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Brave New Coral

Human activity has wreaked havoc on coral reefs around the world. Now, under the threat of climate change, coral’s best chance for survival may be human creativity

Misaki Takabayashi, a marine scientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, first noticed nearby reefs were changing in 2014. She was bodyboarding with a friend one day at Wai'uli, a punchy reefbreak on the east side of the Big Island, when she caught a glimpse of something white beneath the surface of the water.

"I started paddling for a wave, and when the water sucked up off the reef, I could see fluorescent white coral colonies below me," recalls Takabayashi. "They looked like ghosts popping out through the water."

After studying reef ecosystems in Hawaii for over 20 years, Takabayashi knew this wasn't a good sign. Corals are usually pigmented. Some take on shades of brown. Others are more vibrant, stained with bright blue, green, or red hues, like the ones on the front of travel brochures selling all-inclusive packages to Fijian resorts.

"If these corals were healthy, they would've been brown," says Takabayashi. "Before that day, most surfers probably didn't even notice the live corals below them because they would've blended in with the ocean floor."

But the bone-white corals she saw that day were far from healthy. They were "bleached," meaning they'd lost the microscopic symbiotic algae that live inside the corals' transparent tissue. These über-small organisms, called zooxanthellae, enliven corals with their russet-brown pigmentation and also serve as the corals' main source of nutrition, using photosynthesis to convert sunlight into energy. Think of them like indispensable solar panels: without them, coral reefs starve and have no energy to grow. If zooxanthellae leave their hosts' tissue, once-thriving colonies of coral instantaneously become clumps of haunting specters.

Bali's Bukit Peninsula is the original Indonesian dreamscape, lined with coral reefs that are perfectly angled to accept the Indian Ocean's winter storms and sculpt them into a series of flawless lefts. Craig Anderson, enjoying a natural masterpiece. Photo: Respondek

Bali's Bukit Peninsula is the original Indonesian dreamscape, lined with coral reefs that are perfectly angled to accept the Indian Ocean's winter storms and sculpt them into a series of flawless lefts. Craig Anderson, enjoying a natural masterpiece.
Photo: Respondek


Technically speaking, corals don't just "lose" their zooxanthellae tenants. When the surrounding water temperature exceeds a certain threshold, the zooxanthellae start producing a bunch of toxic oxidizing radicals. The corals don't like this, so they evict the zooxanthellae, their primary food source. Corals already live in water temperatures near their upper thermal limits, so any time water temps creep above that limit, bleaching ensues. Corals don't always die when they undergo bleaching. But if deprived of their main food supply for long, death is likely.

The bleached corals Takabayashi noticed in 2014—along with many other reefs surrounding Hawaii, Florida, Kiribati, Guam, and the Marshall Islands—were some of the first victims of what would later be deemed by NOAA scientists to be the longest global bleaching event on record.

That event started in the fall of 2013, when an expanse of warm water nicknamed "The Blob" began wreaking havoc on marine life in the Pacific Ocean, including coral reefs. The above-average water temps continued throughout 2014 and then cooled for a couple months. But when 2015's El Niño went into effect, the waters began heating up again and haven't stopped since. Last year set the record for warmest global water temps since 1880, and 2016 looks to be even warmer.

These record-setting sea-surface temps did serious harm to reefs. Scientists estimate that roughly 38 percent of the world's coral reefs have been bleached, including spots in Indonesia, French Polynesia, Panama, Reunion Island, Madagascar, the Maldives, Papua New Guinea, American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, and the Caribbean. Roughly 93 percent of Australia's Great Barrier Reef sustained some level of bleaching. Kiribati, an island chain home to many empty, world-class surf breaks, lost over 80 percent of its living coral. Less than five percent of Kiribati's reefs are expected to survive this event.

Scientists are still calculating the full extent of the damage, but Greg Hodgson, founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation, estimates that roughly 15 percent of the world's bleached reefs died over the past three years—a figure still smaller than the mortality rate during the first global bleaching event in 1998–'99, which also coincided with a serious El Niño.

