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Putting Preservation on the Map: Living Oceans Foundation Restores the World’s Oceans with Scientific Research

Apr 08, 2016 01:52PM ● By Melissa Lauren

©Michele Westmorland/iLCP

By Melissa Lauren

In what could be described as a pivotal maritime maneuver, the Living Oceans Foundation, founded by Prince Khaled bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia—moved its worldwide headquarters to Annapolis (specifically the Maritime Republic of Eastport) this past fall. The reason for the big move, according to the organization’s Executive Director, Captain Philip G. Renaud, USN (ret), is to facilitate more efficient community outreach. He explains that the move will better connect Living Oceans Foundation to other significant environmental agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. In particular, Renaud is optimistic about a potential partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to assist with their conservation efforts.

Living Oceans Foundation was established in 2000 and Capt. Renaud—an Arnold resident for the past 10 years—has been part of the organization since 2004. Renaud’s Navy background with remote sensing and satellite airborne sensors complements the foundation’s mission: “Preserve, Protect, and Restore the World’s Oceans and Aquatic Resources through Research.” That research includes satellite mapping of Earth’s coral reefs to better engage world governments in the conservations of these vital eco-systems.

©Jürgen Freund/iLCP
Renaud expounds on the technology used to survey coral reefs worldwide, “Scientists hypothesized that they could use a hyperspectral sensor, which is a high-tech camera, to see if they could map the coral reefs. It works well. Now, new satellites are up.” WorldView2 is a company in Colorado that runs the satellite with the multispectral sensor. Renaud explains further, “We use the energy from the sun’s light that goes through the tropical water, bouncing off coral reefs and that light measurement (hyperspectral sensing) goes to the satellite. From the measurements, we can create the map, which informs resource management.”

In addition to surveying coral reefs with the satellite maps through hyperspectral sensors, Living Oceans conducts scuba diving surveys. In the past five years they have gone to 15 different countries to do these surveys and they’ve accumulated a total of 450 days of combined scuba diving time. Scientists on the scuba diving surveys conduct comprehensive fish counts, coral assessment, and baseline surveys. Through this research, they actually conduct an inventory of a reef by observing the characterization of fish and coral. By doing so, they learn about the ecosystem on each reef, which, in turn, helps Living Oceans Foundation understand human impact within such ecosystems.
Photo courtesy of Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation
Each research project is one month long in order to do all required baseline research. Living Oceans then revisits the “baseline” location to hone in on the particular problem areas they hope to solve. For example, in Tonga they surveyed 75 fishermen and went to the fish markets to weigh and record which fish species the fisherman were selling in the fish markets. They plan to combine that data in the surveys to illustrate potential overfishing.

Living Oceans Foundation has also worked hands-on in the field to manage coral reef systems and solve problems. In October and November 2015, they removed more than 7,000 coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish from vulnerable reefs in the Maldives. If left to their devices, the overpopulation of starfish would have completely wiped out this coral reef ecosystem (they have destroyed an entire reef system in a matter of weeks). Alexandra Dempsey, LOF Coral Reef Ecologist proudly explained they protected the Maldives’ reefs by sending the starfish to the “big coral reef in the sky.” This is significant in the same way that controlling deer population with hunting helps maintain an ecosystem.

Executive Director Philip G. Renaud. 
Photo courtesy of Khaled bin Sultan 
Living Oceans Foundation

Renaud talks about Living Oceans Foundation’s partnership with Science Without Borders. “Science Without Borders has really been the vision of Prince Khaled bin Sultan from Saudi Arabia. He is the founder of Science Without Borders and he came up with that concept.” Living Oceans Foundation always reserves a number of beds on its research ship for local scientists. “Local knowledge is so important for the global scientists from our research team,” Renaud states. Living Oceans’ global scientists learn so much from the local scientists about what is polluting the reefs, and their opinions on governmental policies that are working or aren’t working. In turn, there is an exchange of knowledge as the local scientists learn from the global scientists. For example, a main focus of local scientist education is ‘capacity building’ where global scientists train the local scientists on better methods to survey and monitor the reefs.”

