Note to Editors: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series committed to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet, along with solutions. Rolexs Perpetual Planet initiative has partnered with CNN to encourage awareness and education on key sustainability issues and encourage positive action.
It is no wonder that Titouan Bernicot is so passionate about his work. Growing up on his family’s pearl farm in the French Polynesian atoll of Ahe, the sea is such a part of who he is that he describes it as his best friend.
At just 18 years old, Bernicot founded Coral Gardeners, an organization focused on restoring local reefs., and in the seven years since he assembled a team to restore and plant more than 100,000 strong corals in atolls across the Pacific Ocean.
Bernicot, now 25, has also recruited global stars as Coral Gardeners ambassadors, including actor Jason Momoa, who met members of the group earlier this year to join their work.
Now, with Momoa’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom opening in theaters this week, Coral Gardeners is partnering with the film in a campaign to highlight coral bleaching and the damage caused by climate change. (The film distributor Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
The partnership is called The Lost Colors because of the coral bleaching process; mostly due to the warmer water, it brings out the coral some algae that gives them their color. If the temperature stays too high, the algae cannot recover and the corals die.
Once a coral dies, it is very difficult for the reef to come back and grow again. This is when the reef ecosystem begins to collapse and that is what Bernicot and Coral Gardeners are trying to prevent.
Bernicot says that his connection with the ocean started when he was young, learning about the behavior of fish, octopus, sharks, how they exist.
“When I’m not feeling well, when I’m stressed, I want to go to the water,” he added. There is no noise, only the sound of the reef, the fish.
But with the climate crisis threatening wildlife around the world, coral reefs are in a precarious position. Scientists estimate that up to 70-90% of the existing coral reefs around the planet could disappear in the next 20 years, with the entire ecosystem under threat of destruction by the end of the century.
Increasingly severe weather patterns are an additional cause for concern. During these years El Nino, a natural fluctuation in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean, threatens to warm the oceans.
This increase in ocean temperatures increases the risk of coral bleaching, potentially destroying this delicate environment. There are real concerns from Coral Gardeners founder that these reefs could be the first ecosystems on the planet to collapse.
I want to fight for those little men, for the fish, for the octopus, shark and stingray, said Bernicot. They don’t have the voice we have and they really don’t need it. They just need people to be there for them and I want to be one of those people (to) save their home.
Together with Bernicot, Coral Gardeners has a team of more than 50 people, including scientists and engineers, some of whom grew up in the atolls they work on.
One of the main ways they support local reefs is by upcycling old ropes and other waste from abandoned pearl farms that damage coral and use them to create coral nurseries.
These nurseries consist of small pieces of coral that can grow in a protected underwater environment. Once they reach a healthy size and condition, they are usually returned to natural environments where reefs can grow.
Last year, the Coral Gardeners managed to plant more than 15,000 corals in French Polynesia, with an additional 9,400 in their nurseries. By 2023, Coral Gardeners says, the total number planted will more than quadruple, with more than 70,000 corals planted this year.
Nurseries too used to help the Bernicots team conduct research, providing information on the best environment for coral to grow and how different species fare in different conditions. The organizations in-house R&D center, called CG Labs, has developed tools such as underwater mapping robots, AI-powered cameras, and an app for viewers to explore the connected reef.
In the next few years, the goal of Coral Gardeners Odyssey 2025 is to restore one million corals, reach one billion people, and expand internationally, with a team working already in Fiji, said Bernicot.
The group also worked on several collaborations such as the one with Aquaman, including partner with conscious brands to create effective conservation activism.
But at the end of the day, for Bernicot, it’s all about the community where Coral Gardeners started. Working with many of his former classmates, the reef restoration project is a truly homegrown endeavor.
No one thought that one day, we could answer the question What do you want to do? by saying I want to be a coral gardener, Bernicot said. It’s not work, but now it’s real.
They are living proof that today you can get paid to do something meaningful, and that ocean conservation doesn’t have to be a part-time volunteer job, he added. You can wake up every morning with a priority and focus (on) how to save the most important place on Earth.
CNN’s John Lewis contributed to this report.
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