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Marine Biologist Amélie Carraut: Restoring Coral Reefs in the Maldives with Reefscapers

 

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This podcast with Reefscapers' resident Marine biologist, Amélie Carraut, celebrates Reefscapers' mission to protect the ocean with their coral reef restoration projects in the Maldives and raise awareness about the importance of coral reefs.

As surfers, we all have a relationship with the reef. And in this episode, Amélie shares interesting details about them, their process of restoring corals, and how we can help their cause by adopting a coral frame. These coral frames are built & monitored by their team of marine biologists to follow the corals’ growth online, thanks to underwater photos taken every six months.

Amélie also shares her love for the ocean and how’s it like being and surfing in the Maldives.

Marine Biologist Amélie Carraut: Restoring Coral Reefs in the Maldives with Reefscapers

Social Media Profiles:

Topics Discussed:

  • What did you learn from spending a year studying chimpanzees?
  • Tell us about Reefscapers.
  • Tell us about reefs and why they are dying and need restoration?
  • What are the effects on the environment when a reef dies?
  • How do you restore a reef?
  • How long does it take to restore a reef?
  • What is the Maldives like?
  • What is the surf like in the Maldives?
  • What other conservation activities are happening on the island?
  • If you surf, what was your first surfboard?
  • What was your favorite trip?

Location: Malé, Maldives

Transcripts

Saltwater High, hello. Today, I can't wait, I have a beautiful guest coming from way across the ocean. Amelie, how are you?

Hi, Derek. How are you? I'm good, thank you.

Yeah, awesome. What part of France are you from?

I'm from the southwest of France in Bayonne, so close to Spain and the Atlantic Ocean.

Yeah, yeah. I love that part of France. So for many years, I was going to Messanges. You know where that is? Vieux Boucau, the Vieux Boucau area, and surfing there every October for like 6 or 7 years. I absolutely love that whole region. And of course, where you're from is even closer to, well, one of my favorite waves is Mundaka. Have you been to Mundaka?

Yeah, I've heard of it. I haven't been there, like surfing, but yeah, it's a great place.

Yeah, it's a cool place. And it's probably half an hour from where you grew up. So you have to visit when you go back.

Yeah. exactly. In September, I'll go back.

Yeah. Oh, very cool. So are you going back just to visit?

Yes, its my holidays. I'm taking holidays in September. I have to go home, see the family, and take a small break. So that would be nice.

Great, great. So what is the Maldives like? I've always wanted to go there and I have some friends that have been there, but what's it like?

It's amazing. You have a lot of small island. Each island is surrounded by coral reef. It's just so many biodiversity and the water for me, as a Marine Biologist, it's just a perfect place to study, to discover new species. It's just a beautiful place. And the people here are amazing, as well, so I'm really enjoying Maldives.

So was it a French colony back in the day?

It was colonized by the Portuguese and the British as well. I'm not really sure at what time exactly, but no, the French were not there, if I'm correct. But Portuguese and the British.

Okay, very cool. And where are you exactly? On which Island?

I'm on an island called Furanafushi island. It was a Sheraton Full Moon Resort and Spa is based. So it's a resort I'm working with. It's a partnership I have with the resort to restore the island. So it's about 15 minutes from Malé, the capital of the Maldives.

Okay, so it's an island off of the capital and is there surf there or is there kind of tourism? What's happening there?

Yes, so it's a resort on the island. So there's a lot of activity for the guest, there's a lot of watersports activity, restaurants. We did nice room with a bunch of bungalows and we have a wave by the spa as well. So if guests want to go surfing, they can go at the spa and we have a small wave when it's the season, which is really great. It's a really nice one.

Awesome. I'm coming next week.

Please do.

I would love to, I would love to. And how has it been during COVID? Has it been kind of more tranquil than obviously France and other places?

So I actually got this job in March 2020. So just when COVID started. With France locked down, the Maldives locked down, so I had to wait until October to come to the Maldives and I came back beginning of October when the resort opened again. So all the resort in the Maldives closed down during lockdown and then it opened again in October. And that's when I came. And since then, we've been quite busy, actually. There's a lot of guests. Because it's a small island, it's really safe with COVID. Every staff member has to quarantine when we arrive on the island and every guest, they arrive, they have to have a negative PCR test. So it's really, really safe. And we haven't had any issue in months now.

