The coral guy – an interview with Anuar Abdullah
We agreed to meet at a café in Bukit Bintang by the Low Yat plaza – that rabbit warren of electronics and bargaining which would challenge the most hardened of shoppers. As I arrive, late as always, the character I’m looking for is quite distinctive in this urban setting. The man before me is small in stature and lean and tanned from many years of living in and around the ocean, he is dressed simply and functionally as dictated by the life he leads. These details aside, the most striking features that catch you are the piercing alert eyes which feel like they are burrowing into your soul and his expression which can change from a scowl to a cheeky smile without a moments notice.
I first met Anuar Abdullah in Panglao on Bohol, Philippines. At the time he was carrying out a coral propagation course with a local dive centre which provided an immediate spark of interest and conversations continued. The stories that proceeded that night and many since then tell of a man who has dedicated decades of his time, money and energy into understanding and protecting oceans better and in particular one of their most precious components – the coral reefs.
With an oceanographic background, the Malaysian set about understanding more about coral reef management and assessing the right and wrong approaches and ultimately what approaches would deliver sustainable and long-lasting results. After many years of development, Anuar was able to launch a coral propagation programme which focused on an organic methodology aimed at creating living reef environments which would stand the test of time. It was from this development that in 2010, Ocean Quest Global was founded with its core mantra of “diving with purpose.” The approach taken has always emphasised importance on accessibility to these conservation projects encouraging everyone to take part in whatever capacity they can.
Fast forward to where we are right now and the things that Ocean Quest Global has achieved with a network of passionate and dedicated human beings is outstanding. With projects operating in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Maldives, Brunei, Vietnam and The Philippines – Ocean Quest is setting itself out from the crowd as a leader in coral conservation and propagation. Alongside this, there have also been some prominent developments in Thailand and in particular Maya Bay which Ocean Quest was instrumental in the closure of and coral restoration project currently underway.
We were very lucky to grab a bit of this legends time just before he was due to fly to Paris to be a guest speaker at the Salon de la Plongée – his topic of choice – the difference between real and fake coral propagation.
Tell me about the project you currently are running on Maya Bay and how this has developed?
We have the system that you learn including coral rescue, propagation, nursery development, transportation and coral reef management. These are the five tasks that you learn within the coral reef rehabilitation programme. It is still the same, but on a larger scale as the nursery, the build has to be more comprehensive. Traditionally, as soon as a nursery starts to grow, on a smaller scale we wait until it is 15cm and then we start to take the tip and plant these into damaged reefs or expand to another nursery. Because the scale (in Maya Bay) is so big that we have started extracting at 10cm instead of 15 to speed up the propagation process so that actually gives us about 40%-time efficiency so something that would have taken a year to achieve can be done so in 8 months.
By speeding up everything including the transportation as we progress, there will be plenty of corals and half of our drive is to extend the nursery and broodstock sites (the site where healthy propagated corals are transported to after the nursery period) whilst the other half will be transported into selected sections of the main reefs. As the main reefs are expanding, the nurseries are expanding as well and so in four years the process of coral rescue, nursery development, transplantation and replenishment will be accomplished whereas usually, it would take a minimum of 7 years to accomplish. So by having simultaneous transplantation and propagation at the same time, we can increase the overall efficiency of the project by 40%.
You only have 8 people working on that throughout the project, or will you need more staff at certain parts?
The national parks have many people but there are only 8 people that are working on this project full time including one manager. To help with this new process we have reduced the distance that coral needs to be transported by introducing bamboo rafts which are stationed in waist deep water which we propagate on and put down continuously until 100 have been done which creates one plot and then we are able to move onto the next plot quickly.10 plots will deliver 1000 corals and also the bamboo raft facilitates transport from the holding station to the nurseries and to the transplantation sites.
As the site is 3.5 hectares the distance is quite far from end to end so if we swim with a basket every time it would take us weeks to achieve the same results that can be achieved in a day with the bamboo rafts. We don’t use plastic or PVC pipes and the bamboo rafts allow us to minimise the use of boats for transferring corals. The team start at 7 in the morning and finish at 3 and will plant 1000 corals in a day.
When was Maya Bay officially closed?
So in under a year, the change has been astronomical?
The amount of parrotfish in the bay is phenomenal and this factor attracts a lot of blacktip reef sharks. We even have ghost pipefish in the bay in 2M of water – everything comes back within a year. That is why when looking at this I said, “if we can do this organically, 3.4 hectares of reef, within a year we can see a change, why would we need to fake coral conservation? Why do we need artificial things and false things – we can achieve it in a shorter period of time than anybody thought could be possible. I personally thought it was going to take three years before we could see something but to our surprise it has come back much quicker. Looking at the progress, this was speeding up through the organic approach – why do we need artificial stuff and fake conservation – coral conservation is the only conservation in the world that agrees to use fake things.
Obviously, you have Maya Bay, and your next big project is to really promote what Ocean Quest are doing on a much more global scale.
My aim is to get rid of the mentality of throwing objects into the ocean in the name of conservation whether it’s a truck, boat, concrete, cinder block or whatever – try another example – go to a reef where people use artificial structures for rehabilitation and find one that is not successful – the structures have collapsed and nothing is growing there – now there is another problem, if you decide to remove it out of the water – where are you going to put it? The costs of recovering, storage, disposal and everything else just from a mistake you made years ago.
I know you have also been working on your catalyst (used to help grow corals) and building a machine that will continuously make this catalyst – is the plan with this to create this machine and then use that to provide the catalyst across the world.
There is a lot more on the technology side that I am currently working on, I am going more into the technological side to develop many things that are needed to help with conservation. Tools for coral reef surveys, 360 cameras, image recognition programmes that will be able to easily identify corals against a database to make coral identification and cataloguing much faster than a human could ever do. A person would swim past a reef, come back, load it onto their computer and voila – a complete and accurate reef survey telling you everything about that reef.
The biggest project that I am currently working on is a machine that is about the size of a 600ml bottle and you would plant this next to corals. This device has sensors and what it does is it senses decolouration and changes in the corals so if coral is bleaching it would be recorded, if it was becoming more vibrant it would document this and this would analyse the initial Pantone of the coral and then as time passes the coral may get sick and then get perky again in an up and down pattern and this device would then record over three months the state of health of corals. The state of health of corals has never been plotted globally so this device would do this and would also sense the temperature changes in the water allowing us to see correlations between coral health and temperatures and PH levels.
Only then would we have the true data about the state of health of corals globally and we will be able to see how in different locations different corals are being affected differently. This allows us to take a much more global overview to see whether particular instances are a global trend of more locally focused and we will, therefore, be able to develop a global methodology around how to develop and sustain the reefs.
At this point in time, we are raising funds for the technology and materials required to help build these projects which I will do from my lab at home. I don’t have a bed anymore as I had to make space for my lab so I use my sofa bed as my bed and my bedroom is a full-scale lab.
People will be wondering how they can support Ocean Quest or get more involved.
I will be starting a Youtube channel to show people what we are doing in the development of these products and how we are doing it. Basically to show people that everything that we are doing is focused on conservation of the coral and this is a critical step to bring technology into coral conservation.
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