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A business student dropped out of college — now, he is revolutionizing the way we save the ocean

"It's crazy: Sometimes you'll start in an area where you see maybe 100 fish — and then, after three years, there are 10,000."

"It's crazy: Sometimes you'll start in an area where you see maybe 100 fish — and then, after three years, there are 10,000."

Photo Credit: iStock

One coral reef conservationist is proving there's not just one path to saving the world — so far, his organization, Coral Gardeners, has planted more than 52,000 corals in the ocean, as he revealed in Harper's Bazaar in October.

Coral reefs are endangered worldwide — 90% are at risk of disappearing by 2050, according to the organization Coral Guardian. Threats include overfishing, pollution, coastal development, and the effects of a warming world, including rising sea temperatures.

But some people are fighting back, including one man who dropped out of business school to start a crowdfunded coral conservation campaign. He summarized his experience in the article in Harper's Bazaar.

As a teen growing up on the French Polynesian island of Mo'orea, Titouan Bernicot spent a lot of time on the water surfing, free diving, and spearfishing. One day, while surfing he saw bleached corals for the first time. He was drawn to protecting them.

Soon, he learned about coral gardening and ecosystem restoration, but marine biologists said he still needed years of schooling to make a difference. After high school, he attended business school in Paris but dropped out and founded Coral Gardeners in 2017. 

To get things off the ground, Bernicot enlisted the help of students in need of school projects, and he launched the crowdfunding campaign with the assistance of French Olympic swimmer Florent Manaudou and French actor Lambert Wilson.

Today, his business has grown to 50 full-time employees, including six marine biologists and engineers from Tesla, SpaceX, and Microsoft. They search out heat-resilient corals to fragment and grow — looking for mother colonies that are 40-50 years old and have survived the latest bleaching waves. 

After identifying the corals, they fragment (cut) them, taking no more than 10% of a mother colony (he said the cut bits grow back "like a lizard tail"). They grow those fragments in underwater nurseries over the course of 12-18 months before transplanting them back to a damaged reef. 

"It's crazy: Sometimes you'll start in an area where you see maybe 100 fish — and then, after three years, there are 10,000," Bernicot wrote. "The biodiversity increase over time is just incredible."

Coral reefs provide an important ecosystem for underwater life — thousands of species may live on just one reef, according to the Natural History Museum in London. The Great Barrier Reef, which contains more than 400 coral species, also supports 1,500 fish species, 4,000 mollusk species, and six of the world's seven turtle species, per the museum.

Coral reefs also support humans. In fact, more than 500 million people across the globe depend on reefs for food, jobs, and coastal protection from strong storms, the museum notes.

Bernicot is one of a handful of people actively working to save the world's coral systems. Coral Vita is another coral farming company — its process takes place on land in high-tech tanks. The company uses microfragmentation — the practice of breaking up collected coral into smaller pieces — to jumpstart the growth process and install mature corals up to 50 times faster than natural methods.

Meanwhile, in Florida, scientists are breeding and training king crabs to assist in coral restoration. They plan to set the crabs free to roam reefs and eat algae, one of the leading threats to coral. 

As for Bernicot and Coral Gardeners, there is no plan to slow down any time soon. The company is using new technology to monitor coral and is debuting ecotourism opportunities and a coral fragment adoption program.

Of course, they will continue to plant coral.

"As of now, we've planted more than 52,000 corals," he wrote in Harper's Bazaar. "We're going to end [2023] at 100,000 corals, and our goal is to plant a million by the end of 2025." 

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