The Coral Nursery at Soneva Fushi – New Highs and Challenges

The Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Kunfunadhoo, or Soneva Fushi, is a true paradise, nestled in the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The atoll is home to one of the largest groups of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and offers an incredibly rich diversity. With around 180 species of corals, 1200 species of fish, a large population of sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins, and seabirds, it’s hard to express its global significance in words.

The Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve is not just home to an abundance of animal life. It is also inhabited by 12,000 people as well, who live on 13 of the 75 islands and make their living from fishing and tourism. The shallow waters of the atoll are an ideal destination for underwater tourism and as a result, more than 350,00 tourists visit each year.

Corals being delivered to Soneva Fushi

Coral reefs under threat

As alluring as it all sounds, there is trouble in paradise. The Soneva Fushi reef, along with many others, has been decimated by rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, El Niño events and ocean pollution. In 2016, it suffered a devastating blow during the most recent coral bleaching event.

Joint efforts from the Soneva Foundation and Coralive are aimed at restoring the coral habitat and improving the resilience of the marine ecosystem around the resort. The ultimate goal of the programme is to regenerate the reef back to the state in which it existed 25 years ago.

Creating the largest MAT coral nursery in the world

To reach this ambitious goal, a coral nursery with 432 table structures has been installed. It has the capacity to grow over 50,000 coral fragments annually. The nursery has become the largest Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT) coral nursery in the world, facilitating the restoration of around 20 hectares of degraded reef.

A table structure at the Soneva Fushi coral nursery.

Undertaking a coral rescue mission

Shortly after we started populating the table structures with coral fragments, we embarked on a rescue mission to save nearly an entire coral reef in the footprint of a major construction site close to the capital Male. To facilitate the construction of a new commercial port, land needed to be gained, for which a coral reef had to be sacrificed. We had to act fast, because within just two months, the reef would be completely covered with sand.

A new home for 30,000 corals

Our team of biologists started a six-week project of populating the tables with rescued corals. Around 500 corals were transported daily by local fishermen from the construction site 100km away in the south. A total of about 30,000 corals were then secured tightly to the tables with wire, to ensure not being pushed off by strong currents, storms or other marine animals, such as parrotfish. These colorful fish spend most of their day eating algae off corals, which helps the corals stay healthy.

The team in action. Aki hands a rescued coral to a diver.

Preparing to replant our rescue corals

The rescued corals must remain on the tables for a few months to recover, after which they can be planted out onto the reef. We have started testing different attachment techniques that can be used to safely attach them on the degraded reef on natural substrate. We’re experimenting with cement as well as marine-epoxy and with techniques that don’t require a binding agent, such as simply jamming the corals into crevices in the reef. In a few months, we will see which corals survived and have grown the most.

Experimenting with different attachment techniques.

Witnessing an extraordinary coral spawning

On the night of the last coral delivery, we witnessed a rare and spectacular event that only happens once, maybe twice per year. The corals spawned, releasing bundles of eggs and sperm. Each bundle must find another bundle from the same species to fertilize. By spawning simultaneously, corals increase the likelihood of finding and fertilizing a matching bundle. Sadly, our joy over the spawning event was short-lived. Three months later, a combination of storms, high water temperatures, poor water quality and an outbreak of a disease took its toll on the corals. Unfortunately, only half of them survived.

Corals releasing their eggs during the spawning event.

Survival of the fittest

These corals were rescued from relatively shallow waters in Male, at a depth of about 1 to 2 meters, where the temperatures are usually quite high. As a result, many of them acclimatized well to their new circumstances since the 2016 bleaching event, making them very resilient. The corals that survived are exceptionally strong and are the kind of corals that we want to continue working with, since they give us high hopes for the future.

Small but mighty ways to help coral reefs

One way to support corals is to use the right sunscreen when tanning or going to the beach. Recent studies have found that a common chemical in many sunscreen products, oxybenzone, is highly toxic to corals and other marine life. The chemical is found in more than 3,500 skin care products worldwide and enters the environment directly, through swimming, and indirectly, through wastewater.

In shallow areas that are popular with swimmers, significant amounts of oxybenzone can accumulate in the water, killing young corals and preventing full-grown corals from recovering after tissue damage. Thanks to increased awareness, more and more sunscreen brands are now producing reef-safe products that are free of ingredients that can have toxic effects on marine life. 

Direct help can be given by sponsoring a coral reef table that will grow and eventually produce more than 100 coral colonies. These will eventually be placed in areas where recovery has not been initiated to increase the coral cover and create a new home for reef inhabitants. Feel free to look into more ways to give to what is precious and important to us all: the coral reef.

Coralive’s captivating video ‘Der Korallengärtner(the Coral Gardener), about the Soneva Fushi project, is available on Youtube. The video also gives a glimpse into the life of Coralive founder Aki Allahgholi.