Defender of the Reef
Freediving with Coral Gardener Titouan Bernicot
Titouan Bernicot discovered at age 16 that the beautiful and vital corals surrounding his island home of Mo’orea were dying. Taking it upon himself to restore the reef, he founded the nonprofit Coral Gardeners. Here he tells his story
Changing the world can be really hard, but it can all start by fixing one broken coral.Titouan Bernicot
There is no boundary between earth and ocean. They are two sides of the same world. I wish everyone could experience what I feel when I am under the sea.
Gliding through reef canyons, I am weightless. Schools of fish painted with streaks of neon pink and blue pass by me. I listen carefully, in case I hear the song of a humpback whale. When waves crash above my head like a storm in the sky, I swim closer to the surface to feel their energy.
I was born on a tiny pearl farm lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My father is French, but he grew up in Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia. My mother is from the north of France, near Lille. After my father fell in love with my mother on the ski slopes of the Alps, he bought her an airline ticket, hoping she would follow him back to his home: a coral atoll in the northern Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, with no doctors, no shops, no supermarkets, and no telephone – only radio. At first, my mother couldn’t believe he was serious – you can’t even see the atoll, Ahe, on a map. But in the end, she answered the call of adventure. Together, they ran a business cultivating Tahitian pearls, the diamonds of the sea.
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Throughout my early childhood, this pearl farm was my home. It was an amazing place to begin my time on Earth. Everywhere you looked, there were patterned fish, covered with spots and stripes, and sharks patrolling nearby reef ledges. Every day, we caught fish from the reef to eat, and I was swimming with the sharks before I knew how to feed myself.
I was the only child on our pearl farm, but I was never short of playmates: my father’s team members, who polished oyster shells in the cool morning until they shone, became my crew. The memories of swimming out into the ocean, to explore uncharted waters or to join my father when he fished, will never leave me.
As there was no school on our atoll, when I turned three, and my little brother Ioane arrived, my family decided to move south to the sister island of Tahiti, called Mo’orea, where I live now. Mo’orea has mountains that are steep triangles reaching to the sky, and bays of white sand. Walking through the jungle, you have to move according to the rhythms of the branches and roots. The waterfalls are natural gathering grounds where you can spend time with friends, letting the world go by.
At only 16 kilometres wide from west to east, the island of Mo’orea is a drop of land in the ocean that surrounds us. We are completely connected to the sea. After relocating, daily life was much the same as on the pearl farm. As I got older, I learned new skills: how to fish underwater with a speargun, how to freedive, and how to surf with my buddy Taiano and his big brother Maoritai. We have a wildness in our hearts: on land, we walk and run barefoot; in the water, we dive as deep as we can, until our lungs can’t cope without oxygen any longer. When we pause to take a breath, we spend time contemplating our island’s magnificent reef ecosystem.
Now imagine this reef, so varied and multicoloured, fading to white and breaking apart. Imagine it is trying to send you a message – a cry for help. When I was sixteen, this is what happened to me. My friends and I had saved up enough money to buy our first boat, a little boat made of aluminum. We took her out on the water, surfboards in tow, excited about our newfound freedom. But when we got to the surf spot, we came face-to-face with the most bizarre sight: under our feet was a mass of corals that had lost their colour. We jumped into the sea to investigate. When you touched the corals, they turned to dust. We were all thinking, “What’s going on here?” We were shocked; it was the first time any of us had seen these white blemishes on our reef.
We returned home, and did our research on the Internet. We asked scientists questions. We learned that the corals were turning white, or bleaching, because of rising ocean temperatures – they were dying. I didn’t know before that corals are actually alive; they are a living organism made up of tiny marine invertebrates called polyps. As our planet heats up, and water temperatures in the ocean rise, the polyps become stressed – just like humans do if our environment becomes hostile. This causes them to expel the algae that gives them their colour, and they become ghosts of their former selves.
