In French Polynesia, Every Day is Earth Day with Coral Gardeners

If you’ve been to Tahiti with Windstar over the past few years, you likely know about its partnership with Coral Gardeners, the Moorea-based nonprofit. The organization’s mission is focused on revolutionizing ocean conservation and creating a global movement to save coral reefs.

Since Windstar launched its partnership in 2022 with an initial corporate donation, the company and guests together adopted 1000 corals in 2022, and a further 1500 in 2023. So far in 2024, they’ve already adopted 685 more. Guests onboard all Tahiti-based cruise have the option to contribute as well via a $35 donation. The donation program has since expanded to all the ships in Windstar’s fleet.

Learn more about Windstar’s partnership with Coral Gardeners — and why it matters to you

On my February cruise aboard Star Breeze, I got a chance to sit down with Hannah Stewart, Coral Gardeners’ head of science and reforestation (prior to joining the organization, she worked as developer/director at the University of California, Berkely; the Canada native lives all year around in Moorea). In our conversation, she talked about how the non-profit is growing and expanding its bandwidth, and why the health of corals matters so much in French Polynesia – and also everywhere around the globe.

As of December 2023, Coral Gardeners tells us it has planted 100,870 corals, covering 12, 494 square meters of reef. 11 reefs have been restored with 45 different species of coral.

Q: Hannah, could you give us some context about how Coral Gardeners came to be created?

A: Titouan Barnikoff is our founder. His parents ran a pearl farm, and he grew up in the water, on the water, water was his life, still is. One day he went surfing, and looked down, the corals were white, bleaching. It was the first time he had noticed this and understood that his place – the ocean – was in trouble. He started with a plan to save the reef he knew. And yet the problem was bigger than their home reef. So, in 2017, at the age of 16, he started Coral Gardeners.

Q: What does Coral Gardeners do, exactly?

Snorkeling in Moorea

A:  The core of our work is built around coral reef restoration. Using the latest techniques and methods, our team of gardeners grow and plant resilient corals to revive reef ecosystems. Our aim is to expand restoration around the world and empower the local communities to become coral gardeners as part of a bluer economy.

There are three pillars to our efforts. The first is the restoration of reefs, of course, but you can’t do that without awareness, so that’s our second pillar. And finally, innovation is a key component and the inspiration for creating CG Labs, using tech, science, computation (AI) and statistics to support our mission. CG Labs is so cool. If I can imagine it, they can build it.

Q: Coral Gardeners is taking on coral reef restoration in waters beyond those of Moorea and the rest of French Polynesia. Tell us more about your efforts to expand.

A: First, it’s important to note how important Moorea and French Polynesia are to us. We’re here, we employ locals, at the heart of what we do is give local people a career that protects their own backyard. We’ve educated 6,000 local school children who become little coral gardeners, along with fisherman and government officials.

And yes, we are expanding. We opened our first international branch in Fiji, on Malolo Island, part of the Polynesian Triangle. It’s home to the third-largest barrier reef in the world. There, we seeded three newly-built nurseries with nearly 11,000 corals, all collected from the wild for their thermal resiliency and biodiversity, focusing on Acropora and Pocillopora — similar to our strategy in French Polynesia. In addition, the crew was able to outplant about as many corals, which they rescued from the seafloor to plant back onto reef areas where they will have a better chance to thrive all on their own.

Thailand is just coming online. Thailand allows dynamite fishing, a desperate way to fish, in which an explosive device is thrown at a reef, reducing both fish and coral to pieces, particularly in the Andaman Sea, near Phuket and other islands.

Q: How can Windstar travelers get more involved?

In Coral Gardeners’ own backyard in Moorea, Hannah Stewart (left) and her colleagues give us a tour (note how Star Breeze is photobombing in the background!)

A: Keep an eye out for our newest partnership with Windstar – we’re gearing up to offer two different experiences when Star Breeze calls at Moorea. One, the more introductory excursion, brings you to our headquarters where we give you the basics on coral reef restoration and then you get to tend our garden nursery in Paopao Bay. You can snorkel to our floating coral tree nurseries that are just a couple of meters below the surface.

For a more intensive experience, you’ll be able to travel to our ocean garden, located in our largest nursery in Tiaia.

Onboard, Tahiti itineraries feature an engagement speaker series when the Star Breeze calls at Moorea. The informative lecture by a Coral Gardeners team member raises awareness and educates guests on coral reef preservation. Newly created videos and pamphlets are available to all guests and tour operators globally

In addition, the opportunity to adopt a coral is not limited to those who sail French Polynesian itineraries on Star Breeze. All of Windstar’s ships offer the opportunity.

Editor’s Note: Windstar guests adopted 1000 corals in 2022, the first year of the partnership, and a further 1500 in 2023. So far in 2024, they’ve already adopted 685 more.

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