New type of reef identified in the Kimberley

The remote Kimberley coast is characterised by its extreme tidal ranges, warm turbid waters and frequent cyclonic events, and is also home to a newly recognised form of coral reef, one which grows higher than any other reef type in the world.

Curtin University researcher Dr Mick O’Leary has been leading a Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) project team that’s been characterising the surface morphology and internal architecture of Kimberley coral reefs using mutlibeam sonar and seismic profiling technologies, as well as collecting reef cores to establish growth histories and ecological change on thousand year time scales.

The findings, published in the journal Coral Reefs, provide new insights into the ability of Kimberley corals to survive, endure, and thrive, in what is generally considered to be environmentally challenging conditions for coral growth.

The seismic profiling revealed that the living coral veneer does not represent simple coral communities growing on rock foundations but are in fact the surface expression of massive and complex reef structures comparable to what we might see at Ningaloo or the Abrolhos or even the Great Barrier Reef.

Percussion coring on Bathurst-Irvine Island, core length up to six metres were recovered using this method. (Mick O’Leary)

The research team drove 6.5 metre lengths of aluminium tubing into the reef structure to recover a record of reef growth. Radiocarbon dating of corals collected from reef cores revealed that coral growth commenced in the Kimberley almost immediately after the continental shelf was flooded by rising sea levels that followed the end of the last ice age some 12 to 15 thousand years ago, with the oldest dated inshore corals returning ages of more than 9000 years.

The most unusual feature of Kimberley reefs is the elevation of their reef flats. Typically coral reefs will grow vertically until they reach sea level, then having used up all the available vertical space, they switch growth directions and begin to grow laterally into deeper water. The upper vertical limit of reef growth is the mean low water tide level, as corals can only tolerate exposure to the atmosphere for brief periods, which usually occurs around spring low tides.

However, the team’s multibeam sonar surveys have precisely measured the elevation of the reef flats and revealed that Kimberley reefs have grown vertically through the mean low water level limit up to the mean tide level.

“This basically means the corals on the reef flat spend half their life exposed above the level of the tide,” Dr O’Leary said. “The sight of water cascading off the edges of a Kimberley coral reef as the tide falls is something that you can experience nowhere else on Earth.”

Somehow Kimberley corals have managed to adapt over many thousands of years to these extreme tidal ranges, high levels of turbidity, really warm water temperatures and exposure, and are thriving in the Kimberley despite these conditions.

So as we see the beginnings of yet another major bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, we might look to these more robust Kimberley coral reefs and ask what is unique about these corals? How long did it take to adapt to the unique Kimberley marine environments and are there lessons here that can be applied to the more sensitive coral reef regions of the world?

Water cascading off the reef at Tallon Island (Tubagus Solihuddin)

Related Links:

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Marine mapping for a North Kimberley Marine Park

Scientists on a mission to better understand the ecological biodiversity that thrives on the ocean floor in Australia’s remote northwest are about to head out on the fourth of five field trips, this time to uncover what lives in the area of the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park.

The results will be added to the data collected from the recent field trip aboard RV Solander to the islands of the Bonaparte Archipelago to investigate the coral reefs, sponges and other marine life inhabiting this remote area of the Kimberley.

The Solander voyages include researchers from AIMS, the Western Australian Museum, CSIRO and Curtin University.

The surveys focus on sampling in southern, central and northern sections of the Greater Kimberley proposed Marine Park. Researchers map the sea floor using multi-beam sonar technology, examine the distribution of habitats using towed video, make measurements of the water conditions (light penetration levels; temperature; salinity levels) and tidal ranges, and collect representative samples of the benthic flora and fauna using an epibenthic sled.

Video of sponge gardens at Nick’s Rock.

The current ship based surveys have a focus on the deeper areas, from around 10m below low tide, where little information is available from previous Kimberley studies.

The project anticipates that complimentary work will also be conducted to build on existing information of nearshore shallow and intertidal habitats.

Ultimately all available data will be drawn together to provide an overview of the large scale trends in habitats along the Kimberley and highlight the principle factors determining the presence or absence of key biota.