Great. That's awesome. Yeah, so I was looking over your background and resume, and I just loved the year that you studied the chimpanzees and I want to know all about what was that like and what was the main thing you learned when you were studying them? Yeah, just tell me about that.

Chimpanzees are amazing. So I'm really into marine conservation, but I kind of got lost for 1 year studying chimpanzees. They were absolutely wonderful. I was living hearth in the forest. We had a camp based in the middle of the forest and we would follow the chimpanzee from sunset to sunrise with a GPS to track where they go. And then chimpanzees like that, they were getting used to us. So with time, we were able to be able to follow them from a close distance without them being scared of us. And the idea is for the guests to come and see the chimpanzee, see how they are in their natural habitat. So we don't disturb them, we just follow them and that's it. And then the guests can come in the morning and watch the chimpanzee as well. And they are absolutely incredible animals. They're so similar to humans, actually. When you see the kids play with the mother, it's absolutely incredible as they just has the same mimic and their face look really similar to humans. They're just really cute and really interesting. For me, it was an incredible experience. I've learned a lot about chimpanzee, I've learned a lot about the forest, about all the animals, the ecosystem. And that was just an amazing experience I really do not regret.

Were you ever in a situation where you were watching the group and you're like, "Oh, that looks like my cousin Jean back at home?" He does the same I don't know mannerism or something.

Almost, almost. Yeah. I didn't think about it, but it could have happened. But I remember one day, a chimpanzee was just playing with his mom. When you do the plane like when you go on the foot of your mom and then you kind of like pretending to be a plane, so chimpanzee do that as well. So when I saw that for the first time, that was quite incredible to see that the ways the mother and the kids play, it's the same as us.

Wow, amazing. That's such a great experience. I love that. Yeah. So tell me about, is it Reefscapers. Is that the name of the organization?

Reefscapers.

Reefscapers. Okay, Reefscapers. So, yeah, tell me about what the mission and what you're doing there. As a surfer and most of the people listening to this podcast, many of us, we have a relationship with the reef, right? Or with reefs around the world. And I don't think all of us realize how close that relationship is, right? To a healthy reef. So tell me what you guys are doing there.

So Reefscapers have been in the Maldives for 20 years now. So what we do is that we restore the reef around different island in the Maldives. So the aim is to restore the reef by planting more corals in the ocean. So the director of Reefscapers created a coral frame technique. So it's a metal ball with layer of sand on top of it where we attach corals on the frame. Then we put it back underwater and the idea is for the corals, as a coral fragment, to grow on the frame and then they create a new coral colony. And then with time, you're going to have more species of fish hiding in the branches and it increases the diversity of the reef. So the whole idea is for the corals to grow on the frame and then when they spawn, so when they reproduce, then you'll have more larvae bringing back in the ocean to then settle down on the reef in the Maldives.

Amazing. So does the coral, does it grow like a plant? So you put it in this cage and you put it in the ocean, what kind of nutrients does it need and how does it grow, right?

So corals are actually an animal. It looks similar to a plant but it's an animal. So you imagine like a lot of individual polyp. So polyp is a really tiny individual and a coral colony is a lot of polyp living together as a colony. So the same family as jellyfish or sea anemone. And so when they grow, they create layers of calcium carbonate like rock, and then they grow, create new branches, or a big boulder coral. So they live with an algae. So it's a symbiotic relationship. And this algae lives inside the tissue of the coral. So the algae, through the sunlight so photosynthesis creates nutrients for the coral. So it has to get most of the nutrients from the algae that lives inside the tissue. And in exchange, the corals provide a home, a safe place for the algae. So they can't live alone, they need to live with this algae. So one without the other cannot survive.

So what kind of internal biology does a coral have? Does it have a skeletal system and does it breathe? Yeah, break it down.

