MAKING WAVES: Regrowing corals

MAKING WAVES is a new project focusing on young ocean writers, scientists, and photographers sharing their unique ocean stories. In the first feature of the series, Marie-Louise, an 8-year-old aspiring marine scientist, writes about her experience regrowing corals in the Maldives.

Words & photographs by Marie-Louise Finkler
Additional photographs by The Ocean Agency

My name is Marie-Louise and I’m 8 years old. I was born in 2014 and have lived by the sea since 2020. In my summer holidays, I was lucky to travel to the Maldives with my parents where I was given a chance to finally get involved with marine science and the restoration of corals.

I have always loved the ocean but after moving to Wales and being able to spend more time near the sea, I quickly realised that I wanted to spend my life in or close to the ocean. After learning about being a marine biologist, I started educating myself with books, documentaries, and journal articles. Now I am old enough to begin with my own research projects and – as all scientists do – get involved with writing.

On our trip to the Maldives, I joined a coral frame workshop and helped the local marine biologists wherever I could. I was allowed to help with presentations and helped educate other guests about how important our coral reefs really are. While observing others, I realised that many people don’t know that corals are very important for our ecosystem. Scientists estimate that one quarter of all marine life relies on coral reefs at some stage in their life. If coral reefs die, the whole marine ecosystem could suffer because animals lose their habitat when it is being destroyed and there are no more places to hide or to find food.

I learned that corals are animals with plant-like features. Inside them live algae that give them their colour. Corals are colonial animals that are made up of many individual polyps. They are related to sea anemones and jellyfish; some jellyfish also have microscopic algae living in them, such as the golden jellyfish. Corals are organisms living in colonies, and more than 1,000 polyps live in one coral. Polyps are very basic organisms, and each polyp has a stomach that makes up most of their bodies. An opening at the top, called the mouth, is surrounded by tentacles with stinging cells. Polyps use the tentacles for defence, to capture food and to get rid of dirt and waste.

Climate change is one of the biggest dangers for the oceans and for corals. Humans use too much energy by driving cars, leaving the TV and lights on, and not using renewable energy sources enough. All of these factors cause climate change and sea temperatures to rise. Due to the warmer water, corals feel stressed which, in turn, makes them get rid of their algae. This makes them appear white sometimes, resulting in so-called coral bleaching. Another threat for corals are humans that kick them with their fins when snorkelling, hold on to them to take pictures and stand on them to put on their masks or to get water out of their masks. By doing so, people break off pieces or damage even the entire coral that may have taken a long time – years or even decades – to grow.

Unfortunately, the number of healthy corals is decreasing. To combat this, scientists aim to grow new corals from existing corals. As soft coral can‘t be regrown and the reef building coral is the hard coral, scientists focus on them when they started their research in the Maldives. Scientists began putting one piece of every hard coral species that is found in their local area on a board that was located in the ocean to see which of them grows the fastest. I learned that two coral species were the quickest at growing: Pocillopora and Acropora. They grow between 1 to 3 cm a month in suitable conditions. With this result, scientists decided to grow more corals from these two species.

The marine biologist from the island I have visited developed coral frames made of steel and started attaching healthy coral pieces to them. At the beginning, they used coral glue. Now the coral pieces are attached with cable ties as the glue didn`t hold well. After attaching the coral pieces, the coral frames get carefully thrown into the water from the jetty. Before the frames are then moved to the coral nursery, Mark, the marine biologist, takes pictures of the corals when the water is clear. He is doing that to find out how much the corals grow and how they develop. After pictures are taken, the coral frames are being taken out of the water and put on a boat. The boat then drives out to the dedicated coral nursery and Mark, together with his colleague Nihaan, throws the frames back into the water, clearly marking their position on a map. The coral nursery can be found outside of the lagoon, further away from the jetty so people don ́t destroy the corals when snorkelling. This is important because these corals are still small and fragile.

On my summer holiday on the island, I helped Mark and Nihaan attach corals to new frames, hoping to regrow more corals. Quickly, plenty of little and big fish moved into our nursery and we continued building new coral frames. We found out that Mark is from around the area where I live so we kept sending letters to each other and became friends. In the last letter he wrote to us, he said that they finished their 100th coral frame in October 2022. So there is hope for the future corals!

Sadly, we couldn ́t stay forever and had to go but I hope to come back and see how my coral frames are growing. In the meantime, I will study hard at school and learn as much as I can about the oceans because I am already invited for an internship in the Maldives for when I am turning 15.

I would like to say thank you to Mark for answering all my questions and mum and dad for proofreading my work. 

Additional photographs by The Ocean Agency

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