The locations for investigation have been selected with the WA marine park initiatives in mind, in particular Lalang-garram/Camden Sound Marine Park and the proposed North Kimberley Marine Park in the Cape Bougainville-Cape Londonderry region.

Scientists on the voyage collect benthic specimens to characterise the marine biodiversity of the area and create a reference collection at the WA Museum. This sampling and identification process will help the scientists determine what species of animals and plants occur there and what types of habitats each species is associated with.

What does a coral reef sound like?

“The Kimberley is an increasingly active, multiple-use marine region, with a growing need for accessible environmental and socio-economic information,” WAMSI Project leader, Dr Andrew Heyward (AIMS) said. “These are voyages of discovery, which is inherently exciting for the scientists. We expect the project will reveal much about life on the seabed in this region and make a useful contribution to planning and management.”

“The Kimberley region has a vast array of habitat types with a stunning array of biodiversity, much of which has not been studied or collected before,” CSIRO scientist Dr John Keesing said. “The macro tidal range and working in previously unchartered waters makes surveys of this type particularly challenging, but also exciting and rewarding in terms of the scientific discoveries waiting to be made.”

Work is now underway on the analysis of species assemblages, biomass and abundance in relation to habitat types encountered during the surveys.

Related Links:
Marji Puotinen (AIMS) captured the daily highlights of the voyage on the Northwest Atlas blog

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Kimberley dolphins vulnerable to human activity.

By Natalie Jones, ABC

Dolphins in Western Australia’s Kimberley are heavily reliant on their specific habitats and “quite vulnerable” to human activity, researchers have said.

The researchers published the findings of a four-year study which provides the first estimates of the abundance of three shallow, inshore species of dolphin — the Australian snubfin, the Australian humpback and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin.

The Murdoch University team travelled to five remote locations in the Kimberley to collect data, counting dolphins and mapping the sightings.

They focused mostly on the West Kimberley, visiting Roebuck Bay, Beagle Bay, Cygnet Bay and Cone Bay, but also took in the Inner Cambridge Gulf in the region’s east.

“The motivation for this research was that these animals, from what we know elsewhere in Australia, tend to occur in quite small populations that really depend on the near-shore environment,” lead researcher Alexander Brown said.

ABC TV News story by reporter Natalie Jones

“So that makes them quite vulnerable to human activity that occurs in these habitats.

“Particularly in the Kimberley region, we really had no idea of how many of these species were out there and what key areas there might be.”

The researchers found there was a high degree of population variance between the sites.

“We could go just 100 kilometres up the coast and we’d see quite a change in the dominance of a species over another,” Mr Brown said.

He found that snubfin dolphins were most abundant at Roebuck Bay, and bottlenose dolphins were most abundant at Beagle Bay on the west side of the Dampier Peninsula.
Boosting dolphin conservation

Mr Brown said the team thought each species favoured some habitats over others, and said there may also be some competition between species.

“Without this abundance of data it makes it very difficult to assess the conservation status of the species, to determine if they should qualify as threatened species or otherwise, and it’s very difficult to determine appropriate conservation and management measures,” he said.

Snubfin and humpback dolphins are unique to the waters off northern Australia and Southern New Guinea, but little is known about the species in the tropical north.

The research comes as the State and Federal Governments plan and gazette several marine parks across the Kimberley coast.

Mr Brown — a Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU) PhD student who partnered with Lars Bejder, Kenneth Pollock and Simon Allen on the study — said his team’s work could help manage those areas.
Snubfin dolphins swimming off the Kimberley coast.

Snubfin dolphins (Jenny Smith, MUCRU)

He also warned the three species of dolphin would be particularly vulnerable to any new development.

“If any coastal development or potentially threatening activity is likely to take place, site-specific surveys need to be conducted in order to ascertain if the area’s of particular importance for any one or all three of these species,” he said.

“We also really recommend building upon these abundance estimates in the future by establishing more long-term monitoring programs, in order to determine if populations are stable, increasing or in decline.”

