Coral gardeners

What does it take to protect a coral reef? Patience, dedication, determination and know-how. These are the tools that an NGO in Mo'orea uses to defend its reefs and capture the attention of the global ocean community.

Words by Natalie Hunter-Smith
Photographs by Kelsey Williamson, Ryan Borne and Ben Thouard


There are those who say that you can tell where in the world a photograph was taken based on the colour of the water. Truly, there is nowhere quite like French Polynesia to demonstrate this theory. The ocean there seems to have a unique blend – the deepest cerulean that melts into a dark powder blue, dappled with icy streaks from the sun. Almost all of the 118 islands have coral coastal marine ecosystems, with the exception of the Marquesas Islands. They boast nearly 200 species of corals, 1,200 species of fish and 1,000 species of crustaceans. However, after consecutive years of coastal development, the ongoing pressure of tourism, bleaching events and escalating climate change, the reef communities are declining. The coral rubble sweeps into the waves, distorting that instantly recognisable blue. However, on the small volcanic island of Tahiti, in the Mo’orea Island lagoon, a group of young ocean lovers has decided to do something to try and protect their paradise.

The movement was founded nearly three years ago by Titouan Bernicot, who grew up on a pearl farm in Ahe, a small atoll at the North of the Tuamotu. “When I close my eyes at night, all I see is the ocean. It’s my everything,” he said. “From the mountains to the sea, everything here is connected. We are surfers, fishermen and freedivers. The coral reef gives us everything in our life. Endless joy and adventures, the food that we eat and the oxygen we breathe.” Since its launch, it has acquired ambassadors such as Diplo, Alexis Ren, Cristina Mittermeier, Jack Johnson, Paul Nicklen and (Shark Girl) Madison Stewart.

Just like any other reef in the world, Mo’orea has been hit by rising ocean temperatures, escalating weather events and ocean acidification on the outer slope. Areas of the reef that are becoming wastelands of seaweed and dead coral rubble are on the rise. The lagoon itself faces the same threats with the added element of human impact. Pollution, divers treading on the reef, boats damaging it, chemical runoff from industry as well as huge freshwater inputs during the rainy season.

It is estimated that around 75% of the world’s coral reefs are facing threats from pollution, overfishing and human activities or global heating, while coral reefs coverage has already declined by 30%-50% since the 1980s. Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the earth’s surface and less than 2% of the ocean bottom but up to 25% of all marine life relies on them. We rely on them too, for the air we breathe, the food it provides and the livelihood it gives to millions of people. They are vital for protecting numerous island coastlines around the world from forceful ocean waves and some potentially devastating weather events. The larger and more intricate the reef is in terms of its structure, the more it can reduce wave energy. With so many different threats weakening these natural barriers, an increasing number of coastal residents are set to be at risk. Without immediate and intelligent action, all coral reefs are at risk of disappearing by 2050, with disastrous consequences for marine life.

Photographs by Kelsey Williamson, Ryan Borne and Ben Thouard

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Issue Twelve
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This feature appears in ISSUE 12: Coral Gardeners of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Twelve
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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