Scientists tell us that coral reefs could be the first ecosystems to disappear from our planet. If we do not take action in the next 10 years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, stop pollution and overfishing, and find better ways to restore them, all corals could be beyond saving. I could not believe it when I read that we have already lost more than a third of all reefs.
We also learned something else important: the corals were giving us everything in our lives, the best moments when we hit the surf, when we swam with the sharks, or when we caught fish to cook on open fires at the beach. The reef attracts tourism, which is our primary source of income in French Polynesia. It protects our shores from storms, tsunamis, and erosion. And even though coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, they provide a home for 25 percent of marine biodiversity. The reef is our everything, and it is dying right in front of our eyes.
After that, I dreamed of defending the reef. I wanted to work hard. I wanted my work to be for the reef. My dad put me in contact with a marine biologist from Mo’orea, my island, and he introduced us to techniques for taking coral cuttings. I will always remember the afternoon when I chose my favorite coral cutting, and replanted it in the shimmering waters of our lagoon. It was incredible. I fell in love with the process. You pick the cutting you’re going to replant from a kind of table. In Tahitian, we call it a fa’a’apu. It’s like a farm in the water, with every colour of coral you can imagine: mauve, blue, yellow, orange. When you come back two months later, your coral is twice the size. There are fish and crabs inside it. From this experience, I discovered you can give life back to the ocean by completing a really simple action. It’s like gardening on land, except we don’t plant trees, we plant corals.
I was hooked. This was the first sign pointing in the direction of Coral Gardeners, the organisation we have become. For three years, I continued to plant coral by myself in front of my house after school, or whenever I wasn’t surfing. After dropping out of university in France – I couldn’t concentrate, or connect with the traditional courses – I came home to Mo’orea. I didn’t have a plan. I thought I might just do coral planting alongside my regular job. But then I met the head of marketing at one of the biggest companies here in French Polynesia, and he really opened my eyes to the potential of growing the Coral Gardeners community.
So I removed the bed from my bedroom to make an office. I put sheets of paper up on the wall, and started piecing my project together. I met my childhood friend Taiano on the beach and asked him, “Bro, what’s up with your life?” Taiano answered, “Bro, I can’t find a job.” So I said, “OK. Come with me. Together we can be the Coral Gardeners.” We bumped fists, and Taiano became the first guy I hired. When Taiano’s big brother Maoritai came with his mum to pick Taiano up, I told him, “It’s crazy. We have 10 coral adoptions on our website every month. We don’t even know the people who are adopting our corals. Just come tomorrow at 7 am, and we’ll plant some corals.” Maoritai came, and then there were three of us. We moved our headquarters from my bedroom to a nearby fare – a little Tahitian house.
We met a couple of volunteers. Three team members became five. Five became twenty. Now, we have a full team. We are scientists, engineers, and storytellers. We partner with centers of research. There are a lot of my childhood friends working at Coral Gardeners.
We collect “super corals” – corals that are naturally more resistant to the extreme conditions caused by climate change, like a warmer, more acidic ocean – and put them in a nursery to grow, before transplanting them to damaged zones of the reef. This strengthens the habitat, encouraging other life to return.
In the beginning, we were young, simple surfers and fishermen, so we didn’t have credibility. Government funding wasn’t an option. We needed to be smart, and our online Adopt a Coral program allowed us to raise funds. Without this, we wouldn’t exist today, and I wouldn’t be telling this story. Adopting a coral is something everyone, no matter where they are in the world, can do to help save the reef.
Alongside the planting of corals, we aim to raise awareness. For Coral Gardeners, education is our number one priority. My dream is for every person on the planet to know what a coral is, and to want to protect these ecosystems, because they are so important. It’s why we speak at conferences worldwide, and share our story on social networks; we want people to fall in love with the reefs and be inspired to get involved. We also go into local schools here in French Polynesia to pass on the message. When you enter a classroom and speak to the kids, you see that they know so much already. They are so quick to raise their hands in the air and ask intelligent questions. They all want to become “coral gardeners” and save the reef. It gives me a lot of hope in future generations. I think they are going to be more sensitive and smarter, to try and change their ways of living and consuming, and find jobs with a purpose.