Existing threats to dolphins remain largely unknown, as the study surveyed just six per cent of the Kimberley’s coastline.

The MUCRU research was funded by the Federal Government’s Australian Marine Mammal Centre, WWF Australia and the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s Kimberley Marine Research Program.

Related Links:

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Human use study confirms Kimberley’s top tourist cruise destinations

As part a broader WAMSI research project examining human use off the Western Kimberley coast, Professor Lynnath Beckley and her team from Murdoch University have estimated visitation by expedition cruise vessels using cruise itineraries advertised online.

Cruise visits

The study found that there were 18 vessels (excluding vessels engaged in fishing tours) advertising Kimberley cruise itineraries in 2013 indicating relatively little change since a 2008 study (Sherrer at al.).  The cruises take place mainly from April to September between Broome and Wyndham. Just over half of these vessels carried less than 20 passengers but the two largest accommodated more than 100 passengers.

In total, 114 sites were listed in the itineraries of cruise vessels in the Kimberley in 2013, up from 96 sites in 2008. Thirty per cent of the sites, however, were visited less than 20 times during the season and only by smaller vessels.

The most popular places to visit by cruise vessel, excluding the port of Broome, were Montgomery Reef (275 vessels visits with 7382 passengers), Horizontal Falls (260 vessel visits with 7068 passengers), Raft Point (250 vessel visits with 6786 passengers), Prince Regent River (235 vessel visits with 6308 passengers), Talbot Bay (211 vessel visits with 6176 passengers) and King George Falls (115 vessel visits with 5234 passengers). These estimates did not include crew, were based on the assumption that all vessels operated at full occupancy and did not take into account whether passengers actually went ashore at the site or not.

Estimated cumulative number of visits by cruise vessel passengers at the major sites along the Kimberley coast during 2013. Note that numbers assume full occupancy of the vessels, exclude crew members and do not imply that all passengers go ashore. The figure only includes sites with >3000 potential visitors.


Most advertised activities included boat/tender excursions, swimming and walking. At Montgomery Reef cruises offer tender excursions to witness the water cascading off the reef on a falling tide and a few offer opportunities for reef walking, snorkelling and fishing at this site.

Cumulative frequency of times activities appeared in the advertised itineraries of all schedules cruises in the Kimberley during 2013.

Boat cruises to the scenic Horizontal Falls are also common on cruise itineraries, with some vessels also offering speed boat rides through the falls.

At Raft Point, the majority of visiting vessels use tenders to transfer passengers to shore where they are guided on a short walk to a secluded Aboriginal rock art gallery.

Prince Regent River is most often mentioned in itineraries as a waterway through which vessels transit on their way to King Cascades waterfall, though approximately half of the vessels visiting the area also offer passengers the chance to do some fishing in the river.

Implications for Marine Park Management

Of the sites estimated to have the highest number of tourists by cruise vessel, Montgomery Reef and Prince Regent River are located in the Lalang-garram Camden Sound Marine Park. Horizontal Falls, Talbot Bay and Raft Point are within the designated Horizontal Falls Marine Park.

“The estimates of total potential visitors within the new Kimberley parks provide managers and Traditional Owners, particularly the Dambimangari people, with an indication of where any environmental or cultural impacts would be more likely to occur,” Professor Beckley said.

Professor Beckley recommended that the number and size of cruise vessels operating in the Kimberley should be monitored annually as more large vessels with increased passenger capacities could rapidly change visitation patterns to the marine parks and adjacent coastal sites.

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Beaches viewed from above helping to tell Kimberley turtle story

More than 40,000 aerial photographs of the Kimberley coast have been taken and scrutinised for signs of nesting turtles as part of the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) turtle research project.

Information about adult females and turtle hatchling numbers and species gleaned from tracks seen in the images of more than 2500 islands and 1300 mainland beaches is now being verified through a process of ‘ground truthing’.

The aerial and ground surveys are part of the distribution and abundance facet of the WAMSI Kimberley Research Program’s sea turtle project that aims to identify when and where turtles nest, develop climate change models to predict how turtles might be impacted and work out relationships between different turtle nesting groups.

