How to take part in a coral reef restoration project in Indonesia, without any experience in marine conservation?

Diving Tips
21 Sep, 2020

by Laura Kazimierska

Gili Trawangan is one of three islands located in North-East Lombok, Indonesia. Although most of the restaurants, bars, and hotels are closed because of the global pandemic and international tourists are not allowed to visit, the dive community is thriving. We are lucky to have great dive sites on our doorsteps, which means we don’t even need to use a boat to reach them.

I made my mind up to do something productive with my free time and sign up for the Ocean Quest Coral Propagation Course. As a dive instructor, I spend most of my time in the ocean and my main focus is marine life. I love all the fish and creatures, from big sharks to tiny hairy squat lobsters, yet never had much knowledge about the corals. I decided it was time to change that.

I have to say, it was amazing to be a student again! I’ve learned so many things, like that the coral can get decompression sickness, why coral get stressed, and how we can protect the coral reef with minimum resources. So, I want to share my experience and get you interested in this incredible ecosystem as well.

Table of Contents

Coral – plant or animal?

Coral reef formation with the grouper
Although corals might look like plants they are actually an animals. Photo by Nicolas Hahn

They get most of their energy from photosynthesis and the majority of them can’t move around and are grounded for life. In many ways corals have more in common with plants, however, they are actually an animal as they are unable to produce their own food as plants do. Creating complex and diverse colonies, they are the key to a healthy marine ecosystem.

Why coral reefs are so important?

From the beginning of their life cycle, corals are contributing to the marine food chain. The journey starts with joining zooplankton. Drifting in a current, they become the main source of food for all the filter feeders like manta rays and whale sharks. Then they drop and settle on the ocean floor, supporting with nutrients animals such as giant clams, sea urchins, and grazing parrotfish. The ones that survive and find the right place to settle down, become reef-building structures providing shelter and nourishment for many important marine species.

Manta ray feeding on a plankton
Coral larvae become a food source for plankton feeders. Photo by Karola Sztaba

They create barriers protecting the shorelines from the waves, just like the mangroves do on land, as well as being the center of marine life reproduction.

It’s been estimated that coral reefs generate half of the Earth’s oxygen and absorb one-third of Earth’s carbon dioxide which as we know is a pollutant prominently caused by fossil fuels. If that isn’t enough to impress you, they stabilize pH levels of the seawater around them, therefore creating a balanced ecosystem for all the sea creatures while additionally working as indicators of environmental quality.
By observing the coral reef ecosystem we can gain information about the pollution and degradation of the environment and take steps to prevent it. A healthy reef is beneficial for the coastal communities as it brings income from tourism and fishing.

Another interesting fact is that the coral reef plants and animals are important sources of new medicines being developed to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, viruses, and other diseases as well as can be used in natural beauty products.

Mostly hidden below the surface, inaccessible to those above, without a doubt coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems on the planet.

Threats to coral reefs.

Even though they are so precious, coral reefs face enormous threats by human activity and irresponsible behavior. For more than a century, industrialized society has contributed to extremely high carbon emission and pollution that affects the climate and imbalance in the Earth’s ecosystem. The exploitation of our oceans and devastating fishing practices make a huge impact on the coral reefs’ health state.
Within the past decade, bleaching events (coral response to increased water temperature. When the water becomes to warm, coral, under stress will expel the algae that feed it, which in consequence may cause starvation as well as bleached, weak structure prone to diseases. Those events can be triggered by climate change) became more frequent and the extreme weather conditions add to the slower recovery of the coastal reefs.
That is why we need to act now and we need to hurry in order to protect what’s left and secure the existence of that unique environment for future generations.

Ocean Quest; My adventure with coral propagation.

Ocean Quest Global is an environmental organization that was founded in Malaysia a decade ago. After many years of research, they created their own techniques, methodology, and materials for coral reef restoration. A few years ago they started to co-operate with well known Sea Shepherd offering courses through partner dive centers. Lucky me, Trawangan Dive Centre (the dive shop I work for) is one of them!

diver collecting live rock
Collecting live rock is a big part of coral propagation. You need to choose the right ones. Photo by Karola Sztaba

What I love about the Ocean Quest coral conservation, is that they use strictly organic methods, picking up building materials from the reef and then returning it back into its natural environment.

The first thing we did was the theory. I am a “super nerd” so obviously had a lot of questions that Sian, our instructor, and co-manager of Gili Eco Trust, answered straight away.

It’s important to get an understanding of the coral life and reproduction cycle as well as what risk we might expose them to in the transition period from the natural environment to the propagation stage. You always want to be very cautious while dealing with the natural environment because any unnecessary interference may cause damage to the coral.

