Coral curator

Words by Titouan Bernicot
Photographs courtesy of Coral Gardeners

“Nevertheless, I have hope.”

Freediver and photographer Titouan Bernicot grew up surrounded by the ocean. When he realised that his office, playground and sanctuary was under attack, he launched Coral Gardeners, which has been garnering support rapidly around the world and was the cover story of Oceanographic Issue 12. We sit down with the founder and CEO to discover more about the man behind the mission.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): Where did you grow up and how did this connect you with the ocean?

Titouan Bernicot (TB): I grew up on Ahe, a small atoll in the North of the Tuamotu islands. My parents had a pearl farm there. When I was three years old, we moved to Mo’orea, the sister island of Tahiti, so I could go to school. Since I was a child, I have spent most of my time in the water, so I created a deep connection with the ocean. Coral reefs have given me everything in life, from the waves we surf to the fish we eat.

OM: Was there a specific moment when you realised you had to do something about the state of French Polynesia’s reefs?

TB: In 2015, when my friends and I went surfing we made a very concerning discovery: the corals under our feet had turned white. A few days later, they had perished. I felt surprised, curious and I wanted to understand what was happening. So, we did some research and we realised that if coral reefs disappeared, the entire balance of our oceans would be upset. I had to do something, that’s why I created Coral Gardeners – to save the reefs.

OM:  How is freediving important to your work?

TB: Freediving is my passion. It helps me to reconnect with the ocean. It reminds me why we work so hard to save the reef. It pushes me to calm down, to control my breath, to work on my mindset. It is like a meditative state that helps me to stay focused and to be fully committed at work.

OM: What challenges do you now face?

TB: Our main challenge is to scale up. We already have a really strong community, but we want every single person on earth to know what a coral is. We want them to know how important the reefs are and to want to get involved.

Titouan Bernicot Coral Gardeners outplanting
Titouan Bernicot Coral Gardeners freediver

OM: Do you think the majority of humans have become disconnected from nature?

TB: I think that because of our society being mainly oriented towards consumption and materialism we indeed became disconnected from nature. We lost sight of the fact that simple things are enough and that the Earth can live without us but we cannot live without it. We need to realise that we are coexisting with nature and that we cannot always take from it without giving back. I am lucky that I grew up on Mo’orea, so I have always been connected to nature, it is part of our culture. I cannot imagine living on a planet with no reefs and viable oceans. Nevertheless, I have hope. We see more and more people and organisations raising awareness about the situation. Also, the Covid-19 pandemic forced people to stay home and to realise how much they miss a simple walk outside. During this difficult time, we have to grab the opportunity to realise the impact we have on nature and to rethink our lifestyles.

OM: Why do you think people are able to ignore the plight of the oceans?

TB: Two things. First, they do not feel fully connected to the oceans, they don’t even know how oceans are vital for all of us. Second, they do not really know how to help at their scale. To start with, people need to understand that every second breath we take comes from the oceans. They need to realise that without the oceans we cannot survive. That’s why with Coral Gardeners we are using social media to raise awareness about the ocean: we are showing its beauty and its importance. Then, even if people would like to help, they don’t really know how and to “just” give money to an association is often too abstract. So, with Coral Gardeners we created the adoption program. People from all around the world can adopt a coral to support us. It is something concrete: you add a coral to the reef.

OM:  What are your hopes for the future of the Mo’orea reef?

TB: Our hope is to be able to save the Mo’orea reef but also to use this location as a pilot test to develop our project in other countries. To do so, we are constantly improving our restoration techniques. We just changed our technique to cementing and super corals. Cementing is one of the most efficient and least invasive techniques to date. The technique consists in finding an appropriate substrate where fragments can hold themselves correctly. The substrate needs to be cleaned of all algae or sediment, before the fragment is placed and fixed with about three small dots of underwater cement. A ‘rescue’ cementing is performed the next day to check that the cement has hardened properly, and all fragments are secured. The technique provides a hard surface for the fragments to colonise right away, before merging with the substrate, hence facilitating their growth.

Regarding super corals, to help the reef fight climate change we choose to focus on species displaying stronger genetic abilities to resist high temperatures. Super coral selection is usually performed during an intense bleaching event, during which resistant corals tend to be the only unaffected colonies. 10% of the super colonies are sampled and put into our nurseries for 12-18months, until they reach a decent size. Once big enough, the nursery colonies are trimmed, and the fragments are outplanted back onto the reef while the main part of the colony remains in the nursery to grow the next generation of fragments.

Titouan Bernicot Coral Gardeners nursery
Titouan Bernicot Coral Gardeners
Titouan Bernicot Coral Gardeners surfing

OM: What obstacles does the reef face?

TB: Reefs are hit by climate change (temperature, acidification, etc.), mainly on the outer slope. The lagoon faces the same threats on top of the human factor. Pollution, people treading heavily over the reef, overfishing, unsustainable tourism, chemical inputs, massive freshwater inputs during floods and rainy season in general.

OM: What new initiatives will you be working on this year?

TB: We are working on a new membership program (more to come!) to make sure that everyone in the world can support us from where they are and with their expertise. It’s after receiving a lot of messages from all around the world of people who wanted to join the project that we decided to focus on this program so everyone can be part of the solution.

OM: Why is community so important with regard to Coral Gardeners and marine conservation?

TB: Wherever you are on the planet, we are all reliant on coral reefs and ocean health. With global warming and our carbon footprint we are all killing the reefs, that’s why we created Coral Gardeners and a global community, to spread the word and to make everyone move to a more sustainable lifestyle. Community is a real tool to raise awareness but also to share and spread knowledge. Thanks to communities, we can reach so many people because each one of us can spread the word about corals within its own community. Also, thanks to the community, you can ask questions, you can learn from others and you can also help others with your knowledge and support. Today, there are a lot of initiatives around the world, but we need a combined effort. Our dream is to rethink marine conservation to create a massive impact to save the reef!

OM: Do you think becoming a reef guardian was a choice or an obligation?

TB: It was a choice I made, but it was never a question either. I will always remember the day I discovered coral gardening practices thanks to a marine biologist on the island. I planted my first coral and months later it has doubled in size. I was hooked. The ocean is a part of my life, so I never considered the possibility not to be linked to it for my entire life. I have to say I would love for it to be an obligation for everyone in the world but at least I am working on having everyone being able to make the right choice thanks to what Coral Gardeners offers with the adoption program!

OM: How do you feel when you’re underwater?

TB: I feel that I am in a completely different world, in a dimension. I am curious and sometimes scared but this gives me an adrenaline boost. I feel small compared to the power of the ocean and it teaches me humility, love and respect for all forms of life. We have so much to learn from the ocean, for example how we could redesign a new society after this global pandemic, a more sustainable one.

OM:  What does nature mean to you personally?

TB: Nature is the most complex and beautiful thing on Earth. It’s everywhere, we just cannot live without it. It is ironic how people tend to forget about it. The ocean is part of my life, it’s my favourite place on Earth. I cannot let it down, I have to be part of the solution.

Photographs by: Denis GrosmaireRyan Borne and Sho Niimura, courtesy of Coral Gardeners.

Read the full story of the Coral Gardeners in Issue 12 of Oceanographic Magazine – available worldwide.


Photographs courtesy of Coral Gardeners