Rachel Jones, Deputy Team Leader, Aquarium
Rachel Jones, deputy team leader of the Aquarium, has a passion for corals, therefore a recent conservation trip to the largely untouched atolls of the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean was a once in a life time experience.
Rachel joined ZSL in 1997, following the completion of an MSC supervised by IoZ and a short contract working on ZSL’s native cricket re-introduction programmes. She initially joined the Invertebrates team and was part of the development of the B.U.G.S exhibit, including the creation of the reef tanks.
Her daily responsibilities for the aquatic exhibits coupled with an interest in scuba diving led to her specific interest in corals and her eventual transmigration from 'terrestrial' to 'marine' invertebrates.
Rachel is part of a team responsible for the entire aquarium collection at London Zoo, marine seizures handed to ZSL by UK customs and excise.
However, a recent highlight has been a conservation project studying the extensive coral reefs of the Chagos.
Located 500km south of the Maldives, the reefs and islands of the Chagos archipelago cover an area of approx. 19,000km2 of tropical sea called the British Indian Ocean Territory and remain largely unpopulated.
The largest and most southerly of the islands, Diego Garcia, contains a joint UK-US naval support facility, whilst all of the remaining islands are uninhabited, save a handful of long haul yachts that occasionally stop at the Salomon atoll in the north.
Ten years ago, during an expedition arranged by a former PhD student of David Bellamy, Dr. Charles Sheppard of Warwick University, conservationists were taken to the islands for two months to study this unique habitat.
However, in 1998 a huge bleaching event took place throughout the entire Indo Pacific, in some locations resulting in the bleaching and death of almost all corals up to 20-25 meters in depth – 90% of the Chagos coral population was wiped out.
The 2006 expedition to Chagos was arranged to review how the reefs are recovering after this catastrophic event and alongside studying the coral, turtles, birds and fish populations were also examined.
Rachel made coral health assessments by swimming along transects and filming a belt of reef. The footage will then be analysed frame by frame to look for evidence of coral illness or disease and an overall assessment will be made of coral health in the region.
Return visits to these areas of the reef allowed still, close-up photography and tissue samples to be taken. These samples have been brought back to IoZ where they will undergo more detailed analysis to look at bacterial communities and possible pathogens.
'Reefs are not found the way they were 50 years ago – over fishing has led to the disappearance of most of the big fish like sharks – but the remoteness of Chagos means some areas haven’t been dived for 30 years, or are totally untouched!
It’s like diving must have been 100 years ago. It’s absolutely stunning with lots of turtles, manta rays and sharks – it’s a magical place, quite unique.'