Aerial view of the winter-nesting flatback turtle rookery at Cape Domett, north of Kununurra, showing turtle tracks and a lurking crocodile. (DPaW)

Department of Parks and Wildlife senior research scientist Dr Tony Tucker said more than 90 per cent of the Kimberley coastline’s available turtle nesting habitat was accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter posing significant challenges for field surveys.

“The aerial images taken during the summer and winter surveys in 2014 have helped identify hotspots of relative density for follow-up by ground survey,” he said.

The ground truthing phase of the project, started during 2015, will continue this year, as will work on the other facets of the project.

Dr Tucker said, during the ground surveys, tissue samples had been collected from more than 700 turtles, including a rare WA sample from an olive ridley turtle, and by the end of the year the number of samples could be close to 1000.

“The genetic analysis will help us work out the relationships between groups of nesting turtles and define breeding units for the four predominant nesting species,” he said.

“We need to know what are the breeding groups for summer and winter-nesting flatback, green, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles to protect and conserve these species through effective strategic management of habitats.”

Dr Tucker said the sea turtle project team was working with 10 different Traditional Owner groups who had assisted in the ground surveys and were helping to establish how traditional and scientific knowledge complemented each other.

Partners in the WAMSI Kimberley sea turtle project include Parks and Wildlife, The University of Western Australia, CSIRO, Griffith University and Pendoley Environmental. The project will provide a knowledge base for future monitoring and information to help understand if populations are increasing or decreasing.

It will also develop effective and efficient monitoring methods that can be conducted over the long term and build capacity amongst Indigenous ranger groups to enable ongoing monitoring. Together this assists in management across the entire Kimberley, including the four new and proposed marine parks.

Ground view of turtle tracks at Cape Domett. (DPaW)

WAMSI’s $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian Government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy and co-investment by the WAMSI partners.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Thermally tolerant Kimberley corals are not immune to bleaching

Scientists have conducted the first peer reviewed test to find out if Kimberley coral reefs are resistant to coral bleaching because of their natural ability to adapt to the high temperatures off the northwest coast of Australia, and found they are nonetheless highly susceptible to heat stress and bleaching.

Coral bleaching happens when sea temperatures rise, causing the breakdown of the symbiosis between coral and their zooxanthellae (the microscopic plants which gives coral most of its colour), which can be fatal for the coral.

The study was carried out in partnership with the Western Australian Marine Science Institution’s (WAMSI) Kimberley Marine Research Program and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at The University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute.

Lead author Dr Verena Schoepf said the researchers were surprised to find that corals around the Kimberley region in far north Western Australia are just as sensitive to heat stress and bleaching as their counterparts from less extreme environments elsewhere.

“We found that exceeding the maximum monthly summer temperatures by one degree Centigrade for only a few days is enough to induce coral bleaching,” Dr Schoepf said.

“We were surprised because under normal conditions, Kimberley corals can tolerate short-term temperature extremes and regular exposure to air without obvious signs of stress.”

The Kimberley region has the largest tropical tides in the world reaching up to 10 metres, creating naturally extreme and highly dynamic coastal habitats that corals from more typical reefs could not survive.

“Unfortunately the fact that Kimberley corals are not immune to bleaching suggests that corals living in naturally extreme temperature environments are just as threatened by climate change as corals elsewhere,” Dr Schoepf said.

“We found that both branching and massive corals exposed at low tide coped better with heat stress than corals from deeper water,” co-author Professor Malcolm McCulloch from the Coral CoE said. “However this doesn’t mean that they are immune to bleaching.”

The research also found that massive corals had a better chance of surviving and recovering from bleaching than branching corals.

The current strong El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific puts many coral reefs at risk of severe bleaching, and recent weather predictions show that the Kimberley region might be particularly affected in 2016.

“With the third global bleaching event underway, it has never been more urgent to understand the limits of coral thermal tolerance in corals,” Professor McCulloch said.

