In Art Spotlight, we invite Sketchfab artists to talk about one of their designs.
My name is Yasmeen Smalley-Norman, I’m an underwater photographer, videographer and 3D modeler. I’m a Fulbright Scholar based in Manila, Philippines and my research project involves 3D modeling endangered and vulnerable coral species. I’m working with a team of scientists headed by Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan at De La Salle University to identify and model these coral species.
I’m originally from the US, and chose to pursue research in the Philippines because of the abundance of biodiversity in this island nation. The Philippines is part of a region called the Coral Triangle, which is a marine area that has the highest biodiversity of coral species in the world. There are over 500 coral species in the Philippines alone!
Coral reefs are the building blocks of our oceans, and help support fisheries, protect coasts against storms and have an intrinsic beauty that directly supports tourism industries across the world. Yet these ocean jewels are under threat from climate change, increased industrialization and destructive fishing practices. Increasing water temperatures can cause coral bleaching, industrialization can cause silty runoff that can smother a reef and destructive practices such as dynamite or cyanide fishing directly destroys the reef.
Over the past few years we’ve seen an increased awareness of coral reefs, especially as the third global bleaching event concludes and as the Great Barrier Reef suffers mass bleaching. But unless you’re a snorkeler or scuba diver, it’s hard to visualize what a coral looks like. By 3D modeling coral species in the Philippines I hope to bring coral reefs to life for people who may never even see the ocean.
I began 3D modeling coral specimens while working for The Hydrous, a nonprofit organization that 3D models corals in the Maldives and teaches 3D coral modeling workshops. The technique is almost the same as using photogrammetry on land, except you’re photographing underwater while maintaining perfect buoyancy and watching your air consumption!
My models differ from many on Sketchfab in that my art comes entirely from nature; I can’t claim credit for any “designs.” I work with scientists from De La Salle University who identify the endangered and vulnerable coral species I’m looking for. Once they point out a coral species, I use photogrammetry exclusively as a capturing technique, and take anywhere from 80 to 250 images of a coral specimen.
The photos are stitched together using Autodesk ReMake, which I use to create and export the models. In addition to the coral, each of my models has a PVC tube or crosshatch that I include in the scene before photographing. This PVC tube acts as a scale, and by setting the known length of the PVC in ReMake I can measure the length, width and even surface area of coral specimen.
In the past, measuring a coral accurately has been a challenge for scientists, as corals have very complex structures. Traditionally corals have been measured most commonly with a tape measure while underwater. Being able to measure corals digitally allows scientists to measure the progression of coral growth, coral bleaching and even coral disease over time.
Lobophyllia serratus is one of 10 endangered coral species in the Philippines. Due to their low population numbers, endangered coral species like Lobophyllia serratus are most at risk of threats like climate change, and it’s important to digitize and visualize these species while we still have them. My work creating a digital coral directory will allow scientists to better identify coral species, and will provide a resource for educators, citizen scientists and everyday people who want to learn more about our oceans.
Sketchfab has been a great resource, as I’ve been able to upload all the coral models I’ve created to the site. I’m able to share my models easily with scientists and researchers by sending them a link to my models, and the embed feature will help educators use them as well.
I’m teaching the underwater photogrammetry process to the researchers I work with; feel free to follow their Sketchfab account at the reefkeepers.