Real Science for Conservation

Emily Darling, PhD

Emily Darling, PhD

When I first met (now) Dr. Emily Darling, she was visiting the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and working on her PhD. We worked together as a dive team for the 2011 Baeria Rocks marine biodiversity survey, and I made a short video of the event. Then she was off to the tropics again to complete her work. Since then, she’s come out swinging, with real world application research for reef conservation and the accolades to prove her skill in her areas of study! Emily Darling holds a BSc with Honours from Queen’s University and a PhD from Simon Fraser University, and was recently awarded with the Governor General’s Gold Medal for her ground breaking research and contributions to the field of marine biology. With over 15 publications in prestigious periodicals and journals, she’s written both on her own research and the importance of scientists using social media. She’s a PADI Rescue Diver, and CAUS Scientific Diver level 1, and was kind enough to do an interview with Cold Water Diver!

So, what got you involved in marine biology?

In my third year of undergrad, I took a field course in coral reef fish behaviour and ecology by Dr Peter Sale at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Our class spent 3 weeks on a remote and rugged caye in Turneffe Atoll in Belize. We spent every day snorkelling on coral reefs and fighting off the sand fleas by night. I absolutely loved it. I’d never seen a natural place with such excitement, electricity and exuberance as a coral reef (some of the colours on those fish are unreal!) I also learned to SCUBA dive and this really sealed the deal that I wanted to try and be a marine biologist.

I know the feeling! What research led to your award from the Governor General?

I study the impact of multiple stressors on marine ecosystems. Climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss are fundamentally altering the world’s oceans. But we are often at a loss to understand the combined and often unpredictable effects of these stresses. My PhD research looked at the combined impacts of climate change and fishing on coral reefs in Kenya. I studied the corals themselves, which are the backbone of these diverse and economically important ecosystems. I found that fished reefs were surprisingly resilient to the impacts of climate change, which I discovered to be associated with the types of hardy and weedy species that persist on exploited reefs. On the other hand, coral reefs within no-take marine reserves were especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and coral bleaching because they harbour sensitive species. For conservation and management, my research found that marine reserves, a popular form of local management, may have counterintuitive effects that can actually increase the vulnerability of coral reefs to global climate change. This calls for more strategic action to protect coral reefs from climate change, like conservation targeted to areas of natural climate refugia.

That sounds a lot like warm water diving, but this blog is called ‘cold water diver’…

Yep, it’s true. Most of my research has been in warm tropical waters where coral reefs occur. It’s a real treat to usually have good vis, blue water and wear a wetsuit. But I’m also proud that I (somewhat reluctantly!) learned how to dive in 8C cold water while living in BC! I’ve seen some amazing kelp forests and temperate reefs in Indian Arm, Howe Sound and on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Bamfield. My favourite story was from way up Indian Arm near Croaker Island. There was a cold snap in december and it was so cold on the boat that my first stage froze and I had to gear up, jump in the water and lean back to thaw my first stage before I could turn my air on! I’ve also had less than ideal stories diving in warm water (raging currents, boat strandings and sinkings, schools of stinging jellyfish) but that Indian Arm cold water diving story is one of my favourites. I’ve definitely become a better diver by learning how to dive in cold water and I’ve got to thank my supervisor (and SFU Dive Safety Officer) Isabelle Côté for believing that I could be a cold water diver even when I definitely didn’t!

Isabelle is fantastic instructor. So what you have researched in the past?

Before I started my PhD, I studied the sex lives of plants and the evolution of dispersal in a California coastal dune plant. I put tiny seeds in a wind tunnel at Queen’s University to see how fast they would fly (the seeds in this plant are dispersed by wind). As an intern with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kenya, I studied overfishing in the small-scale coral reef fishery. Talking to local fishermen in Kenya was really eye opening for me. I learned that fisheries in developing countries were completely different than what I was used to here in Canada. I also started to learn Swahili and ended up going back to Kenya for my PhD research.

Very cool. What are you planning on researching in the future?

As a David H Smith Conservation Research Fellow, I’ll be working on a climate adaptation plan for US coral reefs. Using temperature data and climate models, I will identify coral reefs that occur in natural climate refugia and have the best chance of surviving warming ocean temperatures with climate change. I’m thrilled to be working with NOAA, conservation groups like WWF and WCS and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to make a strategic plan to protect US coral reefs against climate change.

Nice! Sounds like a great experience! It’s been great talking to you!

Thanks Graeme, that was fun!

Emily Darling is currently in North Carolina, preparing for her post doctoral studies. You can follow her on Twitter @emilysdarling, read about her achievements here, and for those looking for more scholarly resource, check out her Google Scholar entry.

About the author

Graeme is a professional diver, qualified as a PADI and SDI Divemaster, DCBC 40m Unrestricted Commercial Scuba Diver, 30m Restricted Surface Supply diver, and CAUS Scientific Diver Lv.2. Graeme has an Associate Degree of Arts in Environmental Studies, where he focused on archaeology and physical geography, and an Advanced GIS certificate.