Co-authors on the study also included Dr Michael Stat from the Trace and Environmental DNA (TrEnD) Laboratory at Curtin University and Dr James Falter from the Coral CoE at The University of Western Australia.

Schoepf, Verena, Michael Stat, James L. Falter, and Malcolm T. McCulloch. 2015. “Limits To The Thermal Tolerance Of Corals Adapted To A Highly Fluctuating, Naturally Extreme Temperature Environment”. Scientific Reports 5 (1). doi:10.1038/srep17639.

Dr Verena Schoepf – (+61 8) 6488 3644
Professor Malcolm McCulloch – (+61 8) 6488 1921
Aleta Johnston – WAMSI Communications (+618) 6488 4574 / 0431 514 677

Field trip finds turtle and fish food abundant in Bardi Jawi country

A team of CSIRO and UWA researchers has just returned from a 10-day field trip to Bardi Jawi country, where they took the last of their seagrass, seaweed and microalgae measurements for a WAMSI project that will determine the current state of the area’s primary food source for rabbitfish and green sea turtles.

The team worked with the Bardi Jawi Rangers on Tallon Island (Jalarn) and Sunday Island (Iwany) off the Dampier Peninsular in the Kimberley. They measured the growth of seagrass and macroalgae on the reef platforms, and microalgae in the sand that forms the beaches. These are all primary producers that sustain food webs, and the area’s seagrass is a key food source for fish and turtles that are important for the Bardi Jawi.

Preparing for seagrass tethering study (Mat Vanderklift)

Some seagrass was punched with holes to measure growth — researchers measure how far the holes have moved after a week to see how much the grass has grown. Other seagrass was collected, pegged out, measured and returned to the seagrass meadow for a 24 hour period before being measured again to determine how much had been eaten.

CSIRO’s Mat Vanderklift, who is also working on green sea turtle tagging as part of another WAMSI project, said the findings were providing the first comprehensive picture of productivity and seasonality of seaweed, seagrasses and microalgae in the Kimberley.

“Through collaboration with the Bardi Jawi Rangers we have been able to build up detailed seasonal understanding of seagrass productivity through the year,” Dr Vanderklift said. “We also have a better understanding of the importance of this productivity for green turtles and herbivorous fish like rabbitfish.”

Seagrass habitat with a sea cucumber in the Bardi Jawi IPA (Mat Vanderklift)

“The key findings are that the main plants that we have found in the lagoon habitats (the seagrasses Thalassia and Enhalus, and the large brown algae Sargassum) all have high growth rates throughout the year, with growth rates sometimes exceeding a centimetre a day,” Dr Vanderklift said. “We have also found that microscopic algae are very abundant in some places, but not everywhere, and bacteria are particularly abundant in the sediment under mangroves and seagrasses.”

The project has found that herbivores are abundant in the area and that they eat a lot of the seagrass. One of the main herbivores in the area, rabbitfish (Siganus lineatus), is a highly sought after food source by the Bardi Jawi people.

The project is also finding that the seagrasses are living at the limit of their temperature tolerances and further studies of their vulnerability to climate change are needed.

James McLaughlin on Jologo beach talking about microalga with kids from One Arm Point Remote Community School. (Mat Vanderklift)


“Collaborations with the Bardi Jawi Rangers have added enormous value to the research,” Dr Vanderklift said. “We have been able to exchange knowledge and learn from each other – for example, the discovery of the importance of seagrass to rabbitfish would not have happened if we had not worked closely together. The success of this project is because of the collaboration we have built together.”

The latest trip also gave the researchers an opportunity to present to children from the local One Arm Point Remote Community School.

James McLaughlin wowed the high school “Bush Rangers” with real-life chemistry on the beach, while Mat Vanderklift talked to dozens of excited children about turtles at their Culture Day. “They all enjoyed the game of guessing where the tagged turtles had travelled,” he said.

The project group is now completing the measurements and analysing the data, and will return to show the community and the rangers the results next year, with the aim of informing the ranger’s activities under their Indigenous Protected Area management plan.

