Diving into Coral Conservation

Coral Gardeners rallies support among young ocean advocates to help save the reefs around their Pacific island homes. It’s a vital contribution to marine conservation, reports MARLENE BOUWER.

An aerial view of the Coral Gardeners team at a coral nursery in Mo’orea, French Polynesia.

THE GLOBAL OCEAN, which covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface and contains 97% of its water, generates most of the oxygen we breathe, regulates our climate, feeds us and supports commercial sectors that range from tourism to fisheries and international shipping. Yet according to the UN Environment Programme, “Every year, an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans, climate change is damaging coral reefs and other key ecosystems, overfishing is threatening the stability of fish stocks, nutrient pollution is contributing to the creation of dead zones and nearly 80% of the world’s wastewater is discharged without treatment.”

Add to that the effects of global warming on ocean temperatures: ice melting and causing sea levels to rise, marine heat waves and the acidification of the ocean as a result of excess carbon dioxide. The latter is bad news for corals, oysters and clams – anything with a calcium carbonate shell that dissolves in a more acidic environment – says legendary American marine biologist, activist for ocean conservation, explorer, author and lecturer Dr Sylvia Earle. In an interview she explains, “When you change the chemistry of the ocean, you’re basically nudging the way the planet functions. It [affects] the small things that generate oxygen and capture carbon and maintain these basic cycles – phytoplankton if you will, the forests of the sea – but it’s not limited to that.”

On 19 June 2023, however, there was a breakthrough: the adoption of the United Nations High Seas Treaty, a world-first legal frame- work that extends environmental protection to international waters and provides momentum to the drive to have 30% of our seas protected by 2030. Says Jessica Battle, a senior global ocean governance and policy expert, “What happens on the high seas will no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The High Seas Treaty will allow for the kind of oversight and integration we need if we want the ocean to keep providing the social, economic and environmental benefits that humanity currently enjoys. We can now look at the cumulative impacts on our ocean in a way that reflects the interconnected blue economy and the ecosystems that support it.”

Taiano Teiho and Titouan Bernicot inspect a recently cut piece of coral. It will be further fragmented and placed in a coral nursery.


Growing up on a tiny atoll in French Polynesia, surrounded by sharks and vibrant coral reefs, Titouan Bernicot developed a deep connection with the underwater world. In 2015, witnessing the devastating effects of coral bleaching, he embarked on a mission to understand and combat this phenomenon. Supported by renowned institutions like Rolex and its Perpetual Planet Initiative, he and his organisation, Coral Gardeners, aim to revolutionise reef restoration through active conservation, awareness campaigns and innovative approaches. A strong social media presence shares the reef’s story with more than 200 million people worldwide.

Since 2017, Coral Gardeners has been redefining conservation by raising awareness and inspiring younger generations to restore coral reefs and preserve the environment. Driven by Titouan’s love for the sea and admiration for technology entrepreneurs, the group’s members consult experts and scientists to implement effective reef restoration methods. They cultivate coral fragments in underwater nurseries for 12–18 months, reattach them to nearby reefs using marine cement and then closely monitor their growth. With ap- proximately 10 000 corals growing in six nursery sites across French Polynesia, they have achieved their initial goal of planting 30000 corals, doubling their plantings from the previous five years. The tangible impact of their gardening efforts is evident as colours and life return to the reefs.


The organisation’s CG Labs explores the potential of technology to enhance information sharing and analysis. Its platform, ReefOS, will connect smartphones and computers to the reef, enabling re- searchers to monitor it more efficiently. By promoting open-source collaboration, Coral Gardeners aims to optimise and scale up coral reef conservation, aligning with Rolex’s philosophy of continuous improvement.

Using hardware and software, including underwater cameras for fish identification, 3D mapping of reefs and data pooling apps, Coral Gardeners harnesses artificial intelligence to document and enhance the growth process. This technology will facilitate the group’s global expansion, with plans to establish a Coral Gardeners site in Fiji through collaboration with community leaders, fishermen and surfers to develop a tailored reef restoration and conservation programme.

Titouan is inspired by iconic scientists and explorers like Earle, who motivate him to dive into the water and achieve more for the cause.


Rolex supports pioneers with a zest for discovery who not only push the boundaries of human endeavour, but are passionate about protecting the planet. The company is committed to the long-term support of individuals and organisations that use science to interpret and solve the environmental challenges of the century.

This commitment was reinforced by the launch of the Perpetual Planet Initiative in 2019. The intention is to focus on those who work to create a better world through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, to safeguard the oceans as part of an established association with Dr Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, and to understand climate change via a long- standing partnership with the National Geographic Society.

The initiative’s portfolio continues to expand and has more than 20 partners, including Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen in their work as conservation photographers; Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, off-spring organisations of Tompkins Conservation that are protecting landscapes in South America; Coral Gardeners in transplanting resilient corals to reefs; the Under The Pole expeditions that are pushing the boundaries of underwater exploration; and Steve Boyes and the Great Spine of Africa series of expeditions as they explore the continent’s major river basins. V