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Coral Reef Field Course

Module titleCoral Reef Field Course
Module codeBIOM4042
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Julie Hawkins (Lecturer)

Professor Callum Roberts (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The Maldives is one of the world’s great coral provinces, consisting of 26 atolls and more than a thousand islands on a north-south ridge in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The country was built by coral and upon coral. On this field trip you will travel by boat to Faafu Atoll and stay at the Biccoca Milano University research facility on the island of Magoodhoo. Coral reefs surround the island and are exceptionally accessible for study and leisure. On the course you will learn how coral reefs are formed and why they support such rich communities of life, with 25% of shallow water marine species in less than one tenth of a percent of the ocean’s area. You will learn about and practice a variety of reef survey methods for benthos and fish, to describe reef communities and how they are structured. Coral reefs are proving to be among the most sensitive of all ecosystems to climate change and the trip will allow you to see at first-hand how climate change has impacted Maldivian reefs, and how species are recolonising and recovering after mass bleaching. Finally, we explore management options to protect and sustain reef life even as conditions for survival become increasingly adverse over the 21st century.

The module assumes no specific academic skills or experience. To do the practical elements of this module you must be able to swim with confidence and be competent in the water. Students who meet Exeter University’s requirements for diving will be able to dive for several practicals so long as they can pass a check out dive by a field school instructor. If not they will be given help to improve to a suitable standard but if this can’t be reached then snorkelling would be required for practical work, assuming this could be conducted safely. Everyone will have daily opportunities to snorkel.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Field work is crucial to a better understanding of the natural world and the threats, stresses and impacts that people have on it. Field skills, including survey and assessment methods and identification skills, are important to a wide range of jobs and careers in marine environmental management. This module will allow you to spend long hours in the water, experiencing nature up close in one of the world’s richest marine habitats. It will teach you key survey and assessment methods, taking you through their advantages and disadvantages, and the analyses, presentation and interpretation of data. You will learn how to identify upwards of 100 fish species and dozens of invertebrates, getting to know them by their common and Latin names. You will gain direct experience of the impacts of climate change on a vulnerable marine ecosystem, and the possible consequences for human societies dependent on this habitat.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe in detail the structure and formation of coral reefs and basic functioning of reef ecosystems.
  • 2. Outline the major threats to marine life and ecosystem functioning on coral reefs.
  • 3. Learn how to identify fish and major invertebrate groups and common species underwater, and learn their common and Latin names.
  • 4. Be able to conduct qualitative and quantitative underwater surveys of fish and bottom living invertebrates using a variety of methods, and understand their advantages and limitations.
  • 5. Be able to enter data collected into spreadsheets and from these create graphs and undertake simple analyses to illustrate findings.
  • 6. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of management methods for coral reef exploitation and protection, particularly in light of increasing human needs and global change.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory.
  • 8. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work.
  • 9. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in coral reef conservation.
  • 10. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of coral reefs with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles.

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions.
  • 12. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience.
  • 13. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance.
  • 14. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary.
  • 15. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements.

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Typical plan of activities (although these are subject to change depending on local conditions and opportunities)

Day 1

Pick up from Malé international airport and travel to Magoodhoo.

Welcome briefing: Introduction to the field centre and local orientation

Diving registration and set up followed by free time to snorkel

Day 2

Introduction to the course: aims and assessment (Julie)

Health and safety (Julie)

Lecture 1: Introduction to coral reefs (Callum)

Lecture 2: Introduction to Maldivian reefs and identifying major invertebrate taxa (Callum/Julie)

FIELD PRACTICAL: Checkout dive or snorkel on a coral reef to look at reef structure and zonation DIVE 1/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Day 3

Lecture 3: Coral reef fish ecology, diversity and biogeography (Callum/Julie)

Lecture 4: Reef fish identification (Julie)

PRACTICAL: Reef fish identification.

DIVE 2/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Lecture: Introduction to the afternoon practical (Belt transect sampling of fish communities)(Callum)

FIELD PRACTICAL (Dive/snorkel): Reef fish survey methods – Belt transect counts of butterflyfish DIVE 3/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Lecture 5: Coral reef fisheries and their effects on reefs (Callum)

Day 4

Lecture 6: Ecology of coral and other invertebrates (Callum)

Lecture 7: Sampling methods for fish continued – point counts (Callum/Julie)

FIELD PRACTICAL: Sampling methods for fish – Stationary point counts of commercially important fish (dive/snorkel) DIVE 4/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Lecture 8: Identification of coral and other invertebrates (Julie)

FIELD PRACTICAL (Dive/snorkel): Learning coral generic identification DIVE 5/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Day 5

Lecture 9: Sampling methods for corals/other benthic organisms (Callum).

Introduction to the morning practical: The SACFOR scale

FIELD PRACTICAL (Dive/snorkel): Sampling methods for reef corals: Use of the SACFOR scale DIVE 6/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Introduction to the afternoon practical: Diversity patterns in a complex ecosystem

FIELD PRACTICAL (Dive/snorkel) Coral and sponge diversity patterns on the reef (transect, quadrat) DIVE 7/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Analysis and review of data from past two fish practicals

Day 6

1Trip to an uninhabited island for a snorkelling discovery trip

Introduction to tomorrow’s practical: Line intercept transects and quadrats (Callum)

Day 7

FIELD PRACTICAL (Dive/Snorkel): Estimating benthic cover on the reef (transect, quadrat) DIVES 8 & 9/SNORKELS (Callum and Julie)

Lecture 10: Human impacts on coral reefs (Callum)

Feedback from first two coral practicals

Data entry from practicals.

Day 8

Lecture 11: Climate change impacts on coral reefs (Callum)

FIELD PRACTICAL: (Dive/snorkel): look for signs of coral damage and recovery from bleaching event

DIVE 10/SNORKEL (Callum and Julie)

Lecture 12: Coral reef management and conservation (Callum/Julie)

Review data from coral practicals

Course wrap up, question and answer session, quiz (Julie and Callum)

Day 9

Travel to Malé International Airport

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching18Lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching28In water practical work
Scheduled learning and teaching10Above water practical analyses and feedback
Guided independent learning 30Learning fish and coral identification
Guided independent learning 214Additional research, reading and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Discussions during lectures, practical sessions, and informally during free time.Ongoing throughout the moduleAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay803000 words1-2, 6-13Written
Field ID quiz201 hour1,4,7,15Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay (3000 words)1-2, 6-13Referral/deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 50%) you will be required to re-submit an assessment as described in the table above. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 50%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Roberts, C.M. (2019) Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir. Profile Books
  • Sheppard, C.R.C. (2014) Coral Reefs: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press

Module has an active ELE page

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

  • Lecture specific research papers
  • Research reading around subjects set for course essay.

Key words search

Coral reef, tropical ecology, biodiversity, ocean, marine life, climate change, coral bleaching, protected areas, coral, reef fish, reef fisheries, Maldives, Indian Ocean, fieldwork, field surveys

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date