Josh Setting up Benthic chamber module. (Mat Vanderklift)



The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

Indian Ocean creates its own flow-on effect

New research led by CSIRO has described how heavy rainfall caused the top layer of the southeast Indian Ocean to be less salty, creating a barrier layer which trapped the heat during the deadly marine heatwave – La Niña and the ‘Ningaloo Niño’ of 2010-11. The result was a larger volume of warmer water being driven by a stronger current down the WA coastline.

The finding, which is part of WAMSI’s Kimberley Marine Research Program, provides further scientific knowledge to help predict responses to climate change, and adds another layer to consider when forecasting extreme marine heatwave events.

Surface salinity anomalies (psu) derived from gridded Argo product (relative to 2005–2012 monthly climatology) in February 2011.

According to CSIRO’s physical oceanographer Dr Ming Feng, the change in salinity levels on the top 100 metres of the ocean also raises more questions, such as how it will affect some marine species.

“In the past we have followed the Pacific Ocean climate closer in evaluating WA marine environment. We haven’t focused much attention on the Indian Ocean variables and the effect on the WA environment,” Dr Feng said. “It seems that the more we find out about the Indian Ocean, the more we realise it operates very differently to any other ocean on earth.”

The Leeuwin Current, the eastern boundary current of the southeast Indian Ocean, carries warm fresh tropical water southward along the west coast of Australia. The current is stronger in Australia’s winter and weaker in summer; it also tends to be stronger during La Niña events.

Surface currents in the Indian Ocean during austral summer, adapted from Schott et al. [[1]] and Menezes et al. [[2]]. The background shading shows the sea surface temperature anomalies (°C) in February 2011 derived from the Argo float data. ITF: Indonesian throughflow; LC: Leeuwin Current; SJC: South Java Current; SEC: South Equatorial Current; SECC: South Equatorial Counter Current; SC: Somali Current; NMC: Northern Monsoon Current; NEMC: North East Madagascar Current; SEMC: South East Madagascar Current; SICC: South Indian Countercurrent.

The latest research compared salinity observations at the CSIRO/Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) Rottnest National Reference Station collected during the past 60 years. Analysis of these observations revealed the unusual, but significant, freshening of the ocean’s top layer during 2010-2011.

Dr Feng suspects this may not be the first or last time we experience such an event.

“Something similar probably happened in 1999/2000, so it might happen in the future, especially as we experience more frequent warmer conditions,” he said.

It’s thought that the change in salinity can take a few years to return to normal but the El Niño forecast for 2015, which was to result in a weakening in the Leeuwin Current and cooler water temperatures along the coast of WA, has not rung true.

“Typically we should be experiencing cooler temperatures off the west coast this year but the temperatures have still been warmer than normal, so this is an unusual year, and it shows we don’t fully understand the impact of the Indian Ocean,” Dr Feng said.

Ming Feng, Jessica Benthuysen, Ningning Zhang and Dirk Slawinski (October 2015) Freshening anomalies in the Indonesian throughflow and impacts on the Leeuwin Current during 2010–2011 Research Letters DOI: 10.1002/2015GL065848

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley. 



Kimberley Marine Research Program

Kimberley reefs based on ancient history

WAMSI’s Kimberley Marine Research Program has provided the first definitive evidence that the region’s fringing coral reefs are long lived features growing over a two-billion-year-old land surface recording changes through post-glacial time and dispelling the theory that the reefs are thin veneers over bedrock.

The findings, published in the Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs, make significant inroads into understanding the poorly known coral reefs of the Kimberley in an area that is considered an internationally significant ‘biodiversity hotspot’.

Co-author of the paper, Curtin University’s Mick O’Leary, said the project is working to determine just how unique the Kimberley reef system is.

“We hope to establish whether Kimberley reef morphology conforms to established geomorphic models, like the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr O’Leary said. “It may be that the reefs have developed their own distinctive morphologies driven by extreme environmental conditions, like the massive 11 metre tides that are unique to the Kimberley.”

 The research team used a combination of remote sensing, sub-bottom profiling and associated sedimentological work to produce a regional geodatabase of coral reefs and to determine the internal architecture and growth history of the coral reefs over the last 12,000 years.

