Scientists Protect Corals from Warming Oceans When the ocean gets too warm, coral dies. That's what happened in The Maldives a few years ago. But on one small island, researchers are learning about ways to help coral survive the heat.
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Scientists Protect Corals from Warming Oceans

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Scientists Protect Corals from Warming Oceans

Scientists Protect Corals from Warming Oceans

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

Time now for our Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic. Global warming is a matter of life and death for the world's coral reefs. Even a small rise in ocean temperature can kill the tiny animals whose skeletons form the reefs.

That's a grim prospect for the Maldives, a nation of 1200 islands in the Indian Ocean. Coral supports the two main industries there: tourism and fishing. So one local scientist has embarked on a mission to help the corals survive climate change.

NPR's Jon Hamilton traveled to the Maldives and has this story.

JON HAMILTON: The tiny tropical island of Vabbinfaru may be the world's only five-star marine laboratory. That's because it's also a five-star resort run by the eco-friendly Banyan Tree chain.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

HAMILTON: Visitors arrive by boat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HAMILTON: A lot of them are newly weds like this couple from London.

Ms. REBECCA JOHNSON(ph) (Guest): It's good, isn't it?

HAMILTON: They got here a few days ago. Now they're relaxing at the open-air bar.

Ms. JOHNSON: It's Rebecca Mars(ph).

Mr. ROBIN JOHNSON(ph) (Guest): No, it's not.

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: I meant to say, it's Rebecca Johnson now.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm Robin Johnson.

HAMILTON: Robin and Rebecca say they like the elegant spa, the intimate cabanas and the white sand beaches. At sunset, they like watching stingrays swim right up to the beach to be fed by hand. But that's not the main reason they're here. They've come for the diving.

Mr. JOHNSON: I've been diving for about two years. Rebecca has been diving, what, six years.

Ms. JOHNSON: Almost on the 100 dives now, say, about five years I've been diving.

Mr. JOHNSON: The best dive spots in the world are the Maldives.

HAMILTON: Because of the coral. The coral reefs are beautiful. But more important, they provide a home for the sort of exotic fish that divers will travel halfway around the world to see. And on this side, there are corals everywhere. Even at the side of the boat jetty.

Dr. ABDUL AZEEZ ABDUL HAKEEM