“Since 2000 we’ve seen some really encouraging results. For instance, [recently] in the Bahamas we gave them the first ever Underwater Atlas of Bahamian Marine Environment, which was presented to their government; 300 copies to distribute as they want. When we were there, the minister of the environment declared a couple of new marine protected areas. We’ve found these countries use science as the basis for their policies,” Renaud proudly explains. “The fate of the coral reefs is dependent upon the political will of the countries.”

Part of Living Oceans’ research includes “habitat mapping,” which is like making a city map for the coral reefs in the ocean. Coral reefs are composed of hard or soft coral, as well as sea grass, sandy areas, mangrove forests, and mud flats—different habitat classes. The research also measures “reef resilience,” the ability of the coral reef to recover from stress. Stress could be a hurricane, thermal stress from climate change, or it could be stress from overfishing. A prime example of reef resilience is the coral reef testing in the Marshall Islands and Bikini Island. Fifty years after nuclear destruction, the coral reef has adapted to regenerate and recover from the stress and devastation. The stress was a result of atomic weapons testing.
Photo courtesy of Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation
Thermal stress, however, is possibly the most current threat to reef systems. Coral relies on photosynthesis just like trees. Inside coral there are millions of little algae that act just like the chlorophyll in tree leaves. The sun helps get nutrients to the coral but if the temperature is too high, the chemical process becomes compromised. Algae is expelled and coral turns stark white. Coral bleaching is a defensive mechanism. If the temperature cools down, the coral will reabsorb the algae and continue with this symbiotic healthy relationship.

“Coral reefs are undergoing a massive crisis and it is very timely that we tackle it. Nature doesn’t follow borders. Artificial political boundaries that we establish have no impact on nature,” Renaud affirms.


Coral Reef Educational Portal

Photo courtesy of Living Oceans Foundation
Living Oceans created student curriculum about coral reefs systems to raise awareness about the many threats to them and conservation efforts. To learn more, visit the Coral Reef Education Portal on their website, which launched in October 2015, at

This custom-built online platform contains a comprehensive coral reef curriculum, complete with lesson plans, quizzes, educational videos, interactives, and games. This educational resource is free. The Coral Reef Education Portal was designed for students and teachers, but it is a useful teaching tool for anyone interested in learning about coral reefs. The portal brings 21st century coral reef education into the classroom, particularly geared toward high school science classrooms. Teachers can download worksheets, get ideas for fun and instructive classroom activities, and track the progress of each student in their class.

All of the lesson plans and classroom exercises are aligned to the U.S. Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the Ocean Literacy Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts (OL), and can be integrated into a variety of STEM courses including biology, chemistry, art, and math. The curriculum covers a wide variety of topics.

Additionally, the Science without Borders® Challenge is a yearly art competition that engages students to promote the need to preserve, protect, and restore the world’s oceans and aquatic resources. This international art competition is open to primary and secondary school students, 11 to 19 years old, with scholarships of up to $500 awarded to the top finalists. The theme for the 2016 challenge is “Fishing Under the Radar” and entries are due by Monday, April 25th. For more information, visit: or email Amy Heemsoth, Director of Education, at


Now You See It: Living Oceans Foundation Filmography

Photo courtesy of Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

Films that have aired on PBS include:

• Galapagos: Windows Into the Future
• Mysteries of the Coral Canyon

To request a film screening contact Alison Barrat, Director of Communications,

Films that can viewed on YouTube include:

• Introductory Film:

• Deadly Starfish Eats Coral: Crown of Thorns Starfish Crisis Film:

• Reefs on the Road: Tonga Educational Film:

Save the Date for Living Oceans Foundation’s Film Screening and Reception on World Oceans Day Sunday, June 5th at the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Each year the LOF will host a film screening at the Annapolis Maritime Museum in celebration of World Oceans Day. Last year’s event featured the award-winning film Mapping the Blue, which is about the creation of a very large marine protected area in the Cook Islands. This event is open to the public and fellow marine conservation heroes.