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Project Baseline: Conserving the Underwater World through Citizen Science and Reporting

By Vanessa Belz Almost every day, at just about any given moment, scuba divers and water enthusiasts in 28 countries spanning multiple time zones are volunteering their time on and underwater, working in their local communities towards a unified, singular goal: to create a lasting visual legacy of underwater conditions in oceans, lakes, rivers, springs,...

By Vanessa Belz

Almost every day, at just about any given moment, scuba divers and water enthusiasts in 28 countries spanning multiple time zones are volunteering their time on and underwater, working in their local communities towards a unified, singular goal: to create a lasting visual legacy of underwater conditions in oceans, lakes, rivers, springs, and flooded caves all over the world, one picture and video at a time.

Baseline Explorer. Photo by Pilar Barrera
The Baseline Explorer transports her crew, divers and all the equipment required to complete remote operations at sea to the next mission location in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by Pilar Barrera

In an unprecedented conservation effort, Project Baseline, aided by some 250+ volunteers, a privately owned 146’ research vessel named the Baseline Explorer and two manned submersibles are tackling a persistent yet virtually hidden phenomenon affecting many underwater locations. This phenomenon is called environmental generational amnesia, or “shifting baselines” where successive generations of people accept, unknowingly, a new and often degraded environmental norm.

The underwater world is changing. The starting point, or “baseline” for norms in these environments are in many places, elusive. Our planet’s wet, saturated and uninhabitable landscape is so challenging for humans to access, so expensive, so potentially life threatening and often so remote, that much of the baseline data required to inform the public about a historically “pristine” or at least sustainable environmental condition is simply not available. And, until such baselines can be established there can be little hope that effective local and focused conservation measures can be enacted.

Enter Project Baseline.

Founded in 2009, Project Baseline is the central conservation initiative of a nonprofit diving organization called Global Underwater Explorers. This is the first volunteer, citizen science organization dedicated to addressing “shifting baselines” in underwater environments on a global scale. It is an endeavor to connect people with the alarming changes that are occurring in our world, from mountain lakes to ocean reefs and all waters in between. The documentation initiative aims to provide the people who can see these places and these changes, often certified scuba divers, with an effective voice to promote and support much needed and forever sustained conservation.

Project Baseline is documenting the environmental impacts on coral reef habitats of the Miami and Hollywood partially-treated sewage outfalls.
Dr. Todd Kincaid, Director or Project Baseline collects a sample from the Hollywood sewage outfall located less than one mile offshore of Hollywood, FL. Project Baseline divers advance algal bloom research being performed throughout southeast Florida by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Photo by Global Underwater Explorers.

Project Baseline works by organizing and mobilizing a network of highly skilled and passionate divers to upload their strategically collected images, descriptions, and data into an online database designed to render their observations accessible to the world. Their images create a baseline for environmental quality. When stitched together, those images create a time lapse revealing how that quality is changing. When volunteer divers are coupled with scientists and resource managers struggling to understand and protect the ecosystems where communities of divers are present, the collective effort becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Project Baseline’s goals are simple:

  • build a platform to permanently record diver observations through image media and numeric data;
  • encourage volunteer divers to direct some of their endless energies toward perpetually populating that platform;
  • then use their images and data to foster environmental baselines in every type of underwater environment across the globe.

As of July 2015, Project Baseline has 64 active projects sustained by volunteers. In most cases, what began as the interest and effort of a single person or very small group has grown into small communities of similarly skilled and passionate divers that work together on a regular basis to document their chosen observation stations.

Last year, Project Baseline added a new and powerful dimension to its mission through the acquisition of a capable research vessel, the Baseline Explorer and two, manned observation submersibles, Nemo and Nomad. The goals of the Baseline Explorer is to take Project Baseline to critical places not accessible by our shore-based teams and to leverage the combination of the ship, subs, and divers to establish and sustain productive collaborations with scientific institutions that will foster improved understanding of our underwater word and the much needed conservation of its fragile ecosystems.

Project Baseline is a global community of highly skilled and passionate volunteer divers, research vessel and submersibles, and collaborations that endeavor to effect positive change within the world’s aquatic environments measurable in terms of improvement within our lifetimes and to establish the permanent positive presence across the globe that will be needed to sustain those improvements. Project Baseline continues to scale its activities throughout 2015 and beyond.

Vanessa Belz has worked with Global Underwater Explorers since December 2011 as Program Manager for the Project Baseline conservation initiative. She coordinates all aspects of Program development including communications, fundraising, technology, volunteer coordination and Project area expansion. Vanessa holds a degree in Adventure Education from Prescott College, and brings years of experience to her role with GUE, including nonprofit coordination, and outdoor education and guiding.

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