Coral Reef Champion Emerges From Obscurity

This ocean-loving ‘coral gardener’ is now in global demand.

Feb 9, 2023
Special Collections: CHANGEMAKERS
Coral Reef Champion Emerges From Obscurity | This ocean-loving ‘coral gardener’ is now in global demand.

Anuar Abdullah is a changemaker and climate activist with a lifelong passion for corals  that has earned this modest oceanographer-turned-conservationist an iconic name in ocean and coral reef conservation worldwide. For instance, he is profiled on the organization Climate Heroes storytelling platform saluting people fighting tirelessly to protect our environment and mitigate climate change. He was also awarded the prestigious People of Nature award in We Naturalists’ Nature Positive Innovation category in 2021.

A lifelong mission to restore coral reefs
Abdullah was born in Terengganu, a state on the eastern coast of the Malaysian Peninsular, known for its beautiful tropical islands. As a WeNaturalists article on Medium explains, growing up on the coast, he felt a close bond with the ocean. The Washington Post reports how after being orphaned as a child, he would escape from his strict foster home to visit the seaside that represented freedom

As an adult, locals considered him an eccentric diving instructor, “who spent his off days in the water, who spoke to corals like they were people.” For a long time, he worked in obscurity, and at times, in poverty. 

But it was this closeness to the sea that led this intrepid explorer to study the marine environment, and later, earn a scholarship in Oceanography at the Florida Institute of Technology. With the travels across the globe that this research involved, Abullah learned about the extensive degradation in the marine ecosystem. He felt passionate about the need to take action to rehabilitate the damaged and dying coral reefs. 

Abdullah set up Ocean Quest Global in Malaysia in 2010, an environmental organization and social enterprise focused on coral reef preservation. It is buoyed by volunteers  working throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. 

According to the website, its founder has spent most of his life on the coral reefs of Malaysia, observing their behavior and life cycles, and conducting his own research. His respect for local communities is outlined too: Through its programs and courses dedicated to securing a sustainable future for coral reefs, the organization focuses on giving back to local communities and protecting the marine environment.”

The WeNaturalists article shares that  in less than a decade, Abdullah’s organization had expanded to multiple countries like Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. It has over 800 trainers across the world, working on 180 islands, most of them in Thailand.

Typically, as the Fah Thai site outlines, the normal time frame for Ocean Quest Global to propagate corals is around four years, taking in development, monitoring and training. Once the work is completed, the reefs are handed over to local personnel to take charge and care for them.

Most recently, the organization has been actively working on the rehabilitation of Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh Island, Thailand.  It is also building the first subtropical coral nursery in Egypt, reports diving industry portal, ADEX Ocean Vision.

Coral gardening
According to training portal, Menimba, Abdullah has traveled extensively to islands across the globe to assist in coral conservation and restoration efforts. But this all stemmed from his own self-funded research to discover a way to help revitalize and propagate corals more effectively.

His techniques, methodology and materials for coral reef rehabilitation, are based on the idea that coral can be restored on a large scale, in an all-natural and non-invasive way. He still sees himself as a coral gardener with his “army of gardeners”, made up of volunteers and partners, advocating his natural, low-tech solutions to coral degradation.

The founding principle of Ocean Quest Global’s Coral Propagation Program is that the program is only used to rebuild damaged reefs, not to create new reefs where they did not exist previously.  Its five-step plan involves: coral rescue, coral propagation, nursery management, coral transplantation, and reef management.

This process sees divers or snorkelers collect broken fragments of live coral and live rock from a specific site, and bring them to shore in baskets. Program participants then sort and prepare the coral before attaching the inch-high fragments to the live rock. They then use a mineral catalyst developed by Abdallah, to help quickly bond the coral to the rock. In the next two weeks, the catalyst dissolves the bonding agent, leaving the coral naturally attached to the live rock with no toxic chemicals remaining. 

The small corals are then taken to chest-high water and placed in a temporary seabed nursery area,  where they are monitored and maintained. Several months later, the coral will have grown to around four inches, when divers can then place them back in the original reef, repopulating it with healthy corals.

According to the above-mentioned WeNaturalists article, Abdullah’s revolutionary organic method has been shown to not only be faster than less natural methods of coral propagation, but superior too, “as the corals revived organically lived longer than the ones grown using artificial structures.”

Ocean Quest Global is also quick to point out that besides restoring coral reefs, it is focused on targeting the root cause of the problem; impoverished local coastal communities that are forced to harvest coral to earn a living.  It therefore aims to involve these communities in its propagation programs, so providing them with an alternative source of income based on protecting rather than destroying coral reefs.

Courses not conferences
Today, Abdullah is highly regarded as a coral conservationist who has been restoring reefs for the greater good. He prefers restoring coral reefs to conferences, however, declining to attend a presentation on the new Egyptian nursery at the 2022 UN climate change summit, COP27, the Washington Post reports, because he dislikes conferences and has work to do.

And his mission is serious work. According to Fah Thai, Abdullah has sparked a movement that has positively impacted Southeast Asia, and through Ocean Quest, he is set to spread his coral conservation message and successful techniques more widely across the globe to revitalize precious ecosystems for future generations.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.
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