Hodgson, who has been studying coral reefs since the 1970s, remembers the 1998 bleaching event like it was yesterday. "I was diving and surfing at a secret spot on a remote island in Vietnam, and I remember seeing bleached coral heads as far as the eye could see," he says. "They looked like tombstones in a cemetery."

While many corals appear stagnant and lifeless from a distance, closer inspection reveals complex organisms. Here, under magnification, the strange face of a vital creature becomes visible. Photo: Thouard

While many corals appear stagnant and lifeless from a distance, closer inspection reveals complex organisms. Here, under magnification, the strange face of a vital creature becomes visible. Photo: Thouard


It takes only a quick Google search to find doom-and-gloom reports surrounding coral reefs, and in them you'll discover that reef systems have been in a fragile state for decades, largely due to negligent human activities like overfishing, coral mining, and coastal development. Some scientists and media outlets claim that 30 percent of the world's reefs are beyond repair, and if things continue at their present rate, each and every piece of coral will be in danger of extinction by 2050.

This is a grim outlook for any island economy that depends on living coral. Reef systems serve many purposes beyond stoking out barrel-crazed surfers (believe it or not). They drive tourism. They prevent erosion and shield coastal towns from giant swells by mitigating wave energy. They support one quarter of the ocean's fish population and, as a result, supply island nations with their main source of protein. To put a price tag on the estimated value of coral reefs worldwide, you'd be looking at a whopping $375 billion each year, according to NOAA.

Once corals die, they aren't able to grow and keep up with rising sea levels, which could swamp out waves that typically work best with less water on the reef. As Bruce Shaw, a scientist from Columbia University, put it: "It'll be like a permanent high tide."

The good news is that corals are tough, highly resilient creatures that have been around for over 200 million years. If we regulate and monitor things like pollution and reckless fishing practices, corals have the ability to bounce back after being diseased and bleached. The bad news is that even if we can control for local problems, climate change is altering the environment at Mach 10 speeds and corals can't naturally adapt and evolve at a quick enough pace.

If fossil fuel burning continues unabated, climate scientists say, things will get ugly. Oceans will continue to warm, which will bring on rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Sedimentation will seep out onto reefs and obscure corals' access to sunlight. Oceans will also continue to acidify, which will prevent corals from soaking up the calcium they need to create and rebuild their calcium carbonate skeleton. If climate change keeps at its furious pace, corals will perish.

And what of the reefs below some of our favorite waves? If corals go extinct, will famous reefbreak waves like P-Pass or Teahupoo or Cloudbreak face the same demise as the reefs underneath them erode?

Yes and no. Reefs with relatively little living coral, like many spots on the North Shore of Oahu, can continue to produce picture-perfect waves because they're able to grow coralline algae—a hard, pinkish coat that gives reefs a protective armor resistant to erosion. Surfers, therefore, needn't worry about their favorite spot disappearing over the next decade. It's what will start to happen over the next 30 to 40 years that's unsettling.

Once corals die, they aren't able to grow and keep up with rising sea levels, which could swamp out waves that typically work best with less water on the reef. As Bruce Shaw, a scientist from Columbia University, put it: "It'll be like a permanent high tide."

To make matters even worse, the ocean's ever-increasing acidity will eventually start to disintegrate all reefs—both dead and alive. "Anything made out of calcium carbonate will begin breaking down because of the acid," says Hodgson. "It's just like putting something in a can of Coke or a bottle of vinegar and watching it slowly dissolve away."

Laura Enever, slotted at Fiji's most iconic reef. It's unclear exactly how climate change will affect waves like Cloudbreak, but if ocean acidification kills off the world's coral, reefs will be unable to grow as sea levels rise, softening our favorite reefs with a kind of permanent high tide. Photo: Glaser

Laura Enever, slotted at Fiji's most iconic reef. It's unclear exactly how climate change will affect waves like Cloudbreak, but if ocean acidification kills off the world's coral, reefs will be unable to grow as sea levels rise, softening our favorite reefs with a kind of permanent high tide. Photo: Glaser


Of course, the coral apocalypse won't happen within the next year or two. And reef structures probably won't melt away within our lifetime. But if oceans keep soaking up copious amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, temperatures will keep spiking, pH levels in the water will keep dropping, and corals won't be able to cope anymore. No matter how far into the future that may be, it still leaves us with the dilemma of what we can do right now to save them.

