Known as the rainforests of the oceans, coral reefs serve as a home for a dizzying array of underwater life. The most diverse of all marine ecosystems, approximately one-quarter of all oceanic species depend on reefs for food and shelter, an alarming statistic when considering that less than one percent of the Earth’s surface and less than two percent of the ocean floor is home to reefs. With a changing climate and the warming of ocean temperatures, our planet’s coral reefs are on the road to extinction- a worrisome signal of the end of underwater ecosystems as we know them.
Known for its crystalline waters and vibrant marine life, the Tahitian island of Moorea is home to the 21-year-old founder of the Coral Gardeners, Titouan Bernicot, for whom the sea holds more value than it does for most. For over 500 million island dwellers such as Bernicot, the ocean is a source of recreation, as well as a source of daily income. In French Polynesia, economic, cultural and social activities often rely on a healthy reef to promote tourism, as well as bring extra value to the local economy. With parents involved in the pearl farming trade, Bernicot spent his childhood days on the open tide, surfing, free diving, and spearfishing.
“The ocean is my everything. It’s the place where I can rest, feel and learn,” said Titouan Bernicot, in conversation with National Geographic.
A lover of the seas, it was not long before Bernicot noticed a change in his underwater abode. The coral reefs of vibrant orange and purple hues began to lose their defining colours, succumbing to what is known as ‘bleaching’ before eventually dying altogether. It was this loss that prompted the young entrepreneur to create the Coral Gardeners project, with an aim to create awareness of the destruction of underwater ecosystems, while physically repairing whatever damage they can.
The value of coral reefs has been estimated at as much as 172 billion U.S.D each year. A source of food, protection of shorelines, jobs based on tourism, and even medicines, corals hold more value to the global economy than most people realise. However, people also pose the biggest threat to these underwater rainforests. Overfishing, pollution, warming seas, human intervention, and changing ocean chemistry have taken a toll on our ocean’s ecosystems. Almost half of the world’s reefs have been lost in the last 40 years. In some locations, reefs have been entirely destroyed, and in others, the once vibrant, dazzling reefs are but a shadow of their former glory. New research shows that if no action is taken, all coral reefs remaining on our planet may be dead by the year 2050. This will directly affect the lives of millions of people and will be an enormous loss for the planet.
Rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are causing a massive rise in underwater carbon dioxide levels, causing corals to lose the microscopic algae that produce nutritive substances that they require to survive—a condition known as coral bleaching. Bleaching can lead to the wiping out of coral colonies as a whole, as well as leaving them vulnerable to other threats. Of a fragile disposition, corals undergo bleaching when confronted by a multitude of stressors, including changes in water temperature, the addition or removal of external light to a lesser or greater degree, and the dilution of seawater by freshwater. In 1998, 80% of the corals in the Indian Ocean were bleached, with 20% having subsequently died.
However, oceanic warming and acidic seas are not the only threats that coral reef ecosystems face today. Overfishing and overharvesting of corals are some of the biggest factors contributing to the issue today. Human intervention, such as boating and diving can also scar reefs. Other human activities, albeit occurring far away from the corals, can also affect the state of the marine ecosystem. Runoff from sewage, cities, and farms can hasten algae development, which can overwhelm reefs.
The Coral Gardeners
“Coral reefs gave me everything in my life, they sculpt the waves we surf, they give us the food we eat and a huge part of the oxygen we breath comes from the ocean,” Bernicot said, in conversation with National Geographic.
It was with this noble mission of restoring and protecting our planet’s underwater ecosystem that Coral Gardeners was founded, as a community of young surfers, free-divers, fishermen, scientists, eco-conversationalists, and influencers that hope to restore our planet’s oceanic eco-diversity, one coral at a time. Raising awareness on the subject by teaching in schools across Tahiti and France, the Coral Gardeners collect pieces of coral that have been broken off by tourists or during storms. These fragments are then left to recover in the group’s coral nursery and are then transplanted onto degraded areas of the reef. When these coral fragments grow, they help to recreate reef habitats. This allows other life to return and eventually strengthens the reef against future damage.
The initiative has been opened up to the public, allowing interested parties around the world to ‘adopt’ a piece of coral, which will then be replanted and cared for until it is able to survive on its own. The community also conducts dives, wherein coral adopters may follow the team into the water to help plant the corals themselves.
“We have 90% of success,” Bernicot tells National Geographic.
With rising pressures of Global Warming and Climate Change affecting our daily lives, the Coral Gardeners initiative comes as a welcome reminder of humanity’s efforts in sustaining and uplifting the environment, by trying to erase a fragment of the damage we have inflicted on our planet. Want to learn more? Visit the Coral Gardeners official website here! Adopt a coral or donate to the community, and do your part in preserving our underwater ecosystems.
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