So you imagine a polyp, it has a mouth, and then it has small tentacles. So it can get food from the currents through these tentacles, which is a way for them to defend themselves. To fight against other corals or protect themselves. So they have the tentacles and mouth and then they just digest the food through this mouth and into this small digestive system that they have. And when they do that, then they create calcium carbonate. So it creates a big rock underneath their bodies that is white and then with more and more polyp, then you have a bigger coral. So it's a really special animal and it's not like an animal that has eyes or hair. It's just really different.

Yeah, it's like an alien.

Yeah. That why they're amazing.

It's like an ocean alien. That's amazing. I never really put that together before. I knew that the coral was essentially living, but I didn't realize you classify it as an actual animal, right? Which is amazing because it doesn't look like one, right? When you look at it, it just looks like a rock basically.

Yeah, it looks like a rock and it looks like a plant, basically most of the time.

Yeah, like a plant.

But because it's an animal, that's why we have to protect it that much. When you stand on the reef, then you're actually standing on an animal. That's why a lot of the work we do is education for people not to stand on the reef, understanding why it's important to keep the coral reef alive and what they bring to the ocean.

Do you think they can feel it when you stand on them?

I want to say yes. I don't know if they would feel it the way we would, but technically, you're standing on something, so yes, I would say they do, in a different way and it will actually damage them because they're really fragile. So you can actually just break them. It's like if you break a nail of someone, you just remove a part of the animal.

Wow, man. That's just amazing. I love it, I love it. So when you put the little cage with the new reef in the water, do you try to put it near other reef, or do you put it near dead reef, or are you trying to restore older reef? Or do you just put it in a new location basically?

So the idea is to put them in a location where there were coral reef before or where there's damage and we need to restore them. So if you have a place where there were corals before and as the corals bleached and die, we try to put the coral frames there, so then we know it's already a good environment for the fish in this area. We know the current can be good and the condition can be healthy. So we put them in different location around the island where there were nice coral reef spots and depending on the depth, depending on the condition, we know what species to put in one place. So with time, we've learned to identify what species are more resistant to high temperature and to different depths. And depending on that, we put different species in different location.

Interesting. Is there a certain depth that they can't live in? When I know them from surfing spots, they tend to be in shallow water, right? So can coral live at a really deep depth or do they have to be close enough to the photosynthesis to kind of help them, the algae live, I guess or something?

Yes. So usually, they can't be too deep. So they need the sunlight to live, obviously. So you can find them from a few meters to maybe 60, even more meter.

Oh, wow.

But that's tropical coral. So you also have some cold water corals that can live deep underwater. And those corals are completely different species. I don't know much about it, but they can live in depths much bigger and they don't need this algae. So they use different techniques to get nutrients than the photosynthesis and the light. But yeah, in the Maldives, you would find them into 60, maybe a bit more.

Wow. That's deep.

Yeah, so depending on the depth, you have different species, the environment is different and they've adapted to the environment.

Yeah, very cool, very cool. So, we talked about that. Why are reefs dying? What would you say the main reason why reefs are dying?

I will say human impact would be the main reason.

Not chimpanzees.

Not chimpanzees, no. Otherwise, it would be too easy.

What are humans doing that are destroying the reef?

So at the moment, for example, you have water temperatures getting higher. The sunlight is getting stronger. So the corals, they need sunlight.

So global warming in the reefs also.

Yeah, you also have what we call a massive bleaching event. So there was a big one in 2016. So it's a strong current that came from Peru and all the way to Australia, Indonesia, Maldives, and a lot of tropical water. And the temperature got a few degrees higher for a few months, and that's when a lot of corals bleached and died, especially on the shallow part of the reef in the Maldives. So that impacted the coral reef a lot. So when we go around close to where I am, the reef has been really impacted. A lot of the reef at the surface, 1 to 3 meters, they've bleached and now are just rocks, basically. So because of that and this bleaching event, less corals are present and then the biodiversity decreased, which is also why we do the coral restoration. Concern is bringing back coral.

Yeah, so the temperature, they're very sensitive to temperature. So when the temperature decreases or increases, it can affect.

Yes, so they need a specific temperature. So if you increase the temperature 2 or 3 degrees, that's when they get stress. They release this algae that live inside their body. And if the water conditions don't come back to normal, the algae doesn't come back and then the coral can bleach and die. And it's like human.

