As coral reefs die from climate change, a coral gardener in Asia attracts a following

Anuar Abdullah, 61, walks along the beach to a coral nursery where he uses fragments of live coral to propagate new ones.
Anuar Abdullah, 61, walks along the beach to a coral nursery where he uses fragments of live coral to propagate new ones. (Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

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PERHENTIAN ISLANDS, Malaysia — For nearly four decades, the coral gardener has worked alone.

Twice a day, he went out to sea, staying underwater as long as his oxygen supply would allow. He learned the shapes and textures of corals long before he knew their Latin names. He studied the conditions in which they thrived—the temperature of the water, the exposure to the sun, the diversity of marine life—and saw how disruption to just one of those factors could lead to mass deaths. He devoted himself to reviving coral reefs, but for a long time no one bothered to join him. Locals whispered about the eccentric dive instructor who spent his days off in the water, who talked to corals as if they were people.

“Everyone thought I was stupid,” said Anuar Abdullah, 61. “But I knew I was doing the most important thing in the world.”

Anuar Abdullah takes a ride to a point called ‘Shark’s Point’ off the Perhentian Islands where locals say the reef condition has deteriorated. (Video: Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

Abdullah has spent his entire adult life restoring coral reefs, until recently working in obscurity and, at times, poverty. In a world rapidly losing its coral reefs to climate change and environmental damage, he is now emerging as an increasingly influential expert on how to revive them. Governments and resorts have called, asking if he can help with reefs lost to natural disasters and overtourism. Banks and companies have reached out, asking to sponsor his projects throughout Southeast Asia.

Abdullah does not have a PhD in marine biology or a research laboratory, and he despises science which he deems “useless to humanity”. He is uncompromising when it comes to the methods he has honed throughout his life. And he identifies himself, first of all, as a gardener.

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His track record may be unconventional, observers say, but he possesses the kind of hands-on experience that’s growing in currency as people look for concrete, accessible ways to take action against climate change. Over the past decade, thousands of people have traveled from all over the world to learn from Abdullah how to grow coral, some eventually quitting their jobs to join his projects full-time. With his about 700 active volunteers, he says, he’s already revived about 125 acres of coral reefs.

In 2017, the Thai government asked Abdullah to begin the rehabilitation of one of its most popular tourist attractions, Maya Bay, which had lost half its coral population after years of rampant tourism. Visitors were kept off the site for three years while Abdullah led a team of 120, including staff from Thailand’s National Parks Department, in planting new coral.

In 2021, after Typhoon Rai wrecked the island of Cebu in the Philippines, a resort group asked Abdullah if he could salvage what was left of the shoreline’s coral reefs. And earlier this year, Abdullah launched a new effort with officials and companies in Egypt to build the world’s largest subtropical coral nursery in the Red Sea. There was a presentation on daycare at the UN Climate Change Summit, COP27 this month, but Abdullah did not attend.

He hates conferences, he says. And she had work to do.

On a recent afternoon, Abdullah zipped up his wetsuit and dived into the warm, shallow waters off Perhentian Kecil, the smaller of two islands near Malaysia’s coastal state of Terengganu. The island sits squarely within the Coral Triangle, a part of the Pacific Ocean that contains 75% of the world’s coral species. Locals say the corals in this particular bay were once so abundant that it was impossible to walk on the seabed. But now they are dead, washed up on the beach in piles of white carcasses.

The corals in this cove were once so abundant that it was possible to walk on the seabed, locals say. But most of these corals have died in recent years. (Video: Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

Almost all the materials Abdullah uses for the restoration come directly from the ocean.

To build her fishponds, she doesn’t use steel pipes or cinder blocks—which she can’t afford—and instead collects rocks from the seabed, stacking them so they won’t be toppled by currents. While other coral restoration groups might rely on a lab to “frag” live coral which is in turn used for growth, they look for broken coral pieces in existing reefs and attach them to rocks using weather resistant glue. water and pet friendly. When he needs more materials, he starts scavenging on the beach. He built rafts with driftwood and recovered old abandoned fishing buoys and ropes.

At Perhentian, he is working on developing a fishpond that would help repopulate the bay within four years.

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Bending down to pick up a rock where she had affixed a fragment of coral several weeks earlier, she muttered, “My little acropora.”

Abdullah squinted, his gray eyes and face lined and leathery from years in the sun. He looked for signs that the fragments were bonding to the rock and starting to grow.

“My little stylophora,” he continued, tilting the rock toward the sun to examine another fragment. “How are you today?”

Born in Terengganu, Abdullah was sent to live in a foster home after both of his parents died when he was 6 years old. A curfew was strictly enforced in the foster home, but he stole trips to the beach when he could. The ocean, he reminded himself, felt like freedom.

In the 1980s, Abdullah settled in Perhentian as a diving instructor and became obsessed with corals. He spent two decades experimenting with growing them in the ocean, alienating most of his friends, divorcing his wife and nearly going bankrupt, he recalled.

In 2006, he succeeded with his affordable, low-tech approach and enthusiastically shared it with a local university. The teachers, he said, made fun of his grammar.

As a field, coral restoration has been isolated, split between scientists and researchers on one side and professionals and coral “tinkers” on the other. For a long time, many scientists have had an “ivory tower syndrome” that prioritized theory over application, said David Suggett, a professor of marine biology at Sydney University of Technology. “The questions we were asking, scientifically speaking, weren’t always entirely right or helpful,” added Suggett. “But that’s changing.”

In the face of catastrophes like the mass bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists are seeking the expertise of professionals – dive instructors, tour operators, local fishermen – who know the reefs in their areas better than anyone. To amass the “people power” needed to revive coral reefs on a massive scale, Suggett said, there’s now also an appetite for low-tech solutions.

“It’s accessible science,” said Heidy Martinez, 29, a biology researcher who volunteered for the Maya Bay project. Watching the coral fragments grow into tiny bulbs is a “magical” feeling, she added. “And it drives people crazy.”

But even as Abdullah becomes famous, he knows the field of coral restoration is changing around him. There are for-profit companies with millions of dollars in funding using new technologies to operate “coral factories”. There is a push among research institutes to establish accreditation standards that govern how restoration is carried out around the world and subject operations like Abdullah’s to evaluations. Debate is intense over whether it’s worth it, given that new coral reefs could still be killed by global warming.

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These are vexing questions that, for Abdullah, only take away time from what he wants to do – plant as many corals as possible and get others to join him.

Her “army of gardeners” includes people like Sharifah Noor Ridzwan, 39, a dive shop owner on Perhentian who took her coral propagation class while seven months pregnant. And Sebestian Jungo, 40, who recently quit his job as a civil servant in Switzerland and moved to Perhentian to help build the coral nursery.

“For so long, I’ve been part of the problem,” Jungo said, shirtless and barefoot on the island, “Finally, now, I can be part of the solution.”

Monsoon season in Perhentian begins in November, bringing torrential rains and high, lashing winds. With the exception of a few residents of a fishing village, most people leave the island for at least a few months. Abdullah intends to stay.

He rented a small wooden chalet not far from the shore. And twice a day she will come down through the forest to visit her young corals. He’ll make sure, she said, they make it through the monsoon.

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