Ancient and altered, the oceans encircling our planet hold our hopes and dreams, our cultures and rituals, our spirituality and memories, our poetry and song.
They hold the great blue whale, the giant leatherback turtle, the micro phytoplankton, the agile tuna, the vibrant parrotfish, and the ornate anemone. They moderate our weather and climate, contain rich bio-diversity, absorb our emissions, and create the air we breathe.
But they also hold our wars, our plastic, our poisonous effluents, our trawlers.
Destruction, exploitation and extraction have breathed into every inch of the landscape, burdening the ocean while its surface remains seemingly pure, blue. Below the thin blue line, in the face of a rapidly changing climate, acidification of seawater, and unprecedented extinction of marine species, the ocean is at the limits of its resilience.
Sensitive and vulnerable, coral reefs are declining at a rate of over 2 percent a year, and many places have lost well over 50 percent. Predictions are that they could disappear completely in just a few decades. The ancestors of these sacred beds formed at least 240 million years ago—modern coral reefs are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old.
Coral has grown where sunlight filters through; settling into the crevices of submerged rock, or continent edges. Over hundreds of years the soft bodied animals, coral polyps, have secreted layers of calcium carbonate to form the foundation of a complex ecosystem, stretching to support all manner of marine life. Anthropogenic activity is a major threat to coral reefs. Pollution, overfishing, destructive fishing practices using dynamite or cyanide, collecting live corals for the aquarium market, and mining coral for building materials, are only a few of the ways in which the human population damages reefs all around the world, every day.
And so we watch as the vibrant colours of the reef dull to grey, with a deep sense of guilt, apathy, and denial. The ocean and its coral reefs hold our lifeblood, our collective fate, and within that fate is opportunity and hope.
Melody Saunders Brenna and Dr. Konstantin Sobolev, co-founders of Reef Life Restoration, have converged their backgrounds of nano-science and architectural stone casting to fuel innovative climate impact systems for sustainable reef solutions. Reef Life Restoration creates regeneration for dulling, damaged, and dying reefs through unique technologies which mimic the complexity of natural coral reefs, and encourage the re-growth of marine species. Called upon by oceanographers in 2006, Brenna’s original company and the precursor to Reef Life Restoration, Milestone Architectural Ornamentation, began contemplating installing architectural dive structures with reef substrates underneath the water. Dr. Sobolev, who was conducting research at Milestone at the time, discovered pH and acidification mixtures which could create better ocean climates and faster reef life growth in pervious cellular mineral mixtures. Ten years of scientific research subsequently evolved into Reef Life Restoration Nanoscience, and the Reef Life 501c3 Foundation.
From design to installation, six weeks to six months, depending on size and location, the oyster, fish and coral habitats can be installed. The nano-engineered matrix substrates mimic the complexity and composition of natural coral reefs. Materially the substrates are bio-compatible, with surface textures embedded with small holes where fertilized coral larvae can land, be secure, and thrive to reproductive stage adulthood. The smaller artificial reef structures fit together to build the habitats, making construction, deployment, planting, and accessing manageable and the costs limited. Over time the reefs will not be damaged, instead they will thrive and grow, be added to, and propagated from. Their massive coastal wave break systems will help deflect hurricane destruction.
I spoke to Brenna at Reef Life Restoration about the state of the oceans and its coral reefs and the work her company is doing in their reef regeneration projects.
With so much reef already gone, where do you begin? Are there sites that are of most importance?
The question is, where do you draw the line? Are you going to draw the line on reefs that are in the best shape today? Are you going to draw the line for what we think is going to be the best location in 50 years? How do you really assess that?
Many organisations, such as 50 Reefs, are posing these questions. We, Reef Life Restoration, follow people like 50 Reefs, who are good friends of ours, or the Reef Resilience Network, which is a global network of ‘reef people’.
Sometimes we follow projects, like the projects we’re working on in the Caribbean at the moment. The reason we are deploying reef modules there first is because Sea Legacy, and Co-Founder Cristina Mittermeier, took the initiative to purchase our reef habitats which fit within a mooring station ‘complex’. Boats anchor off the reefs, the nightly mooring fees go to support coral farms on land, and coral is outplanted from land based farms by ‘citizen scientist divers,’ a full circle eco-economy, which Reef Life is creating for global coastlines, marinas and island communities.
Dr. David Vaughan, who developed a micro fragmentation method, has been working with Reef Life on the mineral matrix, as well as an intensive ‘Mesopotamian Old Ocean Civilization’ project for Red Sea corals. Thanks to his developments, we are now able to design artificial breakwaters and combine coral restoration to create a living breakwater.
So much in the world is politics, which can hold up vital coral restoration projects. Cuba has absolutely magnificent corals, and is a prime spot for regeneration as they are still strong—however government agencies sometimes stand in the way of progress with oceanic improvements, and this will not help the reefs.
How are the structures Reef Life Restoration creates, directly engaging with climate change?
We just got off the phone with a company within the EU (European Union), which has started a fund for carbon encapsulation. There are some of our materials, our nano cements, that can encapsulate carbon and certainly that can encapsulate ocean plastics. And that’s what we envision for these massive ocean wave breaks, or sea walls, that we’re working on.
The core of these sea walls, which are of ocean marine cement that are as big as a school bus, can hold plastics, and other materials that are being repurposed. A lot of these plastics you can turn into biofuels and building materials, but other plastics are so bad that you just can’t break them down into a positive element. So then you make this determination—do you throw the ‘bad’ plastics back in the dump, or do we try to repurpose it, so it can have a positive impact on the planet? And if you’re going to make a wave break out of something, it might as well be a super strong marine compatible cement mixture, what we call an UHPC, Ultra High Performance Cement, encapsulating waste plastics.
