A model lesson in marine biology

Monday 25 September 2017 | Written by Chris Taylor | Published in Local


A model lesson in marine biology
Wells and husband Jesse McNeilly met in Aitutaki while she was on an Australian Women's Weekly photoshoot, starting a long partnership in protecting the environment, and a close connection to the Cook Islands 17092129/PHOTO: Lisa McMahon

I’ve just had a lesson on coral bleaching from in-demand international model, Laura Wells.

Not something I expected on a Sunday afternoon cruise on the Raro Reef Sub.

Although, I shouldn’t be surprised, as apart from posing in front of cameras for top fashion labels, the 32-year-old from Australia is also a well-known marine biologist and environmental campaigner.

In a nutshell, she eloquently explained, “Dinoflagellates (aka marine plankton) that live inside the coral, have a symbiotic relationship with the coral structure themselves.

“But when the surrounding water temperature gets too hot, and the ph (of the water) gets too high, they leave the coral structure. That’s when the coral loses all its colour, better known as bleaching, as the structure turns white.”

So that’s how it happens…

Wells was invited on board the Reef Sub by owner and “Captain”, Steph Jansen, along with locally based marine scientist Dr Teina Rongo, and renowned whale researcher, Nan Hauser.

Jansen wanted to get some marine “brainiac” heads together to critique the condition of the coral gardens just off Avarua, which she thought were looking poorly and losing colour compared to what she was used to seeing.

Wells just so happened to be in the Cook Islands in time for the marine field trip.

And, her philosophy, from what I can make out, speaking with her on the bumpy boat ride, is that she believes each of us can individually make a difference to the environment, and reduce the negative impact of climate change.

She may have first gained notoriety for being a top plus size model (and positive body image promoter), but she is now also using her high public profile and biology knowledge to inspire others to protect our “blue planet.”

She says she has been working with the whale research centre in Rarotonga for the past four years.

“We come up for a few weeks every season, and we’re on the Board of the Whale Research Centre. We help with Nan and the team.”

Wells says, in Australia she and husband Jesse McNielly have worked in ocean conservation, with NGO Ocean Ambassadors.

They ran clean-up programmes at local beaches around Sydney, every Sunday for two years.

The couple have also travelled with Ocean Ambassadors to Norfolk Island, Vanuatu and Fiji documenting plastic pollution and what locals are doing to combat it.

As you’d imagine, protecting the environment is a full time gig.

While their work with Ocean Ambassadors has just slowed down, Wells says she has recently joined forces with global beer giant Corona, and their commitment to “protect 100 islands by 2020” campaign.

She says Corona and their “Parley ocean plastic programme” focuses on turning waste plastic coming directly from the ocean into useable products (such as Adidas shoes). It’s also about education through the Parley Ocean school and global clean-up initiatives.

I tell Wells I’d heard somewhere someone had come up with edible six pack rings. She agrees this was a fantastic innovation, as plastic polluting the ocean is her biggest enemy.

And I later discover, because of her love for the ocean, she’s definitely got it in for single use plastic bags and bottles. She even targeted plastic straws on social media – saying everyone knows they suck! And, she has got behind many campaigns to ban plastic, such as “plastic free July”. Wells has also worked with organisations like Greenpeace and WWF.

It seems her Instagram account is one of her biggest platforms for spreading her environmental message.

In one post, she warns Australians about the thousands of tonnes of single-use plastic that gets dumped only around 36 per cent gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, or more alarmingly, in the ocean.

Back on the boat, she says keeping our oceans healthy is a joint effort.

“There’s lots of things we can all do on an individual basis; it all does really add up.

“Every little thing that you do to change makes a difference, and it shows those people around you that they can make a difference too.

“You don’t necessarily go out and tell them that, but by doing the actions they start to see, and subconsciously they pick it up.”

Wells says she’s recently jetted into Rarotonga from Heron Island in Queensland, coming from a climate change symposium on the Great Barrier Reef, looking at changes in coral there.

“Heron Island is really quite beautiful, and has been spared by climate change and bleaching the last few years, which is really lucky, but has the potential to be always at risk. It was some of the healthiest reef I’ve dived under, in a long time.”

She says in terms of climate change, it’s a global issue.

Below deck, on our cruise with Rongo and Hauser, she learns the reef in Rarotonga is still coming back from damage caused in a series of cyclones in 2005 that wiped out 98 per cent of the coral communities.

But it’s all starting to look great and healthy, she says. Captain Jansen, overhearing this, is pleased to hear the news that the reef her boat visits most days of the week isn’t dying, but rather going through a period of renewal. Even though the corals are brownish in colour, she says, it doesn’t mean they’re in decline.

Wells says “I’ve only been here the past few years on and off, and not living here. And what I’ve learned is, the reef is still coming back, and that takes a really long time.

“And we need as many people as we can to see it, so they can do all that they can to help.”

She says when we have a healthy reef, we have healthy fish, and healthy fish populations, and then we have healthy whales and humans.

“500 million people around the world rely on the marine eco system for sources of food, and 80 per cent of the oxygen we breath comes from the ocean.”

That’s something I always thought trees were responsible for. I later googled this and found out she’s correct, with some scientists saying that around 50-80 per cent of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton.

Or, as Wells says “Four out of five breaths we take.”

Wells says, the ocean is also a large carbon sponge, soaking up a lot of the carbon that we omit, and it will get to the point where it can’t take much more. And that’s where the ph of the ocean increases, which means it becomes more acidic and the coral can’t survive.

“So sometimes it (coral) can come back as we’ve seen in the past, but other times coral will not survive.

“Its interesting everything we have in the ocean and on earth is so intricately related to each other. Take one thing out it effects everything else – and we have to protect everything we’ve got.”

“And people that live here and have grown up in the Cook Islands are so lucky to be surrounded by such a beautiful reef, and have so many beautiful animals in the ocean and on land. It’s something we can really thrive on, and take ownership over that protection too.”

We ended the cruise with a whale extravaganza, with a mother and calf simultaneously breaching 100 metres off the bow of the boat, playing around for about 20 minutes. And it symbolically sums up everything she says about why we need to protect our reefs.

Wells’ biggest passion is to educate people on protecting the environment, and she’s excited to say, next year she’ll be hosting a children’s science show for a major Australian television network.

In the meantime, Wells says she’s also going to Antarctica in February on a three-week science expedition looking at climate change with the homeward bound projects.

She was selected as one of 80 international women in science to participate and extend the voice of women scientists, as well as visibility for climate change; which ties directly into coral reefs and small island nations in the South Pacific.

For more info on Wells’ Corona “protect 100 islands by 2020” campaign go to @coronaextra_au or @parley.tv