pictures or orthophotomosaics reconstructions. (i.e. corals or algae species, bleaching sectors), so since the firsts fieldworks the possibility to have complementary methods and technologies has been in our minds. ROVs may be a convenient technology that can integrate the air and underwater data to have a more comprehensive view of these changing ecosystems.

NOTE: Aerial photograph is property of Gustavo Castellanos-Galindo

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Gorgona Island

Gorgona National Natural Park is the place where coexist an important variety of marine species. A main habitat in the park is the coral reefs, mainly located in the east marine coast of the island.

As part of our project concerning mapping the coral reefs and their temporal changes we aim to identify and geo-localize the coral and algae species. To achieve this, in addition to the aerial surveys we have been taking some underwater photographs to allow us understanding the distribution of these ecosystems, but this last method may not be effective enough. For example, when we require to photograph large areas or identify neighboring ecosystems in sectors where diving is extremely difficult. Recent developments in technologies as ROVs may guarantee a most effective way to collect this necessary data to help us unravel these ecosystems and their temporal changes. Underwater photography: Fernando Zapata.

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Mapping the coral reefs of Gorgona Island

We are using drones to measure at high resolution the coral reefs and their changes throught time at the national park Gorgona . In this first activity concerning this park we used several ground control points and a handled gps. With the pictures captured from the drone we were able to georreference the orthomosaics that we have created. The weather conditions are the main variable to have in mind before going to the field. This week of work was hard, counting that the rain and weather conditions gave us short windows of time to flight the drone and take the gps measures.

Expedition Background

In recent years, coral reefs health problems as bleaching have increased. Most of them are product of climate change or extreme climatic or oceanic events. The Colombian pacific coast is not exempt of this global threat. Few developed coral reefs are present there, mainly in marine protected areas. But this geographical secure location is not enough to protect corals from the global impact.

In the last two years I have been working with a group of scientist to measure at high resolution scale the coral reefs of the Colombian Pacific coasts. To achieve our objective we have been using an unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone) and geographic information systems to generate georeferenced orthomosaics. We aim to develop an accurate methodology in order to document the natural borders of the reefs and the accurate area. In the next years I will be working to tracing the coral changes, so we will be able to accurate measure the coral reefs reaction to these global changes.

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