Anuar Abdullah is the CEO and founder of Ocean Quest, a social enterprise and conservation organization at work in various countries in Southeast Asia. The organization’s primary purpose is coral reef preservation through a program of “coral propagation” or “coral gardening,” which is based on the idea that corals can be restored in much the same way that forests can be restored.
Abdullah was raised in Malaysia, playing in the ocean since he was a small boy and fascinated with all the living things inside of it. When he was 19, he went to the United States on a scholarship, eventually graduating with a master’s degree in oceanography. Wanderlust took him to islands around the world, including in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, where he taught surfing, kayaking and scuba diving. “I taught people anything to do with the sea, including taking children around and teaching them about the ocean,” he said. That led to an interest in coral reef conservation (you can read more about the importance of coral reefs on the Ocean Quest web site or here). He joined several conservation organizations but felt some focused too much on funding and simply repeating the same dire warnings about the degrading environment. “I started thinking, ‘How am I going to save this degrading environment?’” he said.
In 1999, using profits he earned from a dive shop he owned, he began his own research on the oceans and coral reefs, self funding until 2006, when he got his first piece of financial support from a coral program sponsored by Panasonic in Malaysia’s Pulau Perhentian. He researched, experimented, and over time, he realized his experiments would work. In 2010, he founded Ocean Quest and later developed the training materials and educational system that he has structured to be a simple program for coastal communities to use for “broad-scale coral restoration” around the world.
I talked with him one afternoon on Pulau Kapas, a small island off the northeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia, to learn more about the program, as well as Abdullah’s creative approach to finding ways to restore the reefs—including working with some of those responsible for damaging the reefs.
How did you develop the coral gardening program?
The way I observed corals grow and how the reef functions is very similar to forests, but it’s just under the sea. I studied how people rehabilitated forests and got the same idea, but the technique is different because you have to plant corals differently. So I tried to learn about all the other systems of growing corals. I visited coral farms around the region. They were not very popular because people are thinking they’re the ones who export coral to aquariums around the world. I don’t look at it like that. Can I adopt what they have learned? Can I adopt the habits? A lot of people say, ‘Stop this. Stop that,’ but they don’t take the good part and change it to conservation, to use the same technique to rehabilitate the reef. Instead, they blame. I don’t. I work with everybody. I have nothing against them. I want to learn from them how they plant those corals.
[What they do is] very rough. It’s not scientific. So I refined those techniques. I made protocols for proper rehabilitation systems, nursery management, how are we going to transplant it back into the reefs. All this I refined, and we do it in a structured way, including an education system for it. So people start to wonder, ‘Wow, you can actually do this?’ I’m not a rocket scientist. I’m just an ordinary person who wants to know everything and take the good part of it. So I’m talking to fishermen who are dynamite fishing. I want to understand them, so I can change the dynamics of it.
If you are thinking about enforcement, you are playing a losing game. The poachers have everything to gain. They start their engine, they go out and hope to bring out sharks, mantas. They have prospects. Enforcement goes out and looks for these people. The moment they start their engine, they’ve already spent money, so they’re at the losing end. If you rely on enforcement alone, you will never do well. You have to change the mindset of the people.
And Ocean Quest came out of this research?
In 2010, I founded Ocean Quest, focused primarily on coral reef preservation. It’s a social enterprise. Our accomplishment is gauged by how much community contribution we have and how much environmental enhancement we do. We are not an enterprise of making revenues. We are an enterprise of contributing to the society and to the environment. We have people in the organization now who are all working voluntarily. None of us earns a salary.
…Coral gardening is one of the biggest projects. It means to rehabilitate the coral reef, not to create new reefs. We are teaching people how to plant coral, to change the mindset to say, ‘Yes, you actually can plant coral just like plants.’ We are changing that mindset so that there are many people who are able to do it, and therefore we can create a system that is broad scale. It can be done anywhere, and anyone can learn about it. That’s the aim—as many people to learn and to think that coral is just like plants. It can be grown.
…In 2013, we created an education system. I wrote the textbook and patented the technique. From there, it is official that it is a program.
How is it done?
We will go to the reef. We set criteria for which coral we can extract from the wild and which we cannot. The one we can extract is threatened by disease or is already broken and is slushing around on the bottom. We rescue them before they are dead. The other criteria is coral that is threatened by human development. For example, when they are doing construction, we ask to take coral and plant them into nurseries. We will not extract corals from a healthy colony. And when corals are damaged by disasters, we have a disaster response team, too.
Once we extract the coral, we need to plant them somewhere, so we create nurseries. It’s like a town. There are schools, hospitals and residential areas. Corals are just the same. We have the hospital that is a quarantine. If we extract from sick colonies, [those] have to go to the hospital. We try to cure the corals in the nursery. Like any human, we take it to the hospital first to ensure they’re healthy before we release them back. Then we have a second nursery where we move the healthy ones from the hospital to the residential area—a brood stock nursery. We stock them there and care for them with the maximum care we can give. We prevent predation from happening. If there’s a starfish there, we’ll move the starfish to the reef. The nurseries are all on the ocean. The brood stock nursery has limited visitors, so if we do training, we don’t let people come there. We have a training nursery—the school—where the coral reaches maturity. It can grow up to 15-20 cm a year. We plant fast growing corals because we need to replenish the reefs. Around 18 months, they are ready to be harvested. We clip the branches, and transplant them into the reef where they’re needed.
The coral in the nurseries are not allowed to spawn. In the wild, they will reproduce sexually. In the nursery, we don’t allow them to spawn. At a certain size we cut them so they will not spawn. Spawning consumes so much energy, and then they are vulnerable to get sick and contract disease. They sometimes just die because of so much energy being used for reproduction. To keep the optimum health, we have to prevent them from spawning.
What about when you bring it back to the reef?
That’s another set of monitoring. We do regular monitoring. The location has to be selected—a species that is suitable for the location. Some have trouble with the current. Some need currents. We have to do a lot of ecological observations even when we extract the coral. The position, the shape, the water movement, the water temperature, turbidity.
Is it exciting to see it grow after all that work?
Initially, the excitement comes from watching the coral grow. After many years of it working, the excitement is when you find an understanding—this coral spawns this way, this coral is active at night. Different coral have different characteristics, so if you are able to understand a little bit—as a scientist you get really excited.
Where do you have programs now?
Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia and soon one in Mauritius. All four trainers just finished training, and they are going back to Mauritius.
We are training people throughout the world. I have people in Panama who are interested but we are not ready yet because we don’t have enough people to go around teaching, so I have to build the numbers here so I can send them out to teach people. The problem is, when I talk to people, everyone wants me to train them instead of the trainer that I train. [During the time I was on Pulau Kapas, Abdullah was in the process of training a woman from Italy to be a trainer. She is the first European trainer in the program.]
Tell me about the “adopt-a-coral” program.
In coral research, we require so many scientific instruments. We need to be able to buy those instruments and to provide for the local community who can’t pay us for the course, so the adopt-a-coral program is a fundraising thing. We will plant coral for anyone who adopts it. You pay $25 U.S. and then we will take a picture of the coral with a name tag and from time to time publish a report of the corals planted.
To learn more about Ocean Quest’s work or to donate to the adopt-a-coral program or the recently launched adopt-a-reef program, you can visit the Ocean Quest web site. In addition, filmmaker Silke de Vos created an award-winning mini-documentary film (6 minutes) about the coral gardening program. It is currently available on Vimeo.