Changing Planet

3-D Modelling Corals on the Real Skull Island

This week, our pursuit of the Solomon Islands’ elusive bumphead parrotfish brought us from the bustling fishery surrounding the town of Gizo to the slower, more subsistence-based fishery near the village of Munda.

A two-hour boat ride over calm seas seemingly transported the two of us back in time. We’ve set up camp on nearby Lola Island, residing in a traditional leaf hut not unlike a Swiss family Robinson construction where roosters, reef sharks, and red ants are aplenty, but electricity, running water, and telephone service are ephemeral.

Lola Leaf house
Behold our second research base: a traditional leaf house on Lola Island. (Photograph by Mikayla Wujec)

From Lola’s windy and wavy coastline, a small and circular island with a violent but sacred history is visible. Dozens of skulls belonging to ancient Solomon chiefs now sit atop stone shrines enclosing the heads of their victims from inter-island tribal raids hundreds of years ago. It was incredibly eerie to set foot on Skull Island (no King Kong here, we hoped!) and tread carefully among the bones as we spent the day preparing to conduct fieldwork on the islands’ surrounding reefs (see video above).

Skull Island Montage
Top: As serene as it looks from a distance, it was incredibly eerie to set foot on Skull Island. (Photograph by Andrea Reid) Bottom: A panorama reveals the island’s namesake remains. (Photograph by Mikayla Wujec)

Since our arrival here our research team has expanded. On each dive, we’re fortunate to be accompanied by the wise and watchful eyes of an experienced local dive master named Sunga Boso. An expressive storyteller, it was thrilling to hear about Skull Island’s history from someone whose own family heritage is tightly connected to head-hunting practices of the past—Sunga’s great-grandfather was spared from a sacrificial head-hunting ceremony as an infant.

Also recently joining our field team is a marine scientist from the U.S. National Park Service, Sly Lee. As founder of The Hydrous, a not-for-profit organization devoted to increasing public access to marine ecosystems, Sly is pioneering a new method to model corals in 3-D so more people can experience this part of our world that few get to explore in person.

As bumpheads consume more than five tons of coral reef per individual per year, we want to test the use of this emerging technology to measure and track the changes they cause in coral form and function. Sly is here to lend his expertise and help us model dozens of coral colonies during his visit.

The reefs surrounding Skull Island were filled with bright and healthy Poccilloporid corals making it a perfect venue for modelling bumpheads’ favorite food.

Reseach Team
Our research team (from left to right); Sly J. Lee, Andrea Reid & Mikayla Wujec after a day of SCUBA sampling. (Photography by Sly J. Lee)

The method we use to turn live corals into digital models involves one scuba diver taking hundreds of photographs of a single coral colony from every possible vantage point. We then feed the images into a program that stitches the photographs into a three-dimensional replica that is easily manipulated. You can try your hand at manipulating corals here or by clicking the screenshot below.

hydrous-screenshot
A screenshot shows some of the 3-D coral models from The Hydrous. (Image courtesy The Hydrous)

 

Our team’s next stop is Tetepare, the world’s largest uninhabited island where bumpheads are said to roam in large herds in the surrounding protected waters. We’ll spend two nights on this wild island next week and will report back soon!

Read All Posts by Mikayla Wujec and Andrea Reid

Mikayla Wujec is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee (YEG) with a passion for all things aquatic. Toronto born, she grew up with her toes firmly entrenched in Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada and her nose stuck in countless books of adventure. At age 18 Mikayla travelled to the opposite edge of the world to become a certified SCUBA diver on the reefs of Vanua Levu, Fiji. That experience, and her BA in geography and biology from Concordia University in snowy Montreal, guided Mikayla into her roles as research consultant to international conservation organizations and a LEED-certified ambassador for sustainability in institutions of higher education. These pursuits are on hold as Mikayla now returns to the distant South Pacific as an aquatic conservationist studying threatened fish and the ecosystems that support them. She is using graphic imagery and storytelling as educational tools in promoting the conservation work she is currently doing and illuminating broader themes in sustainable development. On this YEG expedition, Mikayla is teaming up with YEG Andrea Reid who is an aquatic biologist and science communicator based in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her work at www.andreajanereid.com.
  • J B

    Tetepara is not the world’s largest uninhabited island. Devon Island in the Canadian arctic is much larger. In the tropics, Coiba, off Panama’s Pacific coast, is larger than Tetepare. Superlative claims often become the selling points of locations but I find that they are unecessary. In reality, in many instances they are outright false. What can be said of Tetepare is that it is one of the world’s largest uninhabited tropical islands. Why is that any less impressive?

    Cool 3-D models of the corals.

    Cheers!

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