It’s no surprise that Titouan Bernicot is so deeply passionate about his work. Growing up on his family’s pearl farm on the French Polynesian atoll of Ahe, the ocean is so much a part of who he is that he describes it as his best friend.
At just 18 years old, Bernicot set up Coral Gardeners, an organization focused on restoring local reefs, and in the seven years since he has gathered a team to restore and plant more than 100,000 resilient corals at 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 take part in their work.
The partnership is called “The Lost Colors” because of the coral bleaching process; usually caused by warmer water, it makes coral expel certain algae that give them their color. If temperatures remain too high, the algae are unable to return and the coral dies.
Once a coral dies, it is extremely hard for reefs to return and regrow. This is when the reef ecosystem begins to collapse — and that’s what Bernicot and Coral Gardeners are trying to prevent.
Homegrown reef restoration
Bernicot says his “connection” with the ocean started when he was a baby, learning “about the fish behaviors, the octopus, the sharks, how they co-exist.”
“When I am not feeling good, when I’m stressed, I like to just go on the water,” he adds. “There is no noise … there is only the sound of the reef, the fish.”
But with the climate crisis threatening wildlife across the globe, coral reefs are in a precarious position. Scientists have estimated that up to 70-90% of existing coral reefs across the planet could disappear within the next 20 years, with the whole ecosystem under threat of destruction by the end of the century.
Increasingly extreme weather patterns are a further cause for concern. This year’s El Nino, a natural fluctuation in temperature in the Pacific Ocean, threatens to warm oceans even more.
This rise in ocean temperature increases the risk of coral bleaching, potentially devastating this delicate environment. There are real concerns from Coral Gardeners’ founder that these reefs could become the first ecosystem on the planet to collapse.
“I want to fight for those little guys, for those fish, for the octopus, sharks and stingray,” Bernicot says. “They don’t have the voice that we have and they don’t really need it. They just need people to be there for them and I want to be one of those people (to) save their home.”
Alongside Bernicot, Coral Gardeners has a team of more than 50 people, including scientists and engineers, some of whom grew up on the very atolls they are working across.
One of the main ways they support local reefs is through “upcycling” old ropes and other waste from abandoned pearl farms that is damaging coral and using it to create coral nurseries.
These nurseries consist of small pieces of coral that can grow in a protected environment underwater. Once they reach a healthy size and condition, they are usually reintroduced to natural environments where reefs can then grow.
Last year, Coral Gardeners managed to plant more than 15,000 corals in French Polynesia, with a further 9,400 in their nurseries. In 2023, Coral Gardeners says, the total number planted has more than quadrupled, with over 70,000 corals planted this year.
The nurseries are also used to help Bernicot’s team conduct research, providing information on the best environment for coral to grow and how different species fare in various conditions. The organization’s 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 a “connected reef.”
A solution for the future
Over the next few years, Coral Gardeners’ “Odyssey 2025” goal is to restore one million corals, reach one billion people, and expand internationally, with a team already at work in Fiji, says Bernicot.
The group is also working on more collaborations like the one with “Aquaman,” including partnerships with “mindful brands” to create effective conservation activism.
But at the end of the day, for Bernicot, it’s all about the community where Coral Gardeners began. Working alongside many of his former classmates, the reef restoration project is a true homegrown effort.
“No one thought that one day, we could answer to the question ‘What do you want to do?’ by saying ‘I want to become a coral gardener,’” Bernicot says. “It wasn’t a job, but now it’s real.”
“They are living proof that today you can be paid to do something meaningful, and that ocean conservation is not obliged to be a part-time job only volunteering,” he adds. “You can wake up every morning with one single priority and focus (on) how to save the most important place on Earth.”