Making waves of change with marine science

Personnel Image

Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

8 June 2023

Protecting the wonders under the sea

The ocean is a place of unparalleled biodiversity, an environment that can shape human lifestyles. For those drawn to the ocean from a young age, the nation-wide Ocean Youth program provides an opportunity to test the waters of marine conservation. The program encouraged a number of current JCU Marine Science students to dive into studying, researching and protecting marine environments.

Brianna Bird recalls that the minute she saw an online advertisement for Ocean Youth was the minute her future started. “When I saw the ad, I told my mum, ‘I want to do this’. After I went to the information night, I told her, ‘I need to do this’.”

Brianna says she felt a responsibility to protect the sense of freedom, adventure and wonder that the ocean brought to her. Participating in Ocean Youth’s program allowed her to gain the skills to do so. “The biggest learning opportunity was working with a team of other teens to plan a movie night at the Seals Stadium at Sea Life Sunshine Coast, where we presented a marine documentary,” she says. “It taught me how to communicate with my team and with the wider community.

“My time at Ocean Youth also solidified my passion for working with marine life and studying oceanic systems. Working in sea labs, getting my Certificate II in Outdoor Recreation, building a network with those working in ocean conservation — it all strengthened my connection to the ocean and my drive for marine science.”

Now in her second year of studying a Bachelor of Science with a double major in Marine Biology and Zoology & Ecology, Brianna gets to learn about the science behind the wonders under the sea. “This year, I did a subject on marine biogeography that I never thought I’d like. But I ended up really enjoying it and learning so much about how the ocean formed and how Australia, and its waters, came to be one of the most biodiverse places in the world.”

Student Brianna Bird in front of large plant.
Student Caitlin Philipps in front of tree.
Left: Bachelor of Science Student Brianna Bird. Right: Bachelor of Advanced Science Student Caitlin Philipps.

Your voice makes a difference

Growing up in Melbourne, Caitlin Philipps says her life revolved around the ocean.

“Coming from a family of sailors, if we weren’t racing, we were cruising. If we weren’t sailing at all, we were swimming and snorkelling. The ocean is my entire life, hence why I moved to Townsville and pursued marine biology.”

Caitlin heard about Ocean Youth while gaining work experience at the Melbourne Aquarium. “Participants got to go out into Port Philip Bay, which was like the be all and end all in Melbourne. So, when applications opened, I was one of the first to sign up,” she says.

“I got a lot of key skills out of Ocean Youth, but my biggest takeaway was definitely the concept of ‘you can do it if you put your mind to it’,” Caitlin says. “One of our projects was to set up a campaign and work to achieve something tangible in the campaign’s six-month period. After doing a sailing trip in the Whitsundays and seeing all the sewage being discharged into ocean there, I decided to make my campaign about installing pump-out stations into the marinas on the Whitsundays.”

The campaign involved reaching out to magazines, news outlets and the community about the issue. Caitlin even wrote a letter to David Attenborough — and still has the letter he wrote in response.

“About a year later, I heard that the Queensland Government had passed legislation that required new or newly renovated marinas that can berth more than eight vessels to have pump-out stations. I can’t say that was solely from my influence but putting the word out there and using my voice did help push that legislation through."

“The thing is, only you are stopping you. If I didn’t do any of that work, the legislation may have still gone through, but using my voice for it definitely made a difference.”

JCU Advanced Science Student Caitlin Philipps

Even though Caitlin was already interested in attending JCU to study coral reefs, her experience at Ocean Youth developed her passion for research with practical applications. She is now undertaking the Honours component of her Bachelor of Advanced Science majoring in Marine Biology.

“Since I first saw how that sewage moved on top of the water, and how the currents influenced the waste dumped by boats, I’ve been interested in hydrodynamics,” Caitlin says. “Now I get to contribute to research on how these hydrodynamics have ecological significance for our coral reefs.”

Student Emily Washington in front of tree.
Student Angad Maniyambath in front of tree.
Left: PhD Student Emily Washington. Right: Master of Marine Biology Student Angad Maniyambath.

Ocean Youth has shown teens around Australia how dedicated research supports effective conservation, as was the case for current JCU PhD Student Emily Washington.

“I was really attracted to Ocean Youth by the thought of meeting like-minded people in my age group,” Emily says. “Through the program, I gained a greater understanding of the threats to the ocean and felt like I had more tools for making positive changes. Once I completed the program, I had no doubt in my mind that pursuing marine science was what I wanted to do.”

Emily came to JCU to take advantage of world-renowned research facilities both on-campus and on Orpheus Island where she could get hands-on experience. Now, she’s investigating the trade-offs of heat tolerant traits in hard corals.

Master of Marine Biology student, Angad Maniyambath, is working on using autonomous robots to gather large datasets on reefs to help researchers and stakeholders make informed decisions. He also mentors current Ocean Youth participants as they journey through the program.

“We still don’t know enough about the ocean, and it’s crucial that we learn as much about it as possible so that we can do our best to protect it,” he says.

Ready to make your own wave of change?

Take it from these change-makers: you can make a difference in marine science and conservation.

“Every action, big or small, has an impact,” Emily says. “Every time you speak up, a few more people are going to receive your message, so keep at it.”

“Imperfect action by many people is better than perfect action by one person,” Caitlin says. “Anything that you know is going to make a positive change in the world is worth doing!”

Follow in the footsteps of these students and explore JCU’s courses in marine science, marine biology, ecology and advanced science.

Visit Ocean Youth to find out how you or someone you know can get involved in advocacy, clean-up projects, educational workshops, community activities and more.

You can also follow Ocean Youth to see the real-world action happening around Australia, and the JCU Marine Society to keep up-to-date with the events, activities and opportunities on offer for students throughout the year.

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