Welcome to Reef Tracks: our live marine life tracker!

Want to know what all your favourite reef animals are up to in real time? Want to be amazed at just how far turtles migrate, or how deep whale sharks swim?

We’ve compiled real-time data on some of your most-loved reef residents, showing their movements and location since they were first tagged by researchers in the name of science. This data will help unlock some of the mysteries of the Great Barrier Reef, and give us an insight into the lives of these awesome animals, which we think you’ll agree is pretty cool.

Reef Tracks is powered by data from:

Biodiversity of the GBR Marine Park

Stretching 2,300km along the north east coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system, so huge it can be seen from space. But it’s not just its size that makes it special, it’s the rich biodiversity of coral, fish and mammal species that make up this World Heritage-listed icon that ensures its place on bucket-lists around the world.

But the Great Barrier Reef, and reefs all over the world, are coming under increasing stress from climate change as well as human factors like water quality, overfishing, marine pollution and coastal development. Populations of iconic species like sea turtles, sharks and manta rays are declining rapidly and scientists want to find out why.

To guide the best conservation strategies, scientists need to learn more about their movements and behaviours, and to unlock any other mysteries of the deep that will help us protect these much-loved Reef residents!

A Whitsundays shark research project, jointly funded by the QLD Government, Biopixel Oceans Foundation and the Slattery Family Trust

Why tag and track?

Marine animals spend most of their life underwater and so opportunities to observe them at the surface or on land are limited. Tagging and tracking work provides invaluable insights into their movements, behaviour and habitat use - data that can be used to guide management and other conservation practices.

Understanding where, when, and why animals move helps researchers assess population trends, identify key habitats and, ultimately, improve conservation outcomes for highly mobile and/or migratory species.

For a more detailed guide on tagging and tracking research, check out Biopixel Oceans Foundation’s three-part blog series.

Conservation benefits of tagging

  • Reveals key areas to prioritise for protection, such as mating, feeding or nursery grounds
  • Assists in evaluating whether marine protected areas are sufficiently sized or placed to adequately protect target species
  • Aids in predicting the impact of climate change on species movement and distributions
  • Identifies movements across international boundaries where a species may be exploited e.g. Australia to Asia
  • Determines sites where sharks are most likely to interact with commercial activities
Tagging a Hammerhead
Tagging a Hammerhead
Image: Biopixel Oceans Foundation / Erica Heller

How does tagging work?

So exactly how do you track a 3 metre tiger shark? Or a green sea turtle? Just pop a satellite tag on them!

Satellite tracking uses a tag/transmitter capable of sending a signal to, you guessed it, satellites! Satellites receive the signal and relay the information to receiving stations back here on earth. The information is then processed and made available to researchers who are watching and waiting, thousands of kilometre move across the Great Barrier Reef and beyond.

Whale sharks on the Great Barrier Reef
Whale sharks on the Great Barrier Reef

Satellite tracking can collect data over thousands of kilometres, and over long periods until the battery runs out. But as signal can not transmit through water, a tagged marine animal needs to break the surface regularly so the transmitter can send its signal once a fin or shell emerges.

A tagged tiger shark on the Great Barrier Reef
A tagged tiger shark on the Great Barrier Reef

All is not lost for animals who choose to remain at depth. We can still use satellite technology to follow the movements of animals who don’t surface, just using a different type of tag. Pop-off archival satellite transmitters, or PAT tags, are programmed to collect and archive data such as depth and temperature before the tag releases from the animal at a pre-programmed time (e.g. 6 months). When released, the tag floats to the surface and the position of the release location and archived data are sent to satellites passing overhead.

We want to work out what parts of the Great Barrier Reef they use, when they’re there, what seasonality we may have with these animals here – even to see what their movements are in response to warm water events in the future.
Richard Fitzpatrick, Cinematographer, Marine Biologist & co-founder Biopixel