Yeah, it's like hydration, right? Yeah. So when they die, what exactly happens? So what's left is the calcium part of the reef. So what part of the reef—what is dying in the process? You know what I mean?

So, the animal is dying basically. So the algae is being expelled out of the body so they become white. Because this algae when they're alive, that's what gives a color to the corals. That's why they're colorful because of the algae that's inside. So when they're bleaching, the algae is being expelled out of the body, and then that's when they become more and more white. And then with time, if they don't recover, they will die. So you just have the rock left. It's like if someone dies and you have the skeleton left, it's pretty much the same idea.

Yeah. So you can't revive a dead reef?

No, you can't.

Once the reef is dead, you can only reintroduce new healthy specimen like through the cage. Basically, you're replanting the reef if you will, or you're reintroducing the animal to the environment.

Yeah, exactly. So it's like cloning. So what we do is we have big healthy micro-colony, like a coral nursery. And what we do is that we collect a few fragments, less than 10% from this coral colony, and then this fragment that we have, we put it back on the coral frame and on this frame, this fragment is going to attach and then it's just going to grow new branches with time and and then they're just going to grow and they've locked on the frame underwater again.

So you can cut off a little part of the reef or you can, what's the word, kind of sample it and it doesn't kill it if you put it in the little cage?

Yeah. So what we do is we try not to take fragments from the reef, like the natural reef itself. We take it from our coral nursery. So it's corals that we already planted a few years ago, like 20 or recently or healthy colonies that we've planted by ourselves. And then we take coral fragments from there. So the idea is not to impact the natural reef because if you start taking from the natural reef, then it will damage it. So we really take it from our coral nursery and then replace it back on the frame on the reef around.

Got it. Beautiful. And how long would it take once you introduce it for it to become a live, vibrant being in the water? How many years, months, days?

So within 1 month, the coral fragment is about less than half the size of my hand will be attached to the frame. And then within 6 months, it will start to grow new branches again. And let's say in 4 or 5 years, that's when it will be a decent size and that's when we can start taking new fragments. So it takes a long time, but some species can grow 10, 15 centimeters a year. So it's actually quite fast. Like the species that we use are like fast-growing species. So every time you go every week, every month, and you can actually see the coral growing from your own eyes. And that's quite amazing to see, to be honest.

That's awesome. Yeah, I love that. Wow, amazing. Yeah, so are you surfing there, or are you a full-time Biologist?

The season is starting again now in the Maldives, so I'm hoping I'm going to have more time to go surfing. But I can only go on my day off because during the day, I'm working underwater.

You're working, yeah.

But on my day off, I like to go surfing. There's a nice wave by the spa that we have. I've been there 3 or 4 times for now. It's a really nice place. You have a nice wave, you have the reef underneath, you have the spa in front of you, so it's a really beautiful place. And there's no one every time I go, it's just me and one of the person with me. So it's really a full wave for yourself.

Yeah, and do you ever look down at the reef and go, "Oh, there's one of my kids right there that I planted."

Well, the first time I went surfing there, that was quite amazing because I was on the wave and I saw a small blacktip reef shark underneath me. And that was quite amazing and whoa, that's the best wave ever. There's a small shark underneath. That was great.

Yeah, amazing. Amazing. So are you diving or I guess it's not too deep so when you're planting the reef, you don't have to wear dive gear. You can just kind of snorkel.

So, it depends. Sometimes we do some freediving depending on the depth. If it's 5, 6, 7 meters, we can free dive. That's fine. But sometimes we have to maintain the frame. So there's a lot of algae that grow on the frame, so we have to remove it with gloves or with a brush. We have to make sure they don't grow on the corals because they could suffocate them in a way. So we have to remove the algae. So when we do that, usually we do it diving. Because it's easier, it's faster, and it's more efficient. So I do a bit of both freediving and diving depending on the day and what we have to do.

Nice. And then how do you attach the cage, because there's a lot of movement in the water, right? There's current, there's waves. So how do you make sure that the cage with the new specimen is secure?

