Reef Rescuers: The people who plant corals
In 2010, Nature Seychelles launched the reef rescuers project on Praslin. Financially supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), this project seeks to repair coral bleaching damage in selected sites around Praslin and Cousin Island Special Reserve.
Seychelles coral reefs suffered severe damage after a massive bleaching event in 1998. Many reefs around Cousin simply collapsed into rubble which became covered by algae. Years later they show little sign of natural recovery and were in need of help. Nature Seychelles reef rescuers project is piloting the first ever large-scale active reef restoration in the region.
The project which is using the coral gardening method is being carried out by staff and volunteers. Coral gardening involves collection of small fragments of coral from healthy sites, raising them in underwater nurseries and transplanting them on damaged reefs. A team of 6-7 divers perform daily underwater activities related to do this.
Volunteer scientific divers such as Inge Smith help staff carry out often repetitive tasks needed for the restoration. David Derand, the project's coordinator, says the volunteers have been extremely helpful and have along the way learnt new techniques for coral reef restoration.
The day for the staff and volunteers starts at 0730 when they meet to discuss the day ahead. Their work may include building or securing nurseries, cleaning algae from the ropes, monitoring fragments survival and growth, collection of corals from donor site to replace dead and dying fragments, and baseline surveys of transplantation sites.
They then set up dive kits and prepare the equipment required. This may involve cutting up lengths of rope and Fisher, the project’s boat driver, grinding lengths of angle bars when building new nurseries or just gathering up all the toothbrushes for a day of cleaning.
"Incredibly, we have found that toothbrushes are very handy at cleaning up algae on the rope nurseries," David says (photo).
Algae builds up quickly and requires constant attention. Toothbrushes gently scrub off the algae around the small coral fragments . This relieves the competition for the space on the rope and assists the coral in growing and attaching itself to the rope. Like weeding a vegetable plot containing rows of young seedlings, there is a certain satisfaction at the sight of a clean nursery rope with the small coral , standing proud, battling for their survival against the elements.
Weather permitting, the rescuers then load up the boat and head off by 0800-0830. They perform two dives a day with a short break for lunch on the boat.
"The last couple of weeks of my stay involved moving the nurseries from their current location to a new location that would shelter them from the approaching South East monsoon," says Inge who has just completed her six months of volunteering.
"This had never been attempted before and required extensive planning, preparation and teamwork to avoid causing damage to the sensitive coral. The first week was spent preparing the footings for the new nurseries. I found myself wielding a sledgehammer underwater as we hammered in the angle bars that would form the foundations of the nurseries. Luckily the weather was on our side and we successfully moved all five nurseries in the following week. Our small boat was put through its paces as we asked it to drag the heavy floating nursery several hundred meters to the other side of Cousin Island but Fisher's, our driver, expertise made the operation run smoothly," she says.
At the end of the day, the rescuers are back to base where kits are cleaned, tanks refilled and equipment prepared for the next day.
Read more on the project in this issue of Zwazo.