It's this question that led me to seek out Dr. Ruth Gates on Hawaii's Coconut Island, a 28-acre landmass bordered by palm trees and mangroves that sits inside Kāne'ohe Bay, just a quarter mile off the windward side of Oahu. The island houses the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, where Gates is working on a solution that could save coral reefs from the chokehold of climate change.

I met Gates on a particularly hot afternoon in June, on the small floating dock at the entrance of the island. Gates—a 55-year-old English woman with a pixie cut, a hearty laugh, and a black belt in karate—is the director of HIMB and also serves as the president of the International Society for Reef Studies. She laments not knowing how to surf, but, thanks to the line of work she's been in for the past 20 years, she still spends ample time in the ocean. Her most recent project involves breeding "super coral" that can withstand the elements of the warmer, more acidic oceans of the future. We hopped in her golf cart to get a closer look at her lab on the other side of the island.

"Yes, the rate at which the planet is changing is exceeding all of the intrinsic capacities of the coral reefs to cope, but we shouldn't become paralyzed by the coral that's already destroyed," Gates said. "We are never going back, so we should try to stabilize the coral reefs that are still living."

Back in the 1930s, Coconut Island was owned by an eccentric tuna mogul. To satisfy his bacchanalian inclinations, he built a zoo, a bowling alley, a huge dance hall, and numerous bars all along the island's perimeter. Now, over 80 years later, HIMB has transformed Coconut Island into a place that would make Jacques Cousteau tip his red beanie in approval. Tuna tanks, shark lagoons, research boats, classrooms, and state-of-the art laboratories are scattered throughout lush, tropical vegetation just waiting to be used by some of the leading marine biologists in the world.

As our golf cart puttered along under the midday sun, I could see a fringing reef that creates a turquoise halo around the island. This reef, along with 52 other nearby patches of reef, makes Kāne'ohe Bay the perfect place to study corals.

Gates explained that 50 years ago the bay looked like a festering swamp. "The City [Kāne'ohe] poured raw sewage into it until 1978," she said. As a result, a non-native algae grew over the reefs and most of the corals died. But then scientists came up with a technological fix. They designed a machine called the Super Sucker that slurped up all the algae on the reef. Then they planted sea urchins that prevented new overgrowth. Now, decades later, there's almost 100 percent coral coverage.

"That project is an example of how humans can give nature a leg up and how nature can keep up once it's been given that help," said Gates. "There are positive stories like this out there, but most of the time all people hear about is the doom and gloom."

Gates, as it turns out, isn't one to surrender to despair and pessimism. She believes that discussing a problem can go only so far before someone needs to take action to solve it, and she's happy to be that someone. But still, she acknowledges the reality of the coral situation.

"The best estimates state that even if we stop burning fossil fuels right now, global temps are likely to rise more than three degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average, because there will be a residual magnification," Gates explained.

We can't remediate CO instantly. But, to Gates, that doesn't mean we can't do anything about our current situation. "Yes, the rate at which the planet is changing is exceeding all of the intrinsic capacities of the coral reefs to cope, but we shouldn't become paralyzed by the coral that's already destroyed," she said. "We are never going back, so we should try to stabilize the coral reefs that are still living."

When staring down the barrel of rapid climate change, Gates believes that a technological solution, like the one she's working on, might be coral's only saving grace. "Traditional methods involve putting a big boundary around a protected marine area and calling it conservation, assuming that everything in that place will be better off," said Gates. "No doubt things are better off like that, but is that sufficient to actually stop the decline on the reefs? I argue that it's not."

