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Inside the magical, colourful world of underwater coral gardens

Photography By Ryan Borne
Published 29.06.21

A week after landing in Airlie Beach, a small coastal town in Far North Queensland, I arrive back at Proserpine Airport to catch the late afternoon flight to Brisbane.

It’s a tiny airport, the entire length of which you could cover on foot in a few minutes. There is, however, a ten-metre long aquarium in the combined arrivals and departures lounge filled with reef fish and artificially enhanced coral, compensating for the airport’s lack of stature.

My actual Whitsunday Islands reef encounter six days prior told a different story; that of a noticeably bleached reef. “The mass bleaching indicates that corals are under intense stress from the waters around them, which have been growing increasingly hotter,” writes Damien Cave for The New York Times in April. “The world’s oceans, which absorb 93 per cent of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases that humans send into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, are warming up 40 per cent faster on average than scientists estimated six years ago.”

A week after arriving home, I speak to Taiano Teiho from Coral Gardeners, an organisation based on the island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia, northwest of Tahiti. As the name suggests, the Coral Gardeners team is working to save their local coral reefs and helping to restore reef ecosystems by transplanting and harvesting coral fragments. Teiho is a dedicated ocean lover, spear fisherman, free diver and surfer, joining friend and fellow ocean-enthusiast Bernicot on his mission to save the island’s coral reefs three years ago.

Like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, French Polynesia’s reefs have experienced bleaching events in recent years, accelerated by the rates of global warming and rising ocean temperatures. Coral bleaching is the organism’s reaction to stress, caused by factors like heat or pollution. The change in conditions cause coral to expel the colourful algae they coexist with, leaving behind a white, lifeless skeleton. Over half of the world’s reefs have been lost in the last 40 years and taking into account other human factors like pollution, sedimentation and ocean-based activities, it’s predicted that all coral reefs are at risk of disappearing by 2050.

How exactly does coral “gardening” work? On a typical day, the restoration team might head out by boat to an area to collect broken pieces of coral recently damaged either by human activity or natural causes like big swells. After a few weeks, these corals are planted onto “potatoes”, an outplant substrate of dead reef structures that provide a new surface for corals to attach and colonise.

Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the “rainforests of the sea”. They absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and transform it into the oxygen we breathe, conversely regulating air and water temperature for the planet. Coral reefs also play other vital roles in sustaining human life. They are capable of absorbing 97 per cent of the energy of the waves and protect coastlines against storms, flooding and erosion.

In French Polynesia, economic, cultural and social activities are reliant on a healthy reef, and tourism, boosted by the archipelago’s unparalleled natural beauty, is a primary source of income for the region. These factors, combined with eye witness accounts of coral reef degradation, motivated Bernicot and Tehio to start building underwater nurseries to plant coral.

When Coral Gardeners first began gardening, it’s estimated the team were planting around 200 corals per week. “And then after that, 400 corals per week, and now we’ve planted more than 15,000 corals. Which is really, really great,” Teiho says. While coral gardening doesn’t guarantee a 100 per cent survival rate, the organisation’s restored sites are currently tracking at around 60 per cent success.

Coral Gardeners / Ryan Borne

Coral Gardeners / Ryan Borne

Coral Gardeners / Ryan Borne

Coral Gardeners hope to harness the power of super corals, which have survived past bleaching, through the creation of a gene bank. Teiho explains that once a super coral has been identified, they will cut 10 per cent from each colony which will be planted in a new gene bank nursery. The procedure for propagating coral in the nursery uses a rope twisting technique, taught to the group by one of the top pioneers for reef restoration in the world, marine biologist Dr. Austin Bowden-Kerby. In the long term, Coral Gardeners aim to only be replanting super coral fragments.

With more than 544,000 followers on Instagram, Coral Gardeners want to continue inspiring individuals, starting with direct learning in French Polynesia.

“One of our main missions is to tell the story about the reef, and pass knowledge on to new generations,” Teiho says.

We wrap up our chat talking about how individuals can get involved, including a worthy initiative around Adopting a Coral which offers the opportunity to adopt a super coral to support the project and save the reefs. With ambitions to scale and expand internationally, Teiho says their biggest goal is to reach “a future where the reef no longer needs us”.

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