Biorocking on Frankenstein Reef
Are we doomed to a coral-free future Not if scientists using new technology to regenerate damaged reefs in Indonesia have their way but, as Darryl Leniuk found, the Biorock method is controversial

IM FINNING HARD ALONG THE SHALLOW, SANDY BOTTOM OF BATHTUB-WARM PEMUTERAN BAY in north-west Bali. Im doing my best to keep up with Naryana as he traces the cable to the first structure.
     A truck-sized triangular metal frame comes into view through the bright, cloudy water. On it, dozens of colonies of hard coral are neatly arranged like hanging flower baskets. I can see small schools of brightly coloured damselfish dart in and out of their coral shelters.
     Naryana points to a vibrant cluster of branching acropora, and indicates the size of the original transplant with his outstretched thumb and forefinger. The colony is now several times that size and wrapped completely around the frame.
     He leads me to another structure, a large metal lattice resembling an overturned bowl with its centre caved in. Judging from the sparse growth, this must be one of the newer projects.
     Naryana stops to inspect it. Eyeing closely the transplanted corals, he scrapes the frame with his dive knife. Seeing me, he points to a small metal mesh a few metres away, connected by another cable, and makes a plus sign with his fingers - thats the anode. Then I notice the bubbles. Hydrogen bubbles. They trickle slowly up the frame to the surface.
     More cables and more structures. Metal cages, massive cylinders, inverted cones. One resembles the ribcage of a whale, another schoolyard monkey bars. On each, coral colonies are feeding, photo-synthesising, providing shelter for fish.
     Theyve been called Frankenstein reefs and mutant corals. But to their creators, US-based research architect Wolf Hilbertz and marine scientist Thomas Goreau, theyre coral arks.
     The two believe that when the next biblical flood occurs - the flood of hot water caused by global warming that bleaches all reefs on Earth - these will be the only corals that survive.

low-voltage current
The Karang Lestari Project (the words are Indonesian for coral saving) is taking place in Pemuteran, Bali and its the largest of its kind in the world. There are 43 structures at depths of 5-10m over a 2.4-hectare area, powered by five charging stations from the nearby Taman Sari Resort.
     There was almost no live coral in Pemuteran Bay, recalls Naryana, a stocky 55-year-old American expat and part-owner of Taman Sari Resort. Blast-fishing in the late 1990s had reduced many of Pemuterans once-pristine reefs to rubble fields.
     Hilbertz and Goreau saw the need for a major rehabilitation project and began working with locals, dive operators and Taman Sari, which donated the initial funding - about US $12,000 - and the power.
     The balance was obtained from small private donations and the first structures were constructed in June 2000.
     In the Biorock electro-accretion process, a low-voltage direct current supplied by either solar panels or charging stations is applied to a submerged metal grid, This causes dissolved minerals in sea water to form a limestone coating.
     The structure is then seeded with small fragments of live coral, which begin to grow up to five times faster than normal and are highly resistant to environmental stress.
     In the Maldives, during the 1998 warming, fewer than 5% of the natural reef corals survived, says Goreau. But on Biorock reefs, 80% of corals not only survived, they flourished. The bearded and sometimes abrasive 52-year-old explains that the method provides a high pH environment, which corals prefer.
     By not having to use their own energy to create these conditions, they have more reserves to build their limestone skeletons, reproduce and resist stress.

doomsday talk
Most environmental non-governmental organisations have been cool to the idea of funding rehabilitation projects. Goreau has never received money from them, preferring instead to establish marine reserves.
     Our take on restoration is that it is generally expensive and we feel it is better for our resources to work on stopping the destruction in the first place, says Janine Kraus, managing director of the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL). But she concedes: There is a role for reef restoration. There is so much destruction out there.
     Unfortunately, Goreaus extreme views and doomsday talk may have alienated him from most of the large funding agencies that could sponsor his work.
     So when Seacology saw the need for a reef regeneration project at Bunaken National Park in North Sulawesi, it opted for a different method. Because this is in a national park with a large diving tourism sector, we were interested in as simple and aesthetically-pleasing a technique as possible, says Arnaz Mehta, Seacology field rep for South-east Asia.
     For Bunaken, an artificial reef composed of large snowflake-shaped ceramic modules called EcoReefs seems to be the best approach. It is hoped that these EcoReefs will stabilise the rubble, provide structure for fish and coral, and break down over time to leave a natural reef behind.
     At the time of writing, a major installation of 500sq m of EcoReefs is planned for July 2003 off Manado Tua Island.
     The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has had success with a different low-tech method. In April 2000, TNC biologist Helen Fox initiated a large-scale, low-cost reef rehabilitation using piles of rocks to stabilise rubble fields and provide substrate for new coral growth in Komodo National Park.
     Within one year, several coral recruits had settled on the rocks and the rubble had been stabilised.
     The projects at Bunaken and Komodo are a sad ecological joke, fumes Goreau. Yet Goreau too has his sceptics. John Ogden, Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, points out that there have been no peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the claims made by Goreau and Hilbertz.
     Ogden is no fan of electro-accretion. Ask yourself, is this the way we want to restore reefs
     In the new and often controversial field of coral reef restoration no best method has yet emerged. Factors such as cost, local attitudes and environmental conditions must be considered.

vegetable garden
Chief Jero Mangku Putu Suyasa is tending his vegetable garden. Ive come to ask him about his villages involvement in the Karang Lestari Project. The traditional chief of Pemuteran, a village of some 8000 people, Suyasa is a wavy-haired, amiable fellow. His son Komang is a divemaster at Taman Sari Resort, and is responsible for maintaining the Biorock reefs. We sit cross-legged on his porch, sheltered from the high equatorial sun.
     Before the project was begun, the village had one fishing fleet, recalls Suyasa. Now there are five. Karang Lestari fits within the most basic tenets of the Hindu religion, he says: harmony with God, with Man and with the environment. He smiles. We absolutely support the project and would love more of them.

  • With thanks to Taman Sari Resort (, Murex Dive Manado ( and Dr Mark Erdmann.

  • The
    The power cables
    Charging station at Taman Sari Resort. Five stations supply 800 amps to Karang Lestari but the current poses no danger to divers
    Naryana installs a new coral transplant. Only naturally broken fragments from surrounding reefs are used. Pieces are wedged in or tied with a wire
    Ecoreef pilot project at Bunaken in north Sulawesi. These corals require no maintenance
    Biorock structures at Karang Lestari
    Chief Jero Mangku Putu Suyasa is enthusiastic about the Biorock project
    The structures seem to be built in every shape imaginable

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