On Being a Small Polyp in a Big Ocean

I was reading cross-legged on my bottom bunk when a tattooed man came into the room. It was 11:00 pm, and he was just getting in from a long day fighting for an Indonesian visa extension. So it goes when you stay in hostel dorm rooms. I liked this hostel because I could pay the dorm price but, owing to the volcano and record-low numbers of tourists, I usually had the room to myself. Not tonight.

My new roommate made the usual small talk. His name was Federico. He was a dive instructor on Gili, one of the tiny, sandy, dive-and-party islands between Bali and Lombok.

“Where are you from?” I asked, unable to place his vaguely European accent and deeply tanned skin.

“Argentina,” he answered.

That got me excited – probably more energetic than my roommate would have liked as the clock neared midnight – because I love any opportunity to practice Spanish. I explained that I had lived in Ecuador for a year. Here, the conversation took an eerie turn. After a bit of back-and-forth, we realized that we had both lived in the same country (Ecuador), in the same town (Puerto Lopez), in the spare room OF THE SAME HOUSE!!! (The house belongs to our mutual friend, Pablo.)

Federico, my Argentine roommate in a Balinese hostel, and I take an excited midnight selfie to send to our mutual friends in Ecuador as proof that the world is small.

Now we were old friends. I told Federico about my Watson project on coral reef disease.

"You simply have to meet Anuar Abdullah," Federico told me. "He is a guru of coral propagation. He's the Man. You'll see what I mean when you take his class. You just have to meet him."

I am always happier to take personal recommendations than find random connections over the internet, so I looked up this Anuar character the next day. I found his organization, Ocean Quest Global, and a pretty inspiring video about his life's mission. I messaged Anuar on Facebook and signed up for his coral propagation class, two months down the road on Gili.

Gili Trawangan is a tiny circle of sand in the ocean. Motors are prohibited, so bicycles and mini-horse taxis prevail. You can walk around the whole island in two-and-a-half hours.

My hostel bathroom on Gili was home to one of the largest cockroaches I've seen (Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches notwithstanding.)

Luckily, the bathroom also came equipped with an enormous gecko!

A tokay gecko, Gekko gecko, to be exact. Look at that gorgeous red polka-dotting.

Fast forward. I've finished my work on Bali, moved to Malaysia for a month, returned to Bali, made my way by plane and van and boat to Gili... and here I was, ready to learn from the legendary Coral Man himself.

We met up for dinner, and immediately I was hit with the same impression as Federico: this was a person to know. Anuar didn't mess around.

"I just got back from a two-week research cruise through the Pacific," he told me. "Big things are happening there. Big things." His tone was intense but his volume soft. He had an intensity directed at no one. I got the sense he cared far more about what he was saying than about who he was talking to. "Big patches are DEAD. Gone. Nothing to regrow on. We need to stop playing around with conservation. This is too urgent."

Anuar teaches the first day of his coral propagation course in the upstairs restaurant of Trawangan Dive Shop on Gili.

Anuar's face is dark from the sun and lined from caring so deeply for another organism's life. Born in Malaysia, Anuar studied oceanography in the United States at Florida Institute of Technology before working in naval and tourism industries. Fifteen years ago he left it all behind. Coral has Anuar's entire heart, now that his two children are grown and his marriage has ended. The corners of Anuar's mouth are always pulled down in a slight frown, even when he's laughing. He has the worn expression of a soldier who's lost too many battles but who refuses to give up for love of his mission.

Sabine and I wait for a herd of lumbering brown cattle to cross the road as we walk across Gili for the sunset.

Then I met Anuar's counterpart, and she could not have contrasted more starkly. Sabine has a Swiss-French lilt to her English and corkscrew curls. Her smile, which she flashes often, spreads across her whole face. Over the following days, Sabine became my close friend. Over beach sunsets and gelato dinners, we learned we had much in common. We were both 23-year-olds (less than a month apart in age!) with a propensity to work on vacation and dream about fixing the world's problems.

Sabine met Anuar a few months ago as a dive student. On her gap year before starting occupational therapy school in Switzerland, she'd planned to see Southeast Asia, learn to dive, and follow wherever the path took her. Well, it took her straight into a full-time job volunteering as Anuar's assistant.

"I saw how much passion he had, and how disorganized his operation was, and I just had to help," she explained, almost as an excuse for why she was toiling away on a computer screen during this tropical vacation. Sabine sees organization as her greatest asset, and she certainly has the talent, but I'm not sure even a hard-working wonderwoman like Sabine can put decades of chaos into order.

The next day, I had a great surprise when I met the rest of my classmates. They were my coworkers from Reef Check and Coral Alliance in Bali, plus a few of the higher-up conservationists I'd never had a chance to meet! What luck. I got to spend three days picking their brains and talking marine-conservation over every lunch and dinner.

The Coral Team, from left to right: Chris, Nyoman Sugiarta, Jaya, Nyoman Swastika, me, Nikin.

Nyoman Sugiarta pulls on his wetsuit, always an unpleasant task, before we hit the water.

Anuar's paperwork and contact lists might be a rat's nest, but Anuar's coral propagation class lived up to its reputation. Anuar's goal is to replant corals all over the equatorial ocean, to give them a boost in the face of mounting stresses like rising temperatures, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, sewage runoff and destructive fishing techniques.

When it comes to coral propagation, I've always had one lingering doubt: if the coral has already died in a particular bay, why would replanting the same coral help? Won't it just die again, unless the root cause is addressed?

Anuar had a clear answer ready for me. "We only plant where we know the cause of the coral's original death," he explained. "So if it was killed by bomb fishing, and that's not happening anymore, for example, we will plant corals in that area."

