Ruth Gates, who died Thursday at age 56, was known as much for her laugh as for her science. She laughed easily, loudly, and infectiously. When she first snorkeled around Heron Island, in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, she reportedly laughed so loudly that boat drivers could hear her from the surface. “Laughing even underwater—that’s Ruth,” says Tracy Ainsworth, a close friend and coral scientist at The University of New South Wales at Sydney. “She was so thrilled by the reef that she couldn’t contain her joy.”
Coral scientists have little to laugh about these days. Between rising temperatures, acidifying water, pollution, diseases, storms, and other threats, reefs around the world are dying, transforming from bountiful worlds of color and life into deathly realms of spectral white. Half the world’s reefs have died in the past few decades. Even the mighty Great Barrier Reef is a shadow of its former glory. Every year, the drumbeat of doom-filled news seems to pound more loudly. For the many scientists who have devoted their lives to studying these ecosystems and are now forced to watch their slow demise, it can be hard to stay afloat.
But Ruth Gates was never given to doom. As one of the world’s foremost coral scientists, she was under no illusions about the perils that corals face—but she was relentlessly optimistic nonetheless. She firmly believed that reefs could be saved and was looking for ways to do so, perhaps by breeding hardier varieties of corals that could better weather the climatic upheavals of the future.