Richard Vevers has traveled the globe to photograph coral reefs since quitting his advertising job. In 2011 he cofounded the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, a collaboration between the University of Queensland and a number of research institutions, photographing underwater corals as they adapt to climate change. He captured the Great Barrier Reef during its latest—and most devastating—mass die-off, and documented how coral off the coast of Belize had partially recovered thanks to a no-fishing zone.
But no dive has stunned Vevers as much as the sight of corals going white during an early March dive in the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, located about 1,000 miles from Australia’s better-known Great Barrier Reef.
Coral die-offs—caused by a process known as bleaching—tend to look as bland and lifeless, in contrast to the vibrant rainbow colors of thriving coral. Bleached coral reefs usually appear as an endless stretch of white coral and eventually turn to dead brown coral. But in New Caledonia Vevers found something different.
The corals he captures lit up fluorescently as their color left them slowly but surely. The crew captured the moment using their underwater SVX camera system—a technology that captures 360-degree imagery underwater. “In the past people simply haven’t gone to the right location at the right time,” says Vevers. “I was blown away… I’ve never seen something so beautiful, but it’s dying.”
The bleaching in New Caledonia represents just a small fraction of the total bleaching that has occurred across the globe since 2014. The ongoing bleaching event is the worst ever, with reefs affected from Florida to Australia, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It’s also the longest bleaching event in recorded history, and scientists say it shows no evidence of ending any time soon. With the Our Ocean conference scheduled to start today in Washington, there’s no better time to focus on one of the biggest threats to aquatic health.