20 December 2023
For Titouan Bernicot and his friends, the coral reefs and pristine waters of their island home of Mo’orea, part of the Society Archipelago in French Polynesia, were a picturesque playground where they spent their free time diving and surfing.
But over time they were shocked to see their coral reef losing its lustre, bleached by the effects of rising ocean temperatures, acidification, and the impact of coastal development.
Propelled into action to protect these beloved reefs, Bernicot founded Coral Gardeners in 2017 aged just 18. His group of scientists, engineers, surfers and sponsors has since grown into an organisation that aims to revolutionise ocean conservation and create a global movement to save the world’s coral reefs through restoration.
Coral Gardeners grows heat-resilient corals in nurseries until they’re ready to be replanted on the reef. Using the latest techniques and technologies, they continuously monitor the health and growth of the corals.
Bernicot explains, “We grow corals using various methods – we collect fragments of heat-resilient corals in the lagoon to grow either on fixed coral rope structures for shallow water gardens, or coral trees for deeper areas.
Depending on the species and methods, it can take 12 to 18 months for the corals to reach maturity. When they’re ready, the corals are transplanted onto degraded reef using stainless coral clips or marine cement.
“We’ve also been experimenting with the micro-fragmentation method to grow corals in land-based nurseries,” he says. “This method involves breaking corals into tiny pieces with a special bandsaw, which accelerates their growth compared to typical field conditions.
“One of the advantages of the land-based nursery and the micro-fragmentation method is that it can better propagate massive and slow-growing species, while in-ocean nurseries are more suited to propagate other genera like Acropora and Pocillopora.”
In 2022, Rolex provided a boost to the organisation as part of its Perpetual Planet Initiative, which was established to assist individuals and organisations in science-led efforts that preserve the natural world and the systems that sustain life.
Rolex supports Coral Gardeners’ mission to create solutions to the overwhelming environmental challenge that half the world’s reefs have already been lost and, without action, may completely disappear by 2050.
Coral Gardeners works with various scientific and like-minded organisations, along with their in-house research centre CG Labs. “We’re lucky to collaborate with world-class institutions and stakeholders that are scaling our restoration capacity, such as The Nature Conservancy California and the University of California Berkeley, with whom we’re working on different technologies and science projects,” says Bernicot.
“Oceankind, a funder in the Ocean Conservation and Innovation sector, is giving us priceless advice and support. We also partner with brands that help us amplify our message and further our momentum toward breakthroughs, such as National Geographic and Rolex through its Perpetual Planet Initiative.”
To date, Coral Gardeners has out-planted more than 30,000 corals. Bernicot’s ambition is to scale up reef restoration around the world. To do this, the organisation plans to open branches globally and empower local communities to become gardeners and protect their reefs by offering them field training and guidance.
“Our goal is to plant one million corals by opening branches all around the world by 2025,” says Bernicot. “At the moment, we’re working on opening our first international branches in Fiji and are scouting missions in South-East Asia and the Caribbean.
“In French Polynesia, we’ve already expanded our activities on three different islands – Tikehau, Ahe and Teahupo’o in Tahiti – in addition to our home base of Mo’orea. For each one, we’ve trained the local communities so they’re able to take care of the coral gardens and their reef. We’re doing the same with our international expansion by empowering the locals to become the true stewards of their home reef.”
Since 2019, Coral Gardeners has operated in partnership with the World Surf League (WSL) in a shared endeavour to protect the oceans. In the lead-up to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the WSL and Coral Gardeners hope to raise awareness about the risk of heat-induced coral bleaching and its impact on ocean ecosystems to preserve the reef beneath the legendary Teahupo’o wave in Tahiti – the venue for the Olympic Surfing Competition.
“Together, we work on different awareness campaigns and hands-on workshops, educating the surfing community on the importance of coral reefs and how to protect them,” says Bernicot.
“In 2022, the WSL joined our restoration efforts in our latest garden project in Teahupo’o, which we created with the local school to do in-ocean training and provide a classroom-based curriculum for our Polynesian little brothers and sisters – the next generation of gardeners.”
Central to the work of Coral Gardeners is demonstrating that their coral reef restoration works. “Measuring and tracking our impact is vital,” explains Bernicot.
“We want to prove that coral reef restoration is scientifically working as an adaptive solution to the loss of coral reefs worldwide and to mitigate the climate crisis.”
CG Labs developed the AI platform ReefOS, a network of cameras, sensors and devices, to collect real-time data about coral reefs during the entire restoration process. “This system tracks data with a level of precision and potential to scale that would be impossible for humans to obtain alone,” Bernicot states.
“In 2022, we collected more data than ever to measure our ecological impact on the field, tracking over 26 metrics according to the latest standards. We monitor the corals at each stage of our process, from the nurseries to the reef, such as the coral growth, survival rates, coral coverage, and the increase in marine life abundance and biodiversity, to name a few. As we expand and operate on more sites, on different islands and soon in different countries, we need consistency and precision in our methods.”
Another metric is awareness and education at both the local and global levels. “This is part of our mission to create a global movement, contributing to the Blue Economy by creating jobs and empowering the local communities.”
Amplified by the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, the Coral Gardeners’ message is to inspire people to address the issues faced by the oceans, with the philosophy that “small actions go a long way when repeated by the many.”
Carrying that ethos with us on our journeys, we can directly support their efforts by adopting a coral. As Bernicot explains, “You can choose one of five climate-resistant coral species that our crew of gardeners will collect, grow and plant to replenish and recreate a diverse and resilient reef. You will receive a photo of your coral and news of its journey, with real-time updates about our gardens.
“Adopting a coral, making a donation or buying merchandise on our website all generate funds that can be invested into the Coral Gardens mission – in addition, we can all try and reduce our carbon footprints, as climate change remains the greatest threat to coral reefs and the ocean ecosystem.”