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Scuba-diving scientist shines new light on the Earth’s coral reefs

2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Luiz Rocha is working to understand how deep-sea corals can serve as a protected environment for sea animals

20 May 2022 - 08:27 By Matthew McClure
Luiz Rocha works to explore and protect mesophotic coral reefs and their biodiversity in the Indian Ocean, and to strengthen conservation of these largely unknown ecosystems.
Luiz Rocha works to explore and protect mesophotic coral reefs and their biodiversity in the Indian Ocean, and to strengthen conservation of these largely unknown ecosystems.
Image: Supplied/Rolex/Bart Michiels

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise, started almost 50 years ago, are a springboard of support for bright minds that want to change the world. They form part of the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative, which fosters scientific exploration, inquiry, invention, and outreach in the ongoing effort to make our planet perpetual.

Take a trip with us as we tell you more about the Rolex Awards for Enterprise legacy and family, and invite you to meet this year’s five Laureates who are taking the fight to protect the Earth and its inhabitants, from the coral reefs of the Maldives to the caves of Greenland and beyond.

Brazilian scientist Luiz Rocha, a 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate.
Brazilian scientist Luiz Rocha, a 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate.
Image: Supplied/Rolex/Bart Michiels

Brazilian 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Luiz Rocha has spent almost as much time underwater as the fish that he loves. Rocha fell in love with the ocean as a teenager and has spent most of his life exploring its depths. He has mastered the skill of scuba diving to depths of 150m, where fish and other animals live in a weird world of murky darkness that we are just starting to learn about.

Coral reefs all over the world are in serious danger. Twenty-five percent of ocean life is dependent on them for food or raising young, and they provide shelter for a host of marine species, but warmer and more acidic oceans are endangering these critical underwater ecosystems. 

Rocha is leading a team of international scientists aiming to explore, understand and preserve the mesophotic sea corals that exist 30m to 150m below sea level, as almost nothing is known about them, and he is worried that we’ll lose them before we begin to comprehend their importance.

During every one of [our] dives, we come up with either a new species or a new record
Scientist Luiz Rocha, 2021 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate  

“During every one of those dives, we come up with either a new species or a new record,” he says. “Most of those deeper reefs are not protected. There’s urgency to protect them because if we don’t, we’re going to lose what’s there — even before we get to know it.”

He is basing his expedition around the Maldives atolls, a string of small islands that make up the larger Maldives group in the Indian Ocean. He has spent more than 6,000 hours underwater on more than 70 scientific diving missions and is using all of that extensive experience to embark on this challenging mission that will take place in partnership with the Maldives ministry of fisheries over two years. 

The government of the Maldives is starting to understand how important it is to protect these coral reefs. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to this island nation in the hope of exploring coral reefs, and the corals at this deep level play a part in the overall health of the whole coral ecosystem of the Maldives. 

'I was one of those kids who fell in love with the ocean, with fish, with animals. I always wanted to go deeper and understand more,' says scientist Luiz Rocha.
'I was one of those kids who fell in love with the ocean, with fish, with animals. I always wanted to go deeper and understand more,' says scientist Luiz Rocha.
Image: Supplied/Rolex/Bart Michiels

Part of what Rocha hopes to understand is whether these deep-sea corals can serve as a protected environment for the sea animals that live in and around the shallow coastal corals. 

Even if this does prove to be the case, Rocha’s mission is to prove that coral reefs at the mesophotic level are unique environments that are especially vulnerable because nothing is known about them. Rocha’s mission harnesses the power of exploration as an important way of boosting education and conservation.

Navigate to Rolex.org to discover more. #PerpetualPlanet #RolexAwards 



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