More than 860 nearshore reefs were mapped from Cape Londonderry to Cape Leveque with a total of 30 reefs studied in detail and their substrates documented across the Kimberley Bioregion.

The prevalence of rhodolith dominated substrates on high intertidal reefs (both planar and fringing reefs) contrasts with the more coral dominated fringing reefs, with inner to mid-shelf planar reefs having some shared attributes with these contrasting categories.

Satellite images used to map intra-reef geomorphology and associated substrates for the targeted reefs of this study:

 (a) Bathurst and Irvine Islands; (b) Cape Londonderry; (c) Montgomery Reef; (d) Maret Island; (e) Adele Reef; (f) Long Reef; (g) Molema Island; and (h) Tallon Island.


Over 294 km of sub-bottom profiling records were aquired from a representative suite of reefs to determine reef growth history.

Two seismic horizons were identified in the inshore reefs (Sunday Islands, Molema Island, Montgomery Reef and the Buccaneer Archipelago, where seismic calibration was available), marking the boundaries between Holocene reef (Marine Isotope Stage 1, MIS 1, last 12 ky) commonly 10 – 15 m thick, and MIS 5 (Last Interglacial, 120 ky; LIG) and Proterozoic rock foundation over which Quaternary reef growth occurred. In the offshore reefs of the Adele Complex, two additional deeper acoustic reflectors were identified (possibly MIS 7 and MIS 9 or 11)

SBP images of the NW channel bank complex associated with North Turtle Reef


The transition of reef building organisms was investigated by shallow coring (up to 6 m) providing the first subsurface sedimentary samples for the key types of reef found in the southern Kimberley.

The core study sheds considerable light on the growth history of the reefs and has shown that the inshore reefs are muddy in character, similar to the Cockatoo island fringing reef.

Adele Reef, offshore, is distinctly sandier in character. Radiocarbon dating showed that, like Cockatoo Island, reef growth initiated soon after the inner shelf was flooded (~10,000 years ago).

Early reef buildups are likely to be muddy with branching, plate, and massive corals. This is replaced on many reefs (particularly exemplified by Montgomery and Turtle Reefs) by coralline red algae (rhodoliths), small robust corals and coral rubble as reefs become intertidal at their surface.

Multibeam surveys of reef flats discovered a new reef morphotype, the “High Intertidal Reef” which are uniquely characterised by having reef flats that have a surface elevation that sits above the level mid-tide level. Typically reef flats sit at the level of mean low water spring tide.

Getting ready for coring with help from Bardi Jawi Rangers and Erin McGinty from KMRS.


The project’s findings have been integrated into a GIS based database called ‘ReefKIM’ which incorporates a wide range of datasets, including remote sensing images, bathymetric charts, site photos and many geological and biological datasets into one inclusive geodatabase.

The main purpose of ReefKIM is to compile various types and sources of reef and marine environment-related information, fostering data fusion and maximising the accessibility of important information to better understand the Kimberley reefs.

It is intended to provide researchers with an overview of essential information on the Kimberley reefs. It also constitutes a significant decision-support tool, providing managers and stakeholders with practical information for the implementation of their plans and will also help shape the direction of future management policies of the Kimberley region.

Crowdsourcing new information into ReefKIM (also known as the ‘citizen science’ approach) is a promising method for filling knowledge gaps and enhancing understanding of complex reef ecosystems.



Methodological scheme of data acquisition, processing, integration and storage for the Kimberley reef geodatabase (ReefKIM) (source: Kordi et al., 2016).


“Satellite image analysis has revealed that fringing reefs in the Kimberley bioregion grow very well and differ geomorphologically from middle-shelf planar reefs both inshore and offshore,” Dr O’Leary said.

 “The acoustic mid-shelf reef (Adele complex) profiles marked boundaries between Holocene reef (last 12,000 years) and MIS 5 (last 125,000 years) and an ancient Neoproterozoic rock (1,000 to 541 million years ago).

