Member profile - John Turnbull

Perhaps one of the most famous stories used by motivational speakers is about a Persian farmer who’d heard of diamonds being discovered in remote parts of the land. They were so plentiful they could be picked up by anyone. The farmer wanted this instant wealth, so he sold his farm and used the money to travel the continent, looking for the elusive diamonds. His search was unsuccessful, and he died in misery and poverty, never having found his treasure. However, the person who’d bought his farm, one day was looking into the creek which watered his land and discovered, of course, it was filled with acres of diamonds. The story illustrates the wealth which is to be found in our own backyards.
In the not too distant past, much of the advanced science in Australia was a similar story. The idea that if you wanted to do real science, for example, study dinosaurs, you had to travel to another continent, as Australia did not have many dino fossils. Many did travel overseas for their study of palaeontology, believing all the diamonds were to be found elsewhere. Of course, today we realise this assumption was not true. In reality, there are acres of dino fossils in Australia, however, they are found in locations much different than in the rest of the world. We need not have travelled much further than our own backyards.
Our featured project leader, John Turnbull, who is ranked 15th in Australasian Fishes observations, often reminds us of treasures found in our own backyard, through his work for our project and other research endeavours. Looking at past Journal articles which feature his discoveries (see: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/australasian-fishes/journal/8560-new-species-record-for-sydney-harbour and https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/australasian-fishes/journal/11179-another-new-species-record-for-sydney-harbour ), illustrates his search to advance scientific knowledge of the Sydney Harbour area as well as find the hidden gems.
John developed his fascination with the ocean as young child exploring the rock pools of Sydney’s wonderful coastline, finding crabs and octopus, getting cut feet and sunburn, all with a grin on his face. His first diving experiences were typically away from home in the 1990s, as he thought (like many people) that you had to travel north or overseas to see anything interesting underwater. However, after taking a decade or so off to focus on family, he discovered the diversity and colour of Sydney’s marine life through joining a local dive club.
Even today, John has retained his boyish fascination with nature, and now regards Sydney Harbour as an entire new world to uncover, in his own backyard. Taking his nature photography passion underwater, he made it a personal goal to show others what he was discovering every week. This was the beginning of his web site, Marine Explorer (http://www.marineexplorer.org/ ) to share his photos, videos and stories, and when he found iNaturalist and the Australian Fishes project, he recognised a kindred spirit, so he made all his photos available to this citizen science platform.
To get an idea of the frequency of John’s observations he dives nearly every week, often more than once, and always take pictures, between 100 and 200 on every dive. He says, “We are so lucky in Sydney as the complex topography and intricate waterways mean there is nearly always somewhere sheltered enough for a dive. I’m certified as Self Reliant so I can do a solo dive for a couple of hours at places like Bare Island, Clifton Gardens in the Harbour or the sanctuary zone at Shelly Beach, and I’m never bored. Even if I just find my usual suspects, they are always doing something new or interesting, or the light is different. Then there’s the new arrivals, tropical species coming down on the East Australian Current. I do regular surveys too as part of the Reef Life Survey program, and these make you focus closely on a 50 m transect. This often means you’re poking around more closely than usual, and so you find new things.”
As you can tell, John’s contributions run beyond his personal website and he is engaged in several significant marine projects. They include:
1. Underwater Research Group (www.urgdiveclub.org.au ) - founded in the late 1950s by a group of pioneering SCUBA divers with a passion for citizen science. John is currently the President of the club and has been involved in sourcing a number of projects for club members over the years, bringing scientists and volunteers together for mutual benefit. They currently have two main projects; doing underwater clean-ups in the harbour and categorising debris to inform preventative strategies (UNSW research) and monitoring Weedy Seadragon populations on the east coast (UTS project). The group has their own dive boat and dive pretty much weekly in the Sydney region, and have some element of citizen science on most dives.
2. Reef Life Survey (www.reeflifesurvey.com) – John is also involved in Reef Life Survey as the East Coast coordinator. He regards this as the gold standard of citizen science programs as it requires you to train to a level equivalent to a marine scientist and conduct full scale underwater biodiversity surveys. This training can be very rewarding and incredibly important to large scale ecological studies. He encourages interested divers willing to offer the required time and commitment to register interest on the RLS web site.
3. As mentioned, Marine Explorer is his site which he developed around 2012 to bring pictures and stories of marine life to a wider audience. This is in addition to his personal projects John publishes in social media, which include Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and sometimes Instagram. He also operates a large library of photos on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnwturnbull/ ) and videos on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/marineexplorer ). All of his content is creative commons non-commercial with attribution, to encourage people to share and use it. As you can imagine his images are used regularly in scientific articles, popular science articles, books and video programs and have been published in the book Underwater Sydney.
He says, “Although the Harbour and wider Sydney coastline have incredible diversity, we have settled for much less marine life than (we) would have after decades, centuries of overexploitation. You can see it when you dive Shelly and get twice the species richness and 4 or 5 times the fish biomass in this small sanctuary zone compared to other places. What we have now is incredible for Australia’s biggest city, but it could be so much more with better protection in place.”
“On land, you can see when a forest is deteriorating or animals are disappearing, but underwater this is often hidden. Scientists just don’t have the resources - time or money - to do enough monitoring to know what’s going on in any real depth in our marine ecosystems. Without citizen science, this “out of sight, out of mind” problem would continue. I think people taking pictures of underwater fish, invertebrates and plants and putting these online is incredibly important to us being able to manage and conserve our marine life. This was the impetus for me starting Marine Explorer, and after 8 years I still do a daily post on social media of an interesting animal or plant, with a sentence or two. When I last looked, Marine Explorer had over 5 million views on Flickr - so I think there is interest there. Every time someone takes a pic, shares it online and maybe influences another person to think about marine life, you’re adding to our collective consciousness.”
John has vast experience in marine photography and shares advice for those interested in capturing the marine environment. He says, “You can get some nice shots with a simple setup like the Olympus TG series, particularly close-ups in shallow water, however, on land most of my shots are aperture or shutter priority, sometimes manual, but underwater they’re nearly all on manual. I took most of my online library of 10,000 plus images on the Sony RX-100, a compact camera with good sensor and excellent manual controls. These days I use an A6500 so I can swap out the lenses, to get macro and fisheye, but honestly this has some upside and some downside. I have to sacrifice some depth of field and flexibility with the bigger setup.”
“In my view the camera is the second most important thing, though. Photography is all about light, so to me, unless you’re in a rockpool or on snorkel, I wouldn’t bother to take pics with any camera unless I had one strobe, preferably two. Get the lighting right, and just about any camera can capture the image. So for a beginner setup that you won’t outgrow, I’d go for the RX-100 (any model) in a good aluminium housing like Nautical with a TTL strobe like the YS-01.”
Perhaps the best thing about having diamonds in your own back yard is that they are so easy to find and are accessible to everyone. It might be a river, harbour or patch of ocean, all of which are accessible to most, and John believes that everyone can make a contribution. He says, “If you take a pic of something that’s not uncommon and ID it, then you’re adding to your knowledge and next time around you’ll notice something more interesting. Every time you share your data - in the form of pictures, videos, whatever, you’re adding to our global database of species, where they live, their habitat, etc. iNaturalist is a great tool because you hook up with others, who might help you do IDs and in return can appreciate you sharing your pictures, so it really is a community of like-minded people. I’m not much good at identifying insects, for example, but in recent weeks I’ve been photographing birds and insects in my local area due to coronavirus and iNaturalist people have helped me to identify most of them.”
So we don’t have to be like the Persian farmer, and seek success in our citizen science endeavours far from home. There are acres of diamonds close by, and with a simple camera, face mask and fins, and using Australasian Fishes, you can make lasting contributions to science, like John.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted by markmcg markmcg, June 17, 2020 05:56

