Coral conservation - from exhibits in Virginia to field work on Curaçao!
SECORE: When did you fall in love with coral reefs?
Culbertson: My first job out of college exposed me to tropical corals, which is where I began to fall in love with these magnificent animals. I believe what I love most is just how beautiful they are and the magnificent structures they create. To this day, the most beautiful natural phenomenon I have seen is mass spawning in Curaçao. The “reverse snow” effect is beyond unbelievable and cannot be put into words.
Photos, left: coral reef at Curaçao (Exposure Lab); mid: getting ready to dive & right: looking out for coral larvae under fluorescence light, both spawning training on Curaçao 2015 (Reef Patrol).
How do people react when they first experience the aquarium's tropical reef tank?
"Is that real?" This is always a fun question to answer. The large Red Sea coral reef aquarium beside the live coral aquarium is full of fake but very realistic looking coral. When guests leave that aquarium and stop in front of the live coral aquarium, they always ask, “Is this all real coral?” Once they begin to realize everything in the aquarium is living, they start picking out their favorite. Depending on the time of day, the conversation could go into coral reef conservation or popular ornamental fish mariculture. All conversations ending in how important the coral reef environment is to the planet, how the Virginia Aquarium is helping and how everyone can help make a difference.
What is your take-home message for people visiting the Virginia Aquarium?
This has always been a topic of discussion here at the Aquarium in that we want to be as direct and purposeful when sending home a message about conservation. We promote so many ways people can help that it is almost like throwing a hundred tennis balls at them in hopes that they will catch one. As we work to establish a single take-home message, it will seem like we are throwing only one tennis ball at a time, so they can catch it every time.
Public outreach and education are two of the biggest roles aquariums play in giving coral reefs a future. Aquariums help to share information such as the state of coral reefs, the importance they have on every life form, and why we should care about them, it would be very difficult for the general public to even be aware of what challenges this world faces.
And over half a million guests get to see what wonderful work we do here at the Aquarium every year!
Are you doing any reef conservation-related work in the Virginia Aquarium’s wet lab?
I am currently sitting on committees in part of The Florida Reef Tract Recovery Project, which will soon expand to holding corals for this project. We will house close to 50 individuals from the Florida Reef Tract in our newly renovated coral lab. This will be a space that guests can see corals from the Reef Tract and learn all about the problems they are facing as well as learn about SECORE and how their work is related to coral reef conservation and resilience.
Photos, top: Spawning 'snowstorm'; corals release eggs-and-sperm bundles into the water during one to few nights a year. Corals of one species synchronize their spawning to ensure fertilization of the released eggs (Benjamin Mueller); bottom row, left: Evan Culbertson collecting coral spawn under water, 2019 (Zach Ransom); mid: spawning night dive team on Curaçao, 2018 (Evan Culbertson); right: scoring settlement substrates for freshly settle baby corals (Zach Ransom).
How has the Virginia Aquarium become involved in reef restoration?
Luckily, I was given the opportunity to become involved by my Curator when I first started. She asked me to decide what conservation work I would be interested in. I took that opportunity to suggest coral reef conservation and specifically SECORE. Once I began to work with corals, I fell in love with them and wanted to do as much as I could to protect, educate, and learn about them. SECORE was an organization that I knew about and was very interested in learning, working, and sharing their story.
My Curator at the time signed me up for a workshop in Curaçao, so I could learn more about coral rearing, conservation, and research. This opportunity allowed me to get my feet wet and bring back wonderful information that I could use here at the Aquarium. Along with educating staff and guests about the work I did in Curaçao, I was able to set up a propagation space to apply the knowledge I gained. Because of the success, I showed both on Curaçao and at the Aquarium, I was able to attend the same workshop the following year. At this point, I realized how important it would be for SECORE and the Virginia Aquarium to partner.
So, you are also actively supporting reef restoration research in the field. What exactly are you doing, and which expertise are you contributing?
I have been participating in SECORE training and field excursions for five years now. This includes financial support from our Foundation as well as on-site support on Curaçao with Dr. Valérie Chamberland and Kelly Latjinhouwers. I initially participated in two trainings during mass spawning events, where I learned quite a bit about life history, sexual reproduction, and restoration techniques on corals targeted for SECORE research. This opened the door for me to expand my support during the Acropora spawning.
I love looking forward to observing the restoration site I have been working on in previous years. Going back to the locations where SECORE has outplanted baby corals to see their growth is always exciting and gives me a good feeling! I also look forward to new and exciting projects or research opportunities that have been started since I was there last. Overall, I would say my excitement stems from the hard work and important contribution to coral reef science I get to do while I am there.
Does the progress, which SECORE and its partners are making, give you hope for the future of coral reefs?
YES!!! I believe that the work that SECORE is doing is instrumental for the future of corals, and without them and their partners, I would have a totally different outlook on the future of this planet!
Thanks a lot for this interview, Evan, as well as for your vital and tireless support in our work! We are missing you on Curaçao this year and cannot wait to have you joining next year's spawning season again!
Photos: Evan Culbertson, Assistant Curator at the Virginia Aquarium and Science Center, above and under water (Evan Culbertson, Zach Ransom)!
SECORE'S work on Curaçao: coral restoration research
Film: Acropora spawning 'snowstorm' in Mexico by Paul Selvaggio
Virginia Aquarium's blog coral restoration with SECORE
Why I care about coral reefs blog entry by Henry Doorly's Zoo Curator Mitch Carl