If you've ever pulled into a Tahitian tube, odds are you've surfed over a scene similar to this. Here, translucent branch coral polyps use their tentacles to catch and feed upon tiny organisms. Photo: Thouard

If you've ever pulled into a Tahitian tube, odds are you've surfed over a scene similar to this. Here, translucent branch coral polyps use their tentacles to catch and feed upon tiny organisms. Photo: Thouard


When we arrived at her outdoor lab, Gates led me down rows of huge vats, connected to each other with PVC pipe. Each vat was filled with water siphoned from the bay and a dozen or so chunks of finger and rice corals. At first glance, the two species were indistinguishable—just craggy rock-like creatures sitting on the bottom of the tank. But upon further inspection, the distinctions became clear. Finger corals had stubby, appendage-like branches, while the rice looked like, well, a side of cooked brown rice.

These vats, Gates explained, are essentially chemically controlled hot tubs. "We run regular water in some for our control treatment, but then in other tanks we bump up the temperature a couple degrees and depress the pH level," she said. "Our goal is to simulate the conditions of what the ocean will be like in 2040 or 2050."

The method is fairly straightforward. She and her fellow researchers select various fragments of corals from the reefs in Kāne'ohe Bay, some that are partially bleached and others that seem to be thriving despite the elevated water temps. "Then we bring them into these tanks and we expose them to simulated future ocean conditions," said Gates. "Our goal is not to kill them; it's to give them an experience so they can learn to withstand those stressful conditions when they're exposed to them again." Corals have a good memory, and when they experience a certain event—surging El Niño water temps, for example—they're able to recognize when temps spike again and will be less affected the next time around.

"There are three things we want to do with this project," Gates explained. "One, we want to implant these 'super corals' onto reefs that are failing. Two, we want to completely restore dead reefs using these corals. And three, as people continue to pour more and more concrete into the water to combat sea-level rise, we want to plant these corals onto them to make them living structures instead of just inert concrete blocks."

Gates likened it to something I could relate to. "It's like when you first stood up on a surfboard," she explained. "You were probably really scared and bad at it, but now that you've trained and learned how to ride a wave, it's like second nature to you. You don't even think about what you're doing anymore."

Gates believes that once she and her colleagues completely understand all the nuances and consequences of training corals, she can collaborate with people who could scale the project and expose corals to future conditions without bringing them into her lab. "If we were to present someone with a challenge to go out to the reef and elevate the temperature around the reef by, say, 2 degrees for 48 hours," Gates said, "I guarantee an engineer would say, 'Oh yeah, we could do that.'" But until their research is ready for scaling, Gates and her colleagues will continue to work within the confines of her lab.

Once they've trained these "super coral," they breed the best with the best. The idea is to create strong coral offspring that are able to tolerate the impending future. It's called assisted evolution. "Humans have been doing this with dogs for the longest time," said Gates. "If someone wanted a dog with floppy ears or long legs, they breed for that trait by using individuals that exhibit it. Same thing with coral. If we know which individuals in a species are doing well, let's just breed them."

In a way, Gates is just playing matchmaker. "Some reefs might be large in size, but because of all the recent damage, there might only be four individual corals left that can reproduce, and they're at opposite ends of the reef." The more space there is between these coral, the harder it is for their sperm and egg to meet each other. Gates is just creating a space that allows corals to mate. Like Tinder or Match.com, but for corals: "We're helping them do what they naturally do."

Her hope is that what she's doing in the lab will have a real-world impact. "There are three things we want to do with this project," Gates explained. "One, we want to implant these 'super corals' onto reefs that are failing. Two, we want to completely restore dead reefs using these corals. And three, as people continue to pour more and more concrete into the water to combat sea-level rise, we want to plant these corals onto them to make them living structures instead of just inert concrete blocks."

According to Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, several reefs on the island of Maui lost nearly 25 percent of their living coral between 1994 and 2006 primarily as a result of human influence. "The most dramatic decline was at Honolua Bay," the HDLNR states, "where coral cover dropped from 42 percent to 9 percent."