Comments

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Thanks Mark and Harry!

Posted by johnturnbull about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Pics at the top; left one is a threadfin goby that's been sharing a ledge with a pair of morays for a few months in Sydney Harbbour; right one was taken by UW photographer Kris O'Keeffe during our weedy surveys (I think in Tassie)

Posted by johnturnbull about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Great to learn a little bit more about you John. I hope you don't mind if i use the following quote to recruit more people to get involved with iNaturalist - “If you take a pic of something that’s not uncommon and ID it, then you’re adding to your knowledge and next time around you’ll notice something more interesting."

Posted by kade about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Fantastic article and such an inspiration for a beginner like me. Can't wait to get out into the ocean shortly and find the next diamond - even the Luderick and mullet shine bright and make me smile.

Posted by sarahwaddington about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Thanks for your comments @kade and @sarahwaddington. Yes I think that's a key point - even if you post a common species, you are learning so that next time around you might notice something unusual. In any case, all observations contribute, as the more observations you have the better the statistics.

Posted by johnturnbull about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Nice write-up and good to learn a little more about John. Thanks John for your continuing contributions.

Posted by anthonygill about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Agreed, always appreciate knowing more about the other fishos who share their passion and knowledge with the rest of us :)

Posted by amandahay about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Great job so far John! :-)

Posted by sascha_schulz about 1 month ago (Flag)
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thanks all, nice to be part of this community in these isolating times!

Posted by johnturnbull about 1 month ago (Flag)
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Thanks for the kind words. It was a pleasure learning more about John.

Posted by harryrosenthal 26 days ago (Flag)
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Hi John, your back ground is inspiring. Thank you for your ID's.

Posted by fiftygrit 17 days ago (Flag)
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thanks @fiftygrit :)

Posted by johnturnbull 17 days ago (Flag)

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