global thinking

Below the Surface

An in-depth understanding of ocean life

by Sherry L. Howard
Helen Fox in a scuba suit conducting research underwater on coral reefs. She is holding a pen and tablet.
courtesy of helen fox ’94
Helen Fox ’94 majored in biology and learned about the natural and human threats to coral reefs. “The corals themselves form the ecological, structural, and biological foundation for the whole ecosystem,” she says.
Helen Fox ’94 was supposed to be on a research boat on the surface off the coast of Key Largo, Fla. But instead, she found herself with five other people in a capsule a tad larger than a school bus anchored to the sea floor.

In 2001, her adviser from the University of California, Berkeley, was to be the one near the bottom of the sea studying the habitat of the stomatopod, or mantis shrimp. But he couldn’t get medical clearance for the saturation dive. Although Fox’s interest was in coral reef conservation, she couldn’t say no to the amazing opportunity.

Helen Fox ’94
Marine Biologist
Fox felt conflicted about taking his spot, but grateful. “I would never have gotten to go otherwise,” she says. Today, Fox is the conservation science director at the Coral Reef Alliance, headquartered in Oakland, Calif. For nearly 20 years, she has worked to ensure that coral reef conservation programs are based on scientific evidence and has designed research projects to understand the social and ecological impact of marine-protected areas. “Coral reefs are so beautiful — that’s the biodiversity,” says Fox. “The corals themselves form the ecological and structural and biological foundation for the whole rest of this ecosystem. There’s fish swimming in and among them. There’s all kinds of invertebrates, little creepy crawlies hiding in the holes.”

Global warming is a real threat to coral reefs, she says, because it has led to bleaching. Corals secrete calcium carbonate, creating a limestone-like skeleton whose surface is actually the live animal. Algae live inside the corals in a symbiotic relationship and give them their color. When the water heats up, the algae move out, leaving the corals white and stressed but still alive. If the algae don’t return, the corals eventually die.

“A lot of the Great Barrier Reef has died,” Fox says, “because of some of that major bleaching.” The Coral Reef Alliance developed a theoretical model to show the impact of warming on the reefs 300 years in the future and how to save them today.

“Climate change is a very big threat and very pervasive.”

Fox first became enamored with coral reefs in Australia the year after her high school graduation. Her family lived near the University of Queensland, and her mother suggested that she take a course on coral reefs. Fox did and learned “what an amazing ecosystem they are.” Her appreciation was solidified when she returned as a Fulbright Scholar soon after graduating from Swarthmore.

Fox’s work as a coral reef conservationist no longer calls for saturation diving — so named because the body gets saturated with nitrogen at that depth and decompression is needed. But she fondly remembers that formative experience aboard the research vessel Aquarius decades ago. On that expedition, Fox spent about nine days 45 feet below the surface. She and a team member donned double scuba tanks for daily dives guided by a line attached to the capsule. They mapped the stomatopods’ hangouts with plastic paper and pencil tied to a string. Though the dive was a side project for Fox, who was doing her Ph.D. work on coral reefs damaged by dynamite fishing off Indonesia, its importance still resonates today.

“In many developing countries’ remote coastal communities and villages, coral reefs provide the sources of food and income and shoreline protection,” she says. “They’re a very important ecosystem for people.”