One of the countless coral-made miracles dotting the coast of Indonesia. Photo: Shield

One of the countless coral-made miracles dotting the coast of Indonesia. Photo: Shield


I witnessed this firsthand on a flat, gloomy morning in June, when I spent a couple hours snorkeling around Honolua. I had linked up with Torsten Durkan, a 24-year-old big-wave surfer from Maui who gives reef tours for the Pacific Whale Foundation. This past winter, Durkan raised donations for Gates' lab by asking individuals to pledge money for coral research, by the foot, for the biggest wave he was able to nab that winter—a 50-footer at Jaws during the Aaron Gold swell.

Based on his background in biology (he recently graduated with a bachelor's degree from the University of Hawaii), Durkan knew the last El Niño season was going to be a harsh one for corals. "Whenever surfers think about El Niño, we usually just think about good waves," Durkan told me as we threw on our snorkels and swim fins. "But the same warm water that's creating storms and bigger waves is also destroying coral ecosystems. I wanted my surfing to have more meaning this year, so I decided to partner with Gates. I liked that she's actually doing something about the degradation of reefs."

Durkan led me out to a patch of reef located near the Cove takeoff zone at Honolua. The water was calm and the sun was starting to peek through the gray skies overhead. After defogging my mask a few times, my eyes finally adjusted to what was beneath me. From above, the reef looked like a semi-barren mountain range. Some sections looked completely dead. But as we swam out a bit deeper, the scene became more animated. Lobe, plate, and finger corals jutted up toward the surface of the water. Neon-colored parrotfish and silver unicorn fish with weird, horn-like knobs swam in and out of the reef's crevices. A peacock grouper with its trademark underbite swam between Durkan and me, seemingly uninterested in anything that wasn't prey. Despite the little remaining coral coverage, there was more life along the reef than I was expecting to see. But I wondered what this place might look like 30 years from now.

Durkan motioned for me to follow him down about 8 feet below the surface. He pointed to a Pocillopora meandrina, a species of coral that looked like a head of cauliflower. Healthy Pocillopora meandrina are usually brown or some shade of pink. But this one was half tan, half white.

"I justify it like this: the way we're messing with the Earth and ecological system is unnatural," said Durkan when asked about the criticism of Gates' work. "So maybe it'll take an unnatural way to preserve it."

We both surfaced, exhaling water through the tubes of our snorkels. "Did you see that?" Durkan asked, panting for air. "That's a bleached cauliflower coral. It's either recovering or it didn't get bleached too badly. It's hard to say."

As we spent another half hour floating around the bay with our faces submerged beneath the water, I thought about all the reefs here in Hawaii and around the world—the ones in Fiji, the Maldives, Indo. I started to wonder if what Gates is trying to accomplish is actually realistic. There are millions and millions of acres of coral reefs around the world, and the thought of saving them all through selective breeding seems logistically impossible.

And even if she were able to scale the project, not everyone is convinced that she should. Gates has received criticism for her work over the past year from people who claim that she's playing God, and that humans shouldn't intervene in these processes. But Gates and Durkan don't see it that way.

"I justify it like this: the way we're messing with the Earth and ecological system is unnatural," said Durkan when asked about the criticism of Gates' work. "So maybe it'll take an unnatural way to preserve it."

Gates had told me something similar when we were leaving her lab on Coconut Island. "People say we should let natural selection take care of everything," she said. "And nature can take care of itself, when nature is in good shape. But nature can't take care of itself now because we've pushed nature way too far."

"If we never have to use this biology, I'd be the happiest person on the planet, because that means we solved the problem in a non-interventional way," Gates continued. "But we can't wait until all coral species are endangered before we act. We've got to risk doing things differently and we need to be creative. I don't want to be one of those people who just puts their head in the sand, because it's just too big of a problem to do nothing."

You don't need to be a marine biologist to know that maintaining healthy reefs is a good thing for surfing. Tahitian charger Matahi Drollet, enjoying the gift that marine invertebrates provide.  Photo: Thouard

You don't need to be a marine biologist to know that maintaining healthy reefs is a good thing for surfing. Tahitian charger Matahi Drollet, enjoying the gift that marine invertebrates provide. Photo: Thouard


[This feature originally appeared in “Reborn,” our November 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now]