One man's lonely quest to save the world's corals draws a sequel

One man’s lonely quest to save the world’s corals draws a sequel

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


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

Twice a day he went out to sea, staying underwater as long as his oxygen supply allowed. He learned the shapes and textures of corals long before he knew their Latin names. He studied the conditions in which they thrived – water temperature, sun exposure, diversity of sea life – and saw how disrupting just one of these factors could lead to mass death. He devoted himself to reviving the reefs, but for a long time no one wanted to join him. Locals whispered about the quirky dive instructor who spent his free days in the water, talking to the corals as if they were people.

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

Anuar Abdullah catches a ride at a place called “Shark’s Point” off the Perhentian Islands where locals say conditions on a coral reef have deteriorated. (Video: Rebecca Tan/The Washington Post)

Abdullah has spent his entire adult life restoring coral reefs, working until recently in obscurity – and sometimes in poverty. In a world rapidly losing its reefs to climate change and environmental damage, he now emerges as an increasingly influential expert on how to revive them. Governments and resorts came calling, asking if he could help with reefs lost to natural disasters and overtourism. Banks and corporations have reached out, asking to sponsor his projects across Southeast Asia.

Abdullah does not have a doctorate in marine biology or a research laboratory, and he despises science which he deems “useless to humanity”. He is adamant about the methods he has perfected during his lifetime. And he identifies above all with a gardener.

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His resume may be unconventional, observers say, but he has a kind of practical expertise that is gaining popularity as people seek out concrete, accessible ways to take action on 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 full-time projects. With his approximately 700 active volunteers, he says, he has already revived about 125 acres of coral reefs.

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

In 2021, after Typhoon Rai destroyed the island of Cebu in the Philippines, a group of resorts asked Abdullah if he could save what was left of the shoreline coral reefs. And earlier this year, Abdullah launched a new effort with Egyptian officials and companies to build the world’s largest subtropical coral nursery in the Red Sea. There was a presentation on the nursery at the UN climate change summit, COP27 this month, but Abdullah did not attend.

He hates lectures, he says. And he had work.

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

The coral in this cove was once so abundant 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 of the materials Abdullah uses for the restoration come directly from the ocean.

To build his nurseries, he doesn’t use steel pipes or concrete blocks – which he can’t afford – and instead gathers rocks from the seabed, stacking them so they won’t be knocked over. by currents. While other coral restoration groups may rely on a lab to “fragment” live coral which is in turn used for growth, it searches for broken pieces of coral in existing reefs and attaches them to rocks at the same time. using water-resistant, animal-friendly glue. When he needs other materials, he starts by cleaning the beach for trash. He made rafts from driftwood and salvaged old buoys and discarded fishing ropes.

In Perhentian, he is working on the development of a nursery that would repopulate the bay within four years.

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Bending down to pick up a boulder where he had affixed a fragment of coral a few weeks earlier, he whispered, “My little acropora.

Abdullah squinted, his eyes gray and his face wrinkled and leathery after years in the sun. He looked for signs that the fragments were welding themselves to the rock and starting to grow.

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

Born in Terengganu, Abdullah was sent to live with a foster family after both his parents died when he was 6 years old. Curfews were strictly enforced at the foster home, but he flew seaside trips when he could. The ocean, he remembered, looked like freedom.

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

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

As a field, coral restoration has been siloed, divided between scientists and researchers on one side and practitioners and “do-it-yourselfers” on the other. For a long time, many scientists had an “ivory tower syndrome” that favored theory over application, said David Suggett, professor of marine biology at the University of Technology Sydney. “The questions we were asking, from a scientific perspective, weren’t always quite right — or helpful,” Suggett added. “But that’s changing.”

In the face of disasters like the massive bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists are seeking the expertise of practitioners – divemasters, tour operators, local fishermen – who know the reefs in their region better than anyone. To amass the “human power” needed to revive reefs at scale, Suggett said, there’s also now 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 fragments of coral turn into little bulbs is a “magical” feeling, she added. “And it gets people hooked.”

But even as Abdullah grows in prominence, he knows the field of coral restoration is evolving around him. There are for-profit companies with millions of dollars in funding that are using new technologies to operate “coral factories”. There is pressure among research institutes to establish accreditation standards that would regulate how restoration is done around the world and subject operations like Abdullah’s to assessments. Debate is intense over whether it’s worth it, given that new reefs could still be killed off by global warming.

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These are tricky questions that, for Abdullah, only take time away from what he wants to do, which is to plant as much coral as possible – and get others to join him.

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

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

The monsoon season on Perhentian begins in November, bringing torrential rains and high winds. With the exception of a few inhabitants of a fishing village, most people leave the island for at least a few months. Abdullah plans to stay.

He rented a small wooden cabin not far from the shore. And twice a day he will descend through the forest to visit his young corals. He will ensure, he says, that they survive the monsoon.

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