So you imagine it's a coral frame, you imagine it's like a spiderweb or like a small pyramid and it's a metal frame. So basically it's heavy enough. So once you put it underwater with the coral, it actually does not move. It just stays underwater. And all you have to do is sometimes you have to lift it to make sure it doesn't get buried a bit in the sand. But once it's underwater, you don't have to move it anymore. So we don't have to do anything.

Interesting. That's great. Awesome. So tell me a little bit about surfing at home, what's your favorite place at home to surf?

I don't really know. I like different places depending on the day. So for the story, I started surfing when I was younger, like 12, 13, maybe. And then I actually moved to England. So I stopped surfing for a few years.

Wow. You didn't surf Cornwall or any of the spots in England?

A few times, but not that much. I kind of stopped and I switched my activity I was doing and then COVID happened. So I got locked down in the southwest of France and I was waiting to come to the Maldives. So I had a lot of free time. And that's when I carefully started surfing again in France. And then I was like, "Why did I actually ever stop before?" I forgot why I stopped. So, yeah, I don't have a favorite spot, but I just like to go in the water when I have time.

Yeah, awesome.

It's great spot. Southwest of France is a great spot for surfing for the beginners.

It's amazing. Especially Americans don't really know too much about Europe, but southwest of France has so much good surf. It's just phenomenal and big, wide, open beach break with dunes. And you can just walk down the beach and surf by yourself unless you go to Hoseggor or someplace that's very crowded, but there's plenty of surf north and south. And then where you're from, there's a lot of reefs, right? There's all those reefs below Biarritz which are, I guess those are rock reefs? Those aren't live reefs, right? Those are rock reefs.

Yeah, it's a rock reef. Obviously, you have some different species underneath. It's a different type of reef. So it's just like rocks. You have a lot of marine life, you have a lot of different fish, different species of eels. You can have quite a lot of fishes, but you have to go a bit deeper and further away from the coast. Where you go surfing, you don't have much. Yeah, but if you go a bit more south of France, then yeah, you have a bit more rocks, and if you go to Vieux-Boucau or places like that where it's long sandy beaches. Really pretty.

Yeah, it's great. So you guys have a program where people can adopt a reef? That's how I first found out about you. Tell us a little bit about that. How can people get involved and help out?

So basically, people online can adopt a coral frame themselves. So they have to adopt a coral frame. They can put a dedication on the frame and then me or my colleagues on different island, we would build the frame for them, and then we will send them a certificate of the coral frame and how many coral fragments they've adopted depending on the size of the frame they picked. And then we take picture of the frame every 6 months. So it's for the monitoring of the corals. So we take a picture every 6 months and then we upload it on Reefscapers' website and then people who adopted a coral frame, they can see the corals growing on the frame through this photo. So it's not just you adopt a frame and then you don't know what's happening to the fragment. You actually can see them grow. We put a reference number, so a tag number on the frame. So then people that adopted a frame, they can actually see that it is their own coral frame. With a tag number, they can recognize the corals. And when you take a picture every 6 months, you can see the corals actually growing like the shape may be a bit similar but then will just have grown in size. So it's really amazing to be able to see your corals growing from home no matter where you live in the world.

That's such a great idea, so please, everyone out there, go adopt a frame and get some coral growing. We need it in this world. We need more reef. We need to support ecology and just the re-beautification of our oceans. And where can people find out more about that on the Reefscapers website?

Yeah. Reefscapers website on the top right section, we have a section about Sponsoring a Frame, Adopt a Coral Frame or Coral Fragment.

Great. We'll put that in the show notes of the podcast so people can find that and we'll put it in the newsletter also. And yes, it was great to meet you and find out about what you're doing and such awesome work. Yeah, just my hat goes off to you for dedicating your life to this and making a difference. This is what we're all about at Wave Tribe and yeah, very, very great to meet you.

Thank you very much for having me. It was great talking to you and yeah, hope you can come one day and see the reef yourself.

Yeah, I would love to. I would love to surf that wave with you and look at the smaller sharks underneath. Not the big ones, but the smaller ones.

Baby ones. Don't worry.

Yeah, the baby ones. Thank you so much. So great to talk.

Thank you. Bye.

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