We interview Titouan Bernicot, founder of Coral Gardeners and leader in ocean conservation.
Several years ago, Ahe atoll native Titouan Bernicot was surfing on the reefs of Mo’orea, the sister island of Tahiti, when he made a shocking and disturbing discovery. “Coral reefs were disappearing,” explains Bernicot to Eco-Age. “That’s the day I realized the reefs that give me everything in my life— the best moments surfing coral reef waves, reef fish almost every day, protecting our island from big storms, from erosion, creating tourism, the first economy of the country, even giving us 50% of the air we breathe—are dying right before my eyes. And nobody was doing anything about it.”
Since then, Bernicot, his brother, and friends have taken action. “I met a guy who was planting corals,” said Bernicot. “I fell in love with having your little coal farm in the water to restore the reef.”
This chance meeting and recognition of climate change’s impact on corals led to the creation of Coral Gardeners, Bernicot’s collective of scientists, activists and ocean lovers dedicated to restoring reef ecosystems. The group addresses the effects of coral bleaching, caused by rising temperatures, at the heart, selecting climate resistant super corals and planting coral gardens while educating the public. Their work is a lesson in scaling a movement.
We caught up with Bernicot, who was in his oceanfront home on the island of Mo’orea, to learn about his journey, the strategy behind Coral Gardeners’ work to plant and grow heat resistant corals, and how we can support this work.
Eco-Age: Can you talk about the strategy and processes that you’ve implemented?
Eco-Age: What do you see as the biggest misconceptions today? What are actionable steps people can take?
Titouan: The number one reason why coral reefs are dying is global warming. The temperature of our planet and the ocean is rising too fast. And so, the corals don’t have time to adapt so they are disappearing. Even though we find some new methods and coral reef restoration strategies, working with very resilient corals, the truth is that if global warming doesn’t stop, we won’t be able to save those ecosystems and they could be the first ones to collapse. I will suggest that everyone work towards reducing or stabilizing their own carbon footprints. For example, I stopped eating red meat, because that’s one of the main reasons why global warming exists. I stopped it three years ago. I’m driving an electrical car with solar panels, powering our entire headquarters in the home [with solar energy]. It’s about doing the little things every day to make us more eco conscious and reduce our carbon footprint. That’s number one, and then it’s about spreading the word, educating. We speed up the innovation, because I really believe in innovation and technologies that will help us transition to sustainable energy and lower consumption lifestyle. We need to spread the word and make the voice of the coral reef and the ocean heard, and all together yet try to do our part every day.
Eco-Age: Are there any particular innovations you’re really excited about?
Titouan: Yeah, for sure. We are developing at a lot of tech innovation on connected nurseries. It’s called Reef OS, reefoperating systems. It’s a network of sensors and cameras that we put in the water that can monitor in real time, collecting real time data to better understand the growth of the corals, the number of fish coming back, etc. We’re also developing a restoration application for smartphones so the team can gain time when they are monitoring the corals in the water.
More about general innovations: I will say that one of the main causes of global warming is transport, like planes. I was just talking last week with an engineer that is developing an electrical plane [run by] hydrogen. I believe that if we can change the way we move, it will have the greatest impact on global warming. Electrical cars are the future. Recycling the batteries—we already know how to do it. But in the future, we can fly rockets to Mars—I’m sure we’ll be able to recycle the batteries. Right now, when I take my car to go at the grocery and grab a baguette, I know that I don’t have co2 behind my car. It’s powered by a renewable energy source like the sun. I also love the innovation with wave power. Nature is generating so much power and I think one of our biggest goals should be just to live more with nature in the loop.
Eco-Age: We should be working in partnership with nature as opposed to just exploiting. Do you have anything on the horizon?
Titouan: Oh wow. There are a lot of things coming. We started Coral Gardeners in my bedroom here with my little brother. He was 16. In the past five years, the project exploded. For a lot of people in this field, we became the rising star of ocean conservation. And this last five years have been just incredible. We planted over 20,000 corals, and we are on our road to plant a million by the end of 2025, opening 20 international branches. And that’s thanks to our main sponsor, which is North Sails. They are the ones who early on believed in our vision, and really tried to have one of their three key values be conservation and saving the planet. So, they invested a lot of money supporting our efforts. And that’s how we were able to go to navigate through COVID-19. With them, we really want to scale up coral reef restoration. Right now, we raised awareness to almost 200 million people. We’ve created a viral creative campaign on social media. We want to hit a billion people by the end of 2025. We want to develop the most advanced tools and technology for coral reef conservation. And we really want to create the blue economy and hire some fishermen that were fishing with dynamic fishing in Thailand, for example, turning them into Coral Gardeners, so they can restore their local reef and empower local communities. The whole idea behind Coral Gardeners is to really use coral and coral gardening as a powerful tool to create a movement. Create jobs with ecotourism and really, develop the impact around all of this.