Anuar shot and edited this video of our first day building a coral nursery on Gili Trawangan. The pile of rocks will be the nursery where corals grow from tiny fragments into large colonies, forming the broodstock for replanting the rest of the reef.

What about the bigger, global threats? I asked. What about rising temperatures and acidity? You can't stop those on the local level.

To that, Anuar explained that by planting corals, we are speeding up their recovery. We are allowing the reef to repopulate decades faster than it would without human intervention. By doing so, we are essentially accelerating evolution by natural selection.

Think of it this way: today, you have a full, healthy reef, 100%. Then a major storm hits and kills 90% of the reef. We use the remaining 10% to repopulate the reef. Already, by starting with the survivors, we have allowed natural selection to work; we have chosen the storm-resilient individuals to repopulate with. With our help, the reef recovers quickly, and in five years, it's full of healthy coral again. Then another disaster hits. This time, let's call it a heat wave that bleaches and kills 90% of the coral, again. Only 10% remains, and again, we replant from that stock. Now the corals have been selected to be both storm and heat resistant. Get it? It's far from perfect, but the idea is to give corals a chance to avoid extinction as they evolve to withstand their new, strange environment.

Human-induced climate change has accelerated the cycles of destruction for reefs, and without our help, corals wouldn't grow back quickly enough between major disasters to survive. But if we can also accelerate the cycles of regrowth, maybe we can give corals a chance to do what they've been doing so well for millions of years: evolve in response to changing oceans and survive.

Sabine and I watched this unreal sunset, but it left me with a deep melancholy. Maybe it was the techno dance music blaring on the beach, making me homesick for Sweets dance parties. Or maybe it was the heart swing for couples.

As I looked down the beach at the hordes of relaxed vacationers, I felt entirely alone. My heart and mind were too fiercely stuck on this urgent question, how to save our planet's corals? I'm glad I had Sabine at my side, or I might have imploded with the magnitude of the feeling.

That's the theory behind coral propagation in general. Anuar has some strongly-held and well-defended ideas about just how coral propagation should be done.

For one, he bans any use of plastic, concrete, or metal substrate. His experiments have shown than corals do much better when attached to aragonite stones, the porous, calcium-carbonate skeletons of long-dead corals. Plus, if you refuse to drop human-made junk in the ocean, you have done no harm in the event that you have to abandon a coral propagation project partway through (an unfortunately common occurrence).

Another of Anuar's unique gems is his glue system. He has a particular method of securing each type of coral to the rock. For hard corals, he suggests gluing the coral fragments to rock underwater using a combination of mineral gel and patented calcium-based catalyst. (If you don't have that, or if you're working on the surface, superglue will suffice.) For soft corals, pin the fragment into place with a pair of wooden toothpicks. For sea fans and sea whips, simply wedge the fragment into a crevice in the rock.

The third piece of Anuar's system is the nursery. Anuar discourages the "pluck and plant" method of cutting or gathering large chunks of healthy coral and gluing them to other parts of the reef. He says this method is haphazard, wasteful, and difficult to monitor. Instead, he recommends gathering only broken coral from the seafloor and cutting tiny pieces, about 1 cm long, and gluing each of those to its own rock in a centralized "nursery." Once the nursery matures, you can continually harvest those corals into tiny  pieces, which you then glue all over the wild reef you are trying to rehabilitate.

The turtle nursery on Gili is an example of a conservation strategy gone wrong. The turtles are often collected from their nests and put on display in this box-like tank to generate donations from tourists.

The baby turtles are too crowded, as you can tell from the scratches and bite marks on their shells and fins.
During the four days I was on Gili with Anuar and Sabine, my mind was working overdrive. I was inspired to have found a tool for conservation, since so many of my previous Watson projects have been merely attempts to study and understand the problems, not strategies for solving them. But was this the right tool? Would Anuar's coral nurseries prove scalable to the entire equatorial world? Did he have the necessary networking and organization to keep the momentum, or would the project fall apart once its charismatic founder retired?

Anuar and I pose with my certificate after I finished the course. I am now an official Coral Propagator.

Then the more existential questions set it. Is coral conservation the career I should pursue? What's the best way to make a difference in the world -- neat, published research from a university, or a messy underwater stab at growing things before they die forever? Yes, Anuar was right: the situation is urgent. The biosphere is unraveling. The oceans are emptying. The life is dying. But where does that leave me?

It was hard to say goodbye to Sabine, but I know we will both be working hard on whatever catches our hearts, and we can always commiserate about that from across the world.

For that, Sabine offered a trip to the gelato counter, and a bit of consolation. "Why do we always pretend we know everything?" she mused. "We don't control anything!" She told me about her worldview, which seems to center on sincere gratitude. From someone who is meticulous about filing and obsessive about doing good, the next piece of advice came as a surprise. "It's a wonderful thing to let things go," she told me. "Just let them really, really... go."

I was reminded of a poem Collin sent me back in September, when I was lonely in Brazil:

“Understory” by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their

wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

I'm no expert at that process of letting go yet, but I accepted Sabine's reminder to stop analyzing everything for its lessons and just let the experience wash over me for a while. Without a chance encounter in a hostel and a stranger's advice, I never would have met Anuar or Sabine. I would not have glued my fingers to a baby coral by mistake. I would not have carried a laundry basket of stones across the bottom of the ocean or built Gili's first coral nursery from scratch. I wouldn't have felt the existential fear of being lonely when surrounded by dozens of laughing, drinking beachgoers, nor the nostalgic comfort of remembering that I'm always with myself, no matter who else I am with.

On the two-hour boat ride back to Bali, I was alone with the sun and the sea. Nothing was solved. The earth was still in biotic crisis. My graduate school plans were still nonexistent. The ideal career continued to elude me. But, for now, it all felt okay.