Our Eco-warrior instructor Sian demonstrating how to place freshly propagated corals on the nursery. All the cleaning fish are getting very excited.

The hands-on part was awesome! We made our way into the ocean and even though the visibility was terrific, conditions were challenging at some points. Our dive started by collecting rocks to build a new nursery for coral restoration.
Within our buddy teams, we had to swim with a basket to move around the substrate. Great buoyancy and breathing control are the key skills on that one. It was heavy and I kid you not… I was sweating underwater LOL.

We also collected some “live rocks” and dropped them off in the shallows for easy access. Later on, we will be attaching our coral props (coral ready for propagation) onto them.

divers getting live rocks for propagation
Collecting live rocks is not an easy task, you need to be able to control your buoyancy in a current. Photo by Ash Embi

On the second dive, though the current started to pick up, we managed to collect three different kinds of corals to be propagated.

What you want to consider while collecting samples for propagation is
to look for loose parts of coral first. It could’ve been disconnected from the reef in a natural way (current, waves) or less natural like snorkeling and boat activity. The crucial part is that you never want to take more coral than you’ll be able to propagate. You also need to make sure that you collect only the healthy ones since it’s important not to spread infections or diseases within the nursery.

Branching corals are easier to propagate because the fragmentation part doesn’t require any special equipment nor skills. We went through a strict selection whilst still underwater. However, once we found the right one, we were good to go up.

When bringing corals to the surface, you want to give them time to acclimatize to dropping pressure as well as temperature change.
In order to do that, you do something very similar to what divers do as they ascent to the surface. You stop at a few different depths and wait for a couple of minutes. This way you give coral samples time to adjust to changing conditions and that reduces their stress.

Collecting rocks to build a new nursery just in front of Trawangan Dive Centre on Gili T. It was soooo heavy!! We were huffing and puffing and went through our air much faster than usual. Super fun though

While two of us were waiting underwater with the corals neatly stowed in zip-lock bags, the other part of the team was preparing a propagation station on the beach.

Our task from now on was to divide samples into smaller pieces and glue them to the “live rocks” we collected on a previous dive. Time is essential as you want to minimize the period when the corals are out of the water. Trust me I was fast! First, “live rock”. Then glue. Then coral. Then catalyst. In between Splash! Splash! Splash! To keep the rocks from drying. Boom!! Ready to go!

corals ready to be connected to the live rock
You really need to work as a team and be quite fast while attaching corals to the live rock. Photo by Karola Sztaba.

We were running like crazy, carrying the propagated corals to the temporary station located in the shallow water. Once we finished it was time for the third dive.


The tide was dropping fast therefore the current was much stronger than before. Our task was to secure the propagated corals to the nursery. It wasn’t easy with those conditions but we managed to accomplish the mission successfully, with majority of us holding on to some rocks for dear life.

diver, being assisted by wrasse while placing propagated corals to the nursery
Diver being assisted by excited wrasse. Photo by Ash Embi


It was very rewarding seeing little wrasses excited and swimming towards us as soon as we took our samples to the reef. They will be the maintenance staff for our new baby corals, protecting them from algae growth and other natural competitors.

Now here I am, an Ocean Quest Coral Propagator

Going forward, I need to make sure that the props are growing strong and healthy. Checking that they didn’t tip over, aren’t being blocked from the sun and nutrients, looking for any potential hazards for the nursery, or just simply tiding it up.

It was an incredible experience to be a part of that project. Even though created just two years ago, our original nursery has grown big and strong. Witnessing this gives me hope for the future of the coral reefs. I’ve seen many man-made structures but have never experienced such a big fish activity straight away and bonus… it’s all-natural.

eco-warrior tiding up the nursery and checking on baby corals
From time to time you need to come back to the nursery and check if the baby corals are well secured. Photo by Karola Sztaba

The massive advantage of this type of coral propagation is that it requires very little maintenance. Due to the current situation, when the majority of diving activities are not allowed, the nursery will continue to regulate itself. While with other structures you need human power to keep the artificial reef healthy.

The future of coral reefs is in our hands. Anyone can contribute to its survival by adjusting their day to day choices, understanding the effects of climate change, and joining courses like this one.

Finding this rock, while searching for “live rock” for coral propagation, was like a sign. We always need to remember that coral reefs are a beating heart of the ocean, therefore our life depends on them.

You can choose the Ocean Advocate for your Divemaster program which includes Ocean Quest Coral Propagator course.

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