So I feel optimistic about the future, and believe in telling the story of the reef to spread understanding. My “ocean mum” Cristina Mittermeier, co-founder of SeaLegacy, taught me that; she said we must be storytellers as well as people who create change. Cristina belongs to a group of conservation photographers who I look up to enormously. It’s rare to meet someone who has such a profound impact on your life. But I really connected with Cristina – we have very similar personalities, share the same love of the ocean, and also have the same dreams. Cristina discovered us through social media, and followed up with a visit to see us in Mo’orea. When we met, the Coral Gardeners project was in its early days. I had strong convictions about managing the organisation and my vision, and Cristina was like an angel coming to tell me that I was on the right path. She came at the perfect time, put her trust in me, and gave me hope for the future of Coral Gardeners and for the reef.
Even though the time we spent together was over too soon, I was able to show Cristina the highlights of our island by boat. We couldn’t wait to dive into the water at the first chance we got. While we were exploring below the surface, we shared a special encounter with a stingray.
A pink whipray meets me on the seabed, and we play together. Clouds of sand float around my ankles. Cristina takes a photo of us. Stingrays are the most fascinating animals. Like humans, they have personalities. Some days, they are shy. Some days, they are friendly – of course, it really helps if you have a little bit of fish for them. Despite what you might think, I don’t worry about their stinger; as long as you don’t tread on them or act aggressively, they are very sweet and polite. I really like interacting with marine life, because although you can’t talk with them, you know you are communicating through eye contact. I love playing with them. For me, it’s a way of understanding why I do my job. It makes people laugh, but I always say that my cats and dogs are the stingrays and the sharks. When I am with them, I understand why I work so hard to protect their habitats. Maybe, at moments like this, they are saying thank you and giving something back to me.
I feel so grateful to have come this far with Coral Gardeners. A video we launched at the end of 2019 has already gained over 50 million views, and we have planted more than 15,000 corals in total. But I have the feeling this is just the beginning. My mission to protect the reef isn’t always easy. I am learning so much all the time, especially when it comes to team management and strategy. I think I’ve proved that it’s possible to start from nothing, and succeed. We were just a group of island friends, who never listened when we were told we weren’t knowledgeable enough. We worked super hard, and in a few years, our hopes and dreams became a reality. In the long term, we want to build a community of millions of people helping us to save coral reefs around the world.
For all the young kids out there who want to start something, you just need to be passionate. Find a project that drives you. Take a sheet of white paper, write down a few ideas, and start telling your story to others – the rest will follow.
I have a notebook from when I was sixteen, where I wrote down my intention of creating a coral restoration center, with four or five people planting corals. Now, we are in the middle of living that dream.
It’s just incredible to see that with determination, passion, and hard work, you can succeed in realising your dreams. That first coral I planted was tiny to begin with. Today, it has grown to be enormous. When I think about our planet, I think about how we are all connected. We are all part of the great human reef. Our future will be guided by all of our individual actions. Changing the world can be really hard, but it can all start by fixing one broken coral. I really believe there is hope for the ocean. We are going to do everything we can to save our reef ecosystems, create a movement, and make sure everyone can be part of the solution.
Nothing in life is impossible until you say it is.
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What’s so good about this?
The world is facing a crisis in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss. Coral conservation-focused work is crucial to showing what’s at stake and pointing towards ways we can make changes to slow, halt and even reverse the damage we’re causing.
Meet the writer
Freediver Titouan Bernicot grew up surrounded by the ocean on Ahe, a small atoll in the Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia. He is the founder and CEO of Coral Gardeners, a coral reef restoration, conservation, and awareness-raising programme. Coral Gardeners is a coral reef restoration and conservation organisation located in Moorea, French Polynesia. Their mission is to revolutionise reef restoration and to raise awareness to make people realise how important and vital coral reefs are.
This story was published with thanks to a partnership with Only One, a digital action hub for ocean conservation.