Revealing the world underwater

A fascination with life underwater, the excitement of new discoveries and a passion to protect what so few of us ever see are motivating forces for marine biologist Karen Gowlett-Holmes

Underwater photo of plant life

By Rose Yeoman

From her home at Eaglehawk Neck on the Forestier Peninsula in south-east Tasmania, Karen Gowlett-Holmes has a sweeping view of the ocean. It’s a fitting place to live for someone whose passion for the marine environment has inspired a 35-year career in marine biology and taxonomy.

She is the collection manager of marine invertebrates in the CSIRO Division of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Hobart. It’s a rather dry-sounding title for the adventurous work that has taken her from Antarctica to the tropics, led to a host of newly discovered marine life, and allowed her to create an extensive collection that documents life underwater.

Taxonomy – the systematic classification of organisms – is a key component of her role at CSIRO, and invertebrates are her specialty. Everything from crustaceans to jellyfish. Less than 40 per cent of marine invertebrate species have been described, which makes the opportunity to find a new species relatively common. “For a taxonomist, this is very exciting,” she says.

Karen Gowlett-Holmes has discovered several hundred new species during her career and been responsible for the formal species description of several of these new species. She also has more than a dozen species named after her, including worms, chitons, jellyfish, sea anemones and crabs.

Captured in situ

Many of these have also been the focus of her camera. She first began photographing invertebrate species in the 1980s, when she worked as an assistant in the marine invertebrates and birds collections at the South Australian Museum. It was her first permanent job after completing her Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide. Combining her diving skills with photography and science helped enhance the museum’s collection.

“A lot of invertebrates are brightly coloured and soft bodied. When you preserve them, their colouring, which is a significant diagnostic tool when they are alive, is lost. I began to photograph in situ and collected the animal, which was then preserved and lodged in the collection with its photograph,” she says.

Her efforts helped to expand the marine invertebrate collection at the South Australian Museum, where she became collections manager, a role she held for 10 years before moving to her current position at CSIRO in the mid 1990s.

Before the advent of digital cameras, underwater photography was more difficult, she says. Even photographing fresh specimens on board vessels was a challenge. “In my early days at CSIRO, we’d be at sea in a research vessel and I’d be trying to develop film in a darkroom on a rolling boat; it was an ‘interesting’ experience.”

The advent of digital technologies has not only made photography easier, it has also allowed CSIRO to expand its collection without having to physically store all the specimens it collects. It maintains a virtual collection; the actual material is held in various state museums. “It’s a collaborative approach, beneficial to both CSIRO and the museums,” Karen Gowlett-Holmes says.

Many of these permanent museum collections date back to the 1800s, and play an important role in the ongoing process of identifying and describing species.  

“Museums are vital for taxonomy, and taxonomy is vital for all other natural sciences – if you do not have an accurate species identification, you basically don’t know what you’re studying,” she says. “Sometimes what has been called one species may in fact be several, and this can really change the meaning of research results.

“A misidentified species can be a significant issue. For example, different species can have different life cycles and for managed fisheries this can mean the difference between a well-managed fishery and one that collapses.

“Misidentifying a species with a very restricted distribution with one that has a more widespread distribution can mean the difference between a local population only disappearing and an entire species becoming extinct.”

Karen’s expertise in identification has come in handy in her work advising the FRDC’s Fish Names Committee.

Unique identifiers

To help prevent such outcomes, every aquatic species is assigned a unique identifier akin to a barcode. Karen Gowlett-Holmes’ role at CSIRO includes managing the invertebrate part of this identifier system, known as the Code for Australian Aquatic Biota (CAAB).

The eight-digit coding system was originally designed by CSIRO for selected organisms of research or commercial interest and was revamped in the 1990s to include all aquatic groups. The CAAB is continuously expanding as new species are discovered. It is the reference standard for scientific and common names or marketing names, as well as for legislation and export. It ties into the Australian Fish Names database, which sets fixed marketing names for seafood species.

Karen Gowlett-Holmes says a greater range of invertebrates are now being commercially harvested and sold in Australia and overseas – these include sea cucumbers, clams, prawns, crabs and rock lobsters – and it is important to be able to correctly identify what is being fished and sold.

Early inspiration

Karen Gowlett-Holmes credits her early years in England accompanying her father on fishing expeditions around the Thames estuary with sparking her interest in aquatic life. When she was six years old her family moved from Billericay in Essex to Adelaide, South Australia, and she discovered the sea. She enjoyed collecting bait, was fascinated by rock pools and fell in love with the beauty and diversity of shells. At the age of nine she announced to her family that she would study marine science.

In the early days of her career, she says she was often the only woman on a boat or in a research team. She was the first female Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) fisheries observer, working mainly on foreign trawlers.

She credits her father for not supporting the gender bias that was prevalent when she was a child. “I am one of those rare people who was able to follow my childhood dream into a career for life.”

Unseen changes

Among her career highlights, she nominates the magic of the Giant Kelp forests (Macrocystis pyrifera) off the eastern Tasmania coast – now in tragic decline. Since 2000, 95 per cent of the kelp forests have disappeared as a result of climate change.

“If the equivalent had happened on land in Tasmania, thousands of hectares of forest disappearing, there would have been a public outcry. As it is in the sea, most people have no idea it has happened – out of sight, out of mind.

“There have been huge changes in the marine environment during my lifetime. Things that I saw when I started diving, the kids of today will never see. The only record of some of these will be photos and preserved materials in jars in a museum.”

These include the records in Karen Gowlett-Holmes’ own publications, which include a major reference book, A field guide to the marine invertebrates of South Australia, illustrating more than 870 species with 1500 images. She is currently working on a companion volume for Victoria and Tasmania.

“If my photographs and work can educate or inspire people about what is in the sea and that causes them to want to protect it, then I have achieved something with my life,” she says.