“Correlating the seismic data with the reef chronology determined in Cockatoo and Adele Island, it has been possible to highlight the evolution of multiple stages of reef building, stacked by repeated high sea levels (Adele, 3 stages, at least; Sundays Group, Buccaneer Archipelago and Montgomery Reef, 2 stages; some patch reefs, 1 stage).

“What we’ve found is that the foundation over which reef growth occurred is the two-billion-year-old land surface seen in many Kimberley islands composed of Neoproterozoic rocks. That confirms that Kimberley reefs are not thin growths over bedrock,” Dr O’Leary said.

The findings provides a better understanding of the Kimberley reefs and demonstrate their capacity to succeed in challenging environments while generating complex habitats to support diverse species.

Research Articles:

Collins, L.B., O’Leary, M.J., Stevens, A. M., Bufarale, G., Kordi, M., Solihuddin, T, 2015. Geomorphic Patterns, internal architecture and Reef Growth in a macrotidal, high turbidity setting of coral reefs from the Kimberley Bioregion. Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 12-22. (open access from Nov 2017)

Moataz N. Kordia, Lindsay B. Collins, Michael O’Leary, Alexandra Stevensa (November 2015) ReefKIM: An integrated geodatabase for sustainable management of the Kimberley Reefs, North West Australia Ocean & Coastal Management doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2015.11.004

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley.


Kimberley Marine Research Program

WAMSI/CSIRO partner with Kimberley Aboriginal groups to manage dugong

CSIRO, with the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI), has partnered with four Kimberley Aboriginal organisations to build and deliver a course in aerial survey methodology to Aboriginal Rangers, with a focus on dugongs. The three-day course was hosted by Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s Uunguu Rangers at their Garmbemirri camp in the north Kimberley.

Representatives from the Balanggarra, Uunguu, Dambimangari and Bardi Jawi ranger groups came together with researchers from CSIRO, training staff from Kimberley TAFE and two specialist consultants to learn best-practice survey techniques for monitoring dugong and other wildlife populations.

Rangers learnt via theory and practice how to conduct aerial surveys, with each participant taking off in a Gippsland G8 Airvan to practice surveying dugongs, dolphins and turtles from the air.

Dugong aerial survey training camp

“We need to know more about where balguja (dugong) live, feed and travel so we can look after them,” Uunguu Head Ranger Neil Waina said. “Learning these survey methods with other Traditional Owner groups will help us keep these animals healthy in our Country and keep our saltwater culture strong.”

Course accreditation on two of the modules (aerial navigation & safety around aircraft) was sought and co-funded by the Aboriginal research partners. The newly trained Rangers then worked closely with CSIRO researchers during September and October to undertake an aerial survey of their sea country and to contribute to critical baseline population surveys of dugongs and other marine wildlife species identified as target species in their Healthy Country Plans such as sea turtles, dolphins and whales.

Rangers conducting aerial surveys

The training course and aerial survey are components of the WAMSI Kimberley Marine Science Program’s Dugong Management project being run through the Coastal Program of the CSIRO Oceans & Atmosphere Flagship.

The dugong project aims to integrate Indigenous knowledge, including that related to seagrass feeding grounds and seasonal effects on distribution and abundance, with existing and new data to better understand dugongs in the Kimberley.

A dugong, photographed at Roebuck Bay (Kimberley). (Photo: Dave Holley

The dugong is listed internationally as “vulnerable to extinction” and northern Australia is home to the largest remaining populations. They have very high conservation value and are also culturally important to coastal Aboriginal communities.

New distribution and abundance data will be collected using well established aerial survey methodology, and movements of Kimberley dugongs will be studied also using satellite tracking and acoustic tagging technologies in areas important to sea country plans and Indigenous Protected Areas. This new information will be used to work out how best to monitor and manage Kimberley dugongs into the future.

The team.

The $30 million Kimberley Marine Research Program is funded through major investment supported by $12 million from the Western Australian government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy co-invested by the WAMSI partners and supported by the Traditional Owners of the Kimberley. 


Kimberley Marine Research Program