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Chasing Coral

My love for scuba and free diving has led me to some of the most wondrous, surreal places on our planet—taking in the blue-green cosmos that thrives underwater is a rare, almost spiritual experience. It’s ironic then, that no sight has stunned me more than that of a decaying, broken, dead reef. Coral bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures rise abnormally for an extended period. As a defence mechanism, coral polyps (tiny animals that build calcite reef structures) release the microorganisms (zooxanthellae) that give them colour and nutrition. As the name suggests, newly bleached coral are pure-white. They cannot survive unheeded for more than a few months, after which they crumble, dead. In 2018 on a trip to the Andamans, it was a dive to a such a site that inspired me to create, grasp and maximise the opportunity to give back to these beautiful animals. In May, I began contacting organisations who were involved with rehabilitation of coral. One such organisation, the Temple Reef Foundation, accepted my proposal of studying 3D design in the development of artificial reef structures off the coast of Pondicherry. They’d given me a platform, and I had to use it. Back home, I spent the summer learning about 3D designing and printing, and in October, after months of trial and error, spending hours at an invention centre every day after school, I had the small, weird- looking, hopeful prototype that would become our country’s first 3D printed artificial reef. The structure was intricate, and printed using a form of plastic. A negative mould was created, and a calcite-cement mix was poured into this. All of the cement-work was done in my balcony, which was an absolute wreck afterwards. Aided by Temple, I immersed the model, which was monitored by their divers over four months. The results blew me away. My design was found to be three times more effective than the traditional means of creating artificial reefs, and I was ecstatic. The purpose of an artificial reef is to provide a platform for coral growth—a head start of sorts. Tiny polyps require structures that are sturdy, but ast the same time intricate and porous. 3D printing brought intricacy and structural integrity, and the framework of dolomite (similar to calcite) within the cement provided porosity. The science behind my creation made sense, but there had always been doubt about its performance. Seeing it take on a life of its own in the real world did wonders for the confidence I had in my ideas, and drove me to extrapolate my findings as best as I could. After receiving a patent for my design, I started to think big and began fundraising for a larger project, literally cajoling my family, extended family, and friends into donating even the smallest of amounts. After two weeks, the fundraiser had fifty donors and ₹ 2,00,000. I started work on a larger, more significant idea. Fast forward eight months, and a modular complex of three hundred interconnected blocks had been built as an extension of Pondicherry’s artificial reef.

I named this section after the late Linkin Park frontman; “Bennington’s Reef” has a wonderful ring to it, and is home to baby coral, thousands of fish and a plethora of marine life. You may or may not guess, but I’m extremely proud of the name—

In April 2019, I sent my research to the International Congress of Conservation Biology, who gave me the honour of addressing over 250 professional conservationists at their Kuala Lumpur conference. This February, I was invited to talk about climate action at our National Auto Expo, as Mahindra Electric’s brand representative. I feel joy when people ask me to talk about my journey. Of course it gets repetitive, but it gives me a chance to educate to them about a world they’ll likely never see; a world most integral to their survival. I’m 18 now, and sometimes it’s surreal to realise that this was all a result of a 15 year old kid’s passion for science, and love for nature. When I look back at these last two years, I think about the evenings I spent wondering whether this would have any outcome at all, the people who told me I was thinking too big, a teacher who said I was trying too hard. I think about the idea’s that didn’t work, and then the joy of having one that did. —

I’d like to end on a more serious, perhaps haunting note. Artificial reefs like my own are built to house coral, but cannot birth them. If global temperatures continue to rise, coral will continue to bleach, crumble and perish—The only way to really save coral is through advocating climate action, and working against climate change. It’s a colossal task, and is invariably our generations problem to fix. All is not lost, yet. “If you think of corals as canaries [in a coal mine], they’re chirping really loudly right now. The ones that are still alive, that is.”— Jennifer Koss, director, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

~Siddharth Pillai

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