Meet Valerie Cornet

A photographer, divemaster and remote sensing scientist.

By Tiani Dun

Valerie Cornet is a current PhD student at JCU, where she has just begun her research project in the field of Remote Sensing in coral reef monitoring. Coming all the way from Hong Kong and the UK, Val completed her Masters degree in 2020. She obtained a high distinction in her research component, awarding her an AIMS@JCU scholarship for her PhD.

Growing up, Val would visit her favourite reef on Coral Island, Thailand and go snorkeling with her family.

“It was a beautiful vibrant, lively reef. We went every single year. It made me fall in love with the ocean.”

Val at Orpheus Island: Photo by Tara Prenzlau

But it was also here when Val first realised that our oceans needed our help.

“One year, half the reef was gone. I was so shocked, what had happened to this magical place I loved so much?”

“And the next year it was gone. No live coral, no fish, the reef was a graveyard. We haven’t been back since.”

Val felt as though she had watched something she loved slowly die.

“It had disintegrated in front of my eyes year after year, and then it was just gone. It was heartbreaking.”

This particular reef had no regulations, so it was not surprising that with the many tourists touching, stepping on and breaking the corals; along with heat waves and recurrent bleaching events, the ecosystem had collapsed.

“I felt as though I had watched climate change occur in front of my own eyes. Since then, I realised I needed to do something.”

Coral Bommie by Valerie Cornet

Val’s intimate experience with the ocean is what drove her towards the field of marine science. For her, it was an obvious path –she couldn’t see herself doing anything else.

“I wanted to do something that matters, to make a positive difference on the planet.”

To leave her mark on the earth, Val felt the need to contribute in some way. Now she hopes to do what she can to help make the world a better place, reef by reef, and it all stemmed from her love of diving.

“I fell in love with diving straight away – I was obsessed. That feeling of being underwater -it was just something else.”

When she was 15, about a year after she started diving, Val started experimenting with underwater photography.

Porcelain anemone crab by Valerie Cornet

Photography opened up a whole new avenue of diving for Val, forcing her to look at the underwater world with fresh, new eyes.

“Diving gave me the opportunity to photograph things that people don’t often get to see and show them to others.”

She began a diving portfolio, @Valgoesdeep on Instagram, which has now gained a following of over 10,000!

Bignose Unicornfish by Valerie Cornet

However, in the past couple of years Val has been concentrating more on her studies and hasn’t taken the time to go diving as much as she would like. Luckily, she has been exploring the ocean in new ways through her Remote Sensing research.

In October last year, Valerie went on a research expedition to Cape York with Schmitt ocean institute. Here, on the Research Vessel Falkor, Val was put in charge of the deep freezing. Samples of corals, sediments, jellies, inverts and sponges needed to be preserved in liquid nitrogen, at -60°C!

The trip was an exciting one, as the team of scientists planned to use multi-beam sonar to create 3D maps of the underwater topography. In this manner, they could create really large maps at once, in areas that hadn’t been mapped before.

In fact, the Falkor made a new discovery –a massive detached reef, taller than the Empire State Building! The reef is over 500m tall with its peak at 40m, and is the first to be discovered in over 120 years.

Newly discovered reef is higher than the Empire State Building, by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

It was also on the Falkor where Val worked in the control room behind the ROV SuBastian, a 4500m remotely operated vehicle with two robotic arms and 10 or so cameras attached.

On one dive in particular, while SuBastian was 800m below the surface, the scientists observed an undescribed species of cephalopod (seen below).

Spirula by Schmidt Ocean Institute

This burrito-like creature is called a Ram’s horn squid (Spirula).

A ram’s horn squid in waters off the Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia, never before filmed in its natural environment. Video by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Val was one of the five scientists on board working with the ROV in real time. Through SuBastian’s lens, Val was able to watch these deep-sea, alien-like creatures and their strange behaviours.

“It was a bit like being in blue planet – a realm I never thought I would get to explore or discover. It was such a privilege!”

Some more creatures from the ocean’s Twilight zone:

Chiroteuthid squid by Schmidt Ocean Institute
Coffinfish by Schmidt Ocean Institute
Bobtail squid by Schmidt Ocean Institute
Dumbo octopus by Schmidt Ocean Institute

In her current research project, Val will apply the methods of remote sensing that she has learned, using drones and spectrometers, with a focus on developing new bleaching alerts for coral reefs.

While remote sensing has been often used in terrestrial habitats, it is a relatively novel method in marine science. Typically, Val runs into countless problems when mapping marine environments in terms of their reflectivity and radiation. But she is working hard to create a method that is becoming more easily accessible to the public.

Despite seeming to have it all, Val is still trying to figure out her own path and see where life brings her. She still wants to travel Australia and do the things she loves.

If Val could give us any piece of advice it would be this: It’s okay to not find your dream job straight away.

“I used to look down on myself because I wasn’t a straight biologist or remote sensing scientist. But I’ve started to be okay with not being a specialist. Humans are often more generalists and good at a lot of different things, rather than just the one thing.”

“Embrace everything about yourself –embrace it all. You may start as a generalist and you just haven’t found what you want to be a specialist at yet.”

Val says it’s important not to ignore the things you enjoy just because they might not be valuable to your “career path.”

“Appreciate that you have many talents that you can join together to do new things.”

Val at Orpheus Island: Photo by Tara Prenzlau

Val further encourages us to test our own boundaries to discover ourselves.

“It’s important for our self-discovery that we try a lot of different things. Don’t be afraid to do something and fail, or to do something and hate it.”

We are built as holistic humans with different values and strengths. Just as she combined her research with underwater photography, Val reminds us to discover these strengths and merge them together.

In this way, you can create something; a career, and a lifestyle, that is completely and uniquely you.

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