Project status
Project collaborators
Robin Freeman headshot

Dr. Robin Freeman

Head of Indicators and Assessments Unit

Malcolm Nicoll

Dr Malcolm Nicoll

Senior Research Fellow

The Indian Ocean is simultaneously one of planet Earth's most fascinating and most exploited oceans.

  • 35
    remote ocean research expeditions completed since 2017.
  • 93
    researchers (including 26 students) from 24 institutions from 6 countries involved in the programme.
  • 121
    peer-reviewed papers have been generated between 2017-2021 from the research in the region.
  • Indian ocean coral reef

    The Indian Ocean basin provides a huge ocean observatory where scientists can investigate complex marine ecosystems across a gradient of human influence from heavily populated coastal cities to remote, no-take Marine Protected Areas.

    What is the impact?

    Coral Bleaching

    This is the phenomenon of coral turning white due to extreme stress. When coral gets too hot due to a change in water temperature, it expels the algae in its tissue that provide the coral with food from photosynthesis.  If temperatures stay high over long periods many of the corals will not regain their algae and will die. Mass bleaching events have been observed around the world with increasing frequency and severity since the mid-80s. A sustained marine heatwave hit Indian Ocean reefs really hard in 2016 and 2017 with large-scale coral mortality.

    After mass bleaching events corals struggle to keep up with the forces that naturally bore into them, graze on them and break them down through storms. Their ability to grow their calcium skeletons is reduced and their reproduction is impacted. 

    Over time reefs start to break down physically and this impacts the biodiversity they support. Coral reefs provide shelter and protection from predators for a wide range of species. Our research has revealed the huge diversity of species living within the reef structure such as crabs and sea slugs, and the role they play in supporting juvenile sea turtles as they grow. 

    What is more, coral reefs provide natural barriers to absorb the force of waves, meaning with fewer of these coral reefs present in our ocean, coastal communities are put at risk.

    Our programme monitors how different reefs react to these warming and bleaching events over the short, medium and long term. Through collaboration with other scientists studying other aspects of the marine environment, we hope to uncover the wider impacts of coral reef loss and identify conservation actions that can build resilience to this crucial ecosystem. 

    sea sponge in indian ocean
    close up of coral bleaching

    ZSL & Bertarelli Foundation – The Marine Science Programme

    Since 2017, ZSL has worked with the Bertarelli Foundation to deliver the Marine Science programme. The programme is advancing our understanding of large marine protected areas (MPAs) so they can be better managed. The primary focus of this research is the Indian Ocean, with highly collaborative and interdisciplinary projects led by some of the world’s leading marine scientists pushing the boundaries of their fields.

    We are working with universities and NGOs across the Indian Ocean region (SDG target 14.5), and research partners in Europe, North America and Australia, to increase scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology (SDG target 14.A). We are funding and proactively recruiting early-career scientists and students from within the Indian Ocean region.

    We are exploring approaches that improve communication of marine science to different audiences, increasing regional opportunities and access to marine science. This currently includes the Webby Award winning podcast series ‘Ocean Matters’, webinars, policy events and a regional training course for environmental journalists from the Indian Ocean region. 

    The programme is an official action of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, seeking to address the following UN Decade challenges:

    • CHALLENGE 2: Protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity, by understanding how large MPAs protect species and increase resilience against climate change.
    • CHALLENGE 9: Skills, knowledge and technology for all, by training marine scientists with a focus on those from the Indian Ocean region.
    • CHALLENGE 10: Change humanity’s relationship with the ocean, through effective science to policy and practice, communication, and community engagement. 

    Find out more

    Operations & Development

    The team at ZSL manages the Marine Science programme as whole coordinating 93 scientists across 24 institutions and six countries globally. As well as coordination, communications and operational support for the projects provided by a team of three in Conservation and Policy, we also have scientists working on research projects that range from seabirds to cetaceans to tackling illegal fishing. 
    Project Impacts: 

    • Impact 1 – Our cutting-edge research has generated 121 peer-reviewed papers from 2017-2021. We provide open-access data to inform improved management outcomes across the region.
    • Impact 2 – Our focus on capacity building has trained 23 postgraduate students since 2017, with a current focus on students from the Indian Ocean region.
    • Impact 3 – Our research has demonstrated the link between rat-free islands with intact native vegetation, healthy seabird populations and resilience that confers on adjacent coral reefs through nutrient flow.
    Indian ocean expedition
    Indian ocean coral closeup
    Programmes Constituent Projects with ZSL Participants:


    • Indian Ocean Seabirds
    • Chagos Archipelago Seabirds
    • The Human Dimensions of Illegal Fishing
    • Is the Indian Ocean Region One of the Last Tropical Refuges for Cetaceans?
    • Mitigating the Impacts of Plastic on Sea Turtle Reproduction in the Chagos Archipelago
    • Indian Ocean Sea Turtles
    • Building Genomic Seascapes to Enable Genetic Surveillance of Illegally Fished Sharks
    • Nutrient Pathways Between Seabirds, Islands and Reefs

    Full programme project listings are available on Marine.Science

    Project information

    ZSL People Involved

    • Prof. Heather Koldewey - Programme Lead, Bertarelli Foundation's Marine Science Programme
    • Rachel Jones - Programme Manager, Bertarelli Foundation's Marine Science Programme
    • Emma Levy - Programme Coordinator, Bertarelli Foundation's Marine Science Programme
    • Sharmin Rouf - Programme Coordinator, Bertarelli Foundation's Marine Science Programme
    • Alice Chamberlain
    • Lasuni Chathurima (PhD student)
    • Dr. Claire Collins
    • Dr. David Curnick
    • Anthony Dancer
    • Rosie Dowell (PhD student)
    • Dr. Robin Freeman
    • Dr. Catherine Head
    • Damaris Landers (PhD student)
    • Dr. Tom Letessier
    • Fiona Llewelyn
    • Dr. Malcolm Nicoll
    • Jessica Savage (PhD student)
    • Margaux Steyeart (PhD student)
    • Hannah Wood (PhD student)

    Partners & Sponsors

    The Marine Science programme is kindly supported by the Bertarelli Foundation. Additional funding has been provided by the Darwin Plus funding from Defra and FCDO.

    Our partners include:

    Chagos Conservation Trust; Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science; Marine Management Organisation; Bangor University; University of Oxford; University of Exeter; University of Montpellier; Stanford University; Deakin University; Manta Trust; Swansea University; Lancaster University; Royal Holloway; University of Guam; Oceanswell (Sri Lanka); Ocean University of Sri Lanka; University de La Reunion; Nova University (Portugal); Ashoka University (India); Virginia Tech (USA).