It was in 2015, when he was 16, waiting for the waves at the surf break on Mo’orea in French Polynesia, that Titouan Bernicot first saw corals that had turned white. Then, he discovered that meant they were dying – and realized that with them, the reefs on which his home island depended were at risk, too.
Coral reefs support the livelihoods of more than 500 million people, provide habitat to about 25% of all marine life, act as breakwaters to protect coastlines against big waves, and are the ocean’s lungs. “The coral reefs have given me everything in life, from the waves we surf to the fish we eat,” Bernicot says.
Three weeks after seeing the dead coral, he says in his story told as one of Harper’s Bazaar’s 2023 Voices of Now, he was introduced to coral gardening and ecosystem restoration and fell in love with choosing his favourite coral, fragmenting it, and seeing it grow until he replanted it. It is a process that rebuilds the reef, piece by piece.
The urgency to act remained with him and in 2017, aged 18, he started Coral Gardeners in Mo’orea with a small group of young surfers, freedivers and fishermen.
Now, he says, Coral Gardeners is the “most advanced, most followed coral reef restoration and conservation project on the planet”, with a nursery in Fiji and ones scheduled to open in Thailand and Puerto Rico. Many of his childhood friends work as coral gardeners, along with six marine biologists, two engineers from Tesla, one from SpaceX and one from Microsoft, he says.
The gardeners search for heat-resilient corals, then fragment them. They take no more than 10% of the mother colony, which allows it to regrow in about six months. That provides 20 to 25 tiny coral fragments, which grow in the nurseries for 12 to 18 months before being transplanted back on to a damaged reef using marine cement and little metal clips.
By 2025, Coral Gardeners hopes to expand internationally, plant 1 million corals around the world and reach 1 billion people through awareness campaigns and stories. To do so, it has reached out widely and innovatively.
It offers a Coral Gardeners Experience that lets travelers from all around the world plant corals in French Polynesia and Fiji, offers the opportunity to adopt a coral fragment and watch it grow, and uses monitoring to promote its mission as well as to check on the corals’ growth..
Their artificial intelligence platform ReefOS consists of an array of devices, from sensors to cameras collecting data such as fish population abundance, species biodiversity, coral growth and coverage, and water temperature.
Coral Gardeners has attracted much international support, including that of Rolex through its Perpetual Planet Initiative and the National Geographic Society for a 2021 expedition to help a local community on Tikehau.
Marine Biologists Doubted Him. Now, He’s Revolutionizing Coral Reef Restoration. Harper’s Bazaar, Oct. 23, 2023
How the Coral Gardeners are saving coral reefs. The Red Bulletin, Oct. 22, 2020
How Coral Gardening Is Saving Reefs Essential Magazine
Cover image: Coral Gardeners