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Volunteers Map Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in Vast Citizen Science Project

FILE - Reef fish swim above recovering coral colonies on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia, Oct. 25, 2019.
FILE - Reef fish swim above recovering coral colonies on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia, Oct. 25, 2019.

An expedition to find lost shipwrecks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef begins Friday. The voyage is part of the Great Reef Census, one of the world’s largest marine citizen science projects.

Conservationists estimate there are up to 900 shipwrecks on the Great Barrier Reef, but only 150 have been found. Shallow water in some parts of the reef off northeastern Australia and the region’s susceptibility to storms and cyclones have made seafaring perilous.

Volunteers discovered three shipwrecks last year while surveying the world’s largest coral system. The expedition, which ends Dec. 1, is returning to Five Reefs and the Great Detached Reef, remote regions that are rarely visited, to gather more data and hunt for other wrecks. Onboard the boat are conservationists, scientists and a marine archaeologist.

Andy Ridley, the chief executive of Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, the organization that runs the survey, said last year's discovery was an unforgettable experience.

“The first mate on the boat was floating over the top of a reef from one side to the other and noticed there were river stones in the water, and, you know, round stones on the top of a coral reef is unusual,” he said. “We realized it was ballast from an old ship. We discovered one of what we think is three 200-year-old wrecks on that particular reef in the far northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It was kind of one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was like one of those kind of boyhood kind of dreams.”

Scientists, tourists, divers and sailors are contributing to this year’s Great Reef Census.

They are taking thousands of pictures that will help document the health of a reef system that faces various threats, such as climate change, overfishing and pollution.

The images will be analyzed early next year by an international army of online volunteers who, in the past, have included children from Jakarta, Indonesia, a church group in Chicago, and citizen scientists from Colombia.

In 2020, its first year, the survey, which runs from early October to late December, collected 14,000 images.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area. It stretches for 2,300 kilometers down northeastern Australia and is the size of Germany.

It comprises 3,000 individual reefs, is home to 10% of the world’s fish species and is the only living thing visible from space.