It’s an interesting paradox—plastic helping prevent coasts and cultures from destruction by the rising sea.
Right? We can encourage people to quit using plastic, but cannot magically ‘erase’ plastics floating for past decades, but we, Reef Life Restoration, are using our advanced materials to take the junk we’ve already thrown away and close that loop.
Coral reefs are very sensitive to even small changes in temperature—this is one of many reasons why climate change is such a devastating shift—how do you navigate this sensitivity?
Dr. David Vaughan wants us to make massive floating coral farm platforms, tethered to the ocean floor. Again, these will be bigger than a school bus, I mean, massive. As the waters warm, the platforms can be gently towed to cooler waters. Our scientists are also trying to figure out what the next wave of coral migration systems will be. We’re turning in a project on this for Australian waters—it’s a migration sequence, like stepping stones, so that migrating corals can slowly go from one to the other to the other, toward cooler waters.
What human interferences are affecting coral reefs? How can the Reef Life structures reduce or resolve these?
The list of how humans destroy oceanic communities is endless, from overfishing to trash to nanoparticle sized harmful molecules of drugs to sunscreens we flush into oceans.
Norway and Sweden, and other ocean centric communities are outlawing anchorage in a coral reef, which means, if your boat smacks a reef, you’re going to get a ticket, and a corresponding fine.
We talked to people in the Mediterranean, in Cannes, France, where they have the Cannes Film Festival, where an annual pilgrimage of sophisticated vessels are followed by any number of smaller yachts. Cannes used to have magnificent reefs, which have now been totally destroyed by boat anchors. Greece, Croatia, Italy, France; visualize where people travel in their boats. If people instead safely anchor at proposed mooring stations, they would pay a nightly docking fee, just like a hotel room, and then that money could go back to the island. Imagine if you had three hundred boats off the coast of Jamaica paying one hundred dollars a night—all that money could go back to Jamaica, to its coral out planting programmes, coral education, or reef farms. So they’re not only keeping people off a fledgling sea bottom, they’re also putting money back in the local economy every night. That’s beautiful, each step supporting the regeneration series, successfully creating healthy oceanic environments.
What projects are you working on currently?
We are currently casting Reef Building Modules for the Caribbean market for deployment in the Summer 2018, through our ocean solutions partnership with Sea Legacy. These new structures are called, ‘Intelli-Reefs, Powered by Oceanite.’ The global marketing gurus within the J. Walter Thompson Agency envisioned Reef Life Restoration’s new branding elements, and we are grateful to their insightful and amazingly creative teams.
These Reef Building Modules, each side of these, we call it a facet, each facet has a different function. So one side of that is smoother, and it has aragonite and mineral sand on it, and that is for coral outplanting. Another facet is to hold the domes planted by scientist Dr. David Vaughan, grown in his ‘coral fragging’ labs. Other facets are totally different, composed of exposed mineral arrogates that texturally and colour wise, attract coral spawn. It’s built and layered and textured totally differently. It’s the first time in the history of the world that someone’s built a coral laboratory out of coral minerals—it’s never happened before.
I didn’t realize before this that corals were as intuitive as they are. They’re attracted to colour and diverse textures, intuitively seeking certain smells and sounds. A healthy reef with happy fish is really loud, the activity has a range of sounds which invite corals to land. That’s why we’re building out of these minerals. Usually when people have built artificial reefs, it’s just plain cement, and corals don’t like it. They’ll eventually grow on it, but they’re not attracted to it. We want them to be attracted to our ‘reef city’, to feel right at home and say, “Oh this is yummy. Come on friends!”
The anchor habitats are ready, and the teams are ready. The deployment of our anchor mooring habitats is planned for late July. We have film crews and divers —the whole world can be there watching; stay tuned for locations.
What hope for the oceans do you carry in the midst of loss and devastation?
I spent time with Sylvia Earle recently at the World Ocean Summit, her energy is boundless, her drive is that of a teenager. One morning I asked her, “Sylvia, how do you do it?” And she said, “I absolutely refuse to quit, and I know you can’t quit either, we just can’t.
“Look at a child and realize that their future is in your hands. It's not just those who will be here fifty years from now. The decisions we make in the next ten years will shape the next 10,000 years.”
And people also ask me, “what are you doing at 3am in the morning, still awake? Do you ever turn off?” No I can’t. You really can’t.
All of us working for the oceans, in this ocean space, are in it for the long haul, in a generational capacity. Grandchild down to grandchild down to grandchild. If you care for your children, and their grandchildren, and any generation that will follow you, then you have to be interested in how and if the ocean is going to thrive. Otherwise, your family is over. It’s that imminent, and inescapable.
Will you make a decision today, not to, say, throw your plastic bottle in the gutter? Will you make that one decision today? Will you not buy plastic water bottles, and instead refill a water bottle at a hydration station? Will you do that today?
We cannot just trash the place, and walk off. It just doesn’t work like that. Pesky humans, us upright creatures that walk on the land, we have to take serious action. We’re smart enough to do it, but will we, as a species? Are we willing to destroy our planet to the Very Last Drop??
Though the ocean’s ability to provide for human life is weakened, its tides continue, only with greater strength and power. The ocean encircles us. We will all eventually return to its tidal rhythms; the fluidity of time; the beginning and the end. A sense of obligation is needed, perhaps more than ever. We must stand taller and stronger, we must take action.
But, as Melody challenges—will we?
A film that will expand our minds further: Coral Colors by myLapse
The intricate interrelationships between humans and corals has not been, and may never be fully explored. Marine life supports all land-based life, destroying our oceans is a form of self-destruction. This important film brings the intensity of the reefs into focus.