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Coral reefs

Coral reefs are awe-inspiring and awesome! The reefs around Norfolk Island are distinctive and show many features unlike more tropical reefs. However, just as with marine environments the world over, Norfolk Marine Park is subject to pressures from climate change, fishing, habitat change and pollution.


Norfolk Island Reefs

Member Susan Prior has established an informative website with a collection of stunning photographs of corals.


Project Phoenix

Project Phoenix is an international multidisciplinary collaboration among researchers interested in the taxonomy, systematics and evolution of corals. The current focus is on the order Scleractinia (hard corals) and the goal is to develop a robust taxonomy using knowledge and technologies both old and new.

A team led by Prof. Andrew Baird of James Cook University visited the Island in November 2021. They reported that the coral fauna has been “completely misinterpreted in the scientific literature. While it will take us a few years to work out exactly how many species are here and give them good names, it is clear that there is very little overlap with tropical reefs.” The Coral Phoenix Project’s website includes an account of their visit and a trove of other resources.


Reef Life Survey

The physical reef formations and their rich sea life around Norfolk have been subject of investigations by Reef Life Survey, a not-for-profit group of divers who, under the oversight of marine scientists Antonia Cooper and John Turnbull and Parks Australia, visited the Island in 2021 to replicate earlier surveys.

Reef Life Survey is a citizen science program by which trained SCUBA divers survey marine biodiversity in rocky and coral reefs around the world. It first surveyed Norfolk Island in 2009, then again in 2013, with an eight year hiatus before its return in February/March 2021.

Photo John Turnbull: Susan’s Flatworm, known from Indonesia and the Indian Ocean, now a first record from the Pacific.


John Turnbull reported the story on the knowledge-website The Conversation:

“In these surveys we record fish species including their size and abundance, invertebrates such as urchins and sea stars, and habitat such as coral cover. This allows us to track changes in marine life using standardised scientific methods. Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk. We even felt there had been increases in coral cover at some sites. This may be due to Norfolk’s location. The Island is further south than most Australian coral reefs, which means it has cooler seas, and it’s surrounded by deeper water.

“I noticed generally low numbers of large fish such as morwong and sharks on our survey sites. Some classes of invertebrate were also rare on this year’s surveys, particularly sea shell animals like tritons and whelks. Urchins, on the other hand, were common, particularly the red urchin. Some sites also had numerous black long-spined urchins and large sea lamingtons. These invertebrate observations follow patterns we see in eastern and southern Australia, where there are declines in the numbers of many invertebrate species, and increases in urchin barrens — regions where urchin populations grow unchecked.


Photo: John Turnbull. The abundant red urchin competes for space with other invertebrates, such as this one encrusting hard coral.


“A highlight of any survey dive is finding an animal you suspect may not have been recorded at a location before. I recorded first sightings for Reef Life Survey of blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish.” These records are yet to be confirmed by specialists.

The team spoke warmly of the welcome they received from the community on Norfolk. The team would like to return for re-surveys of the 17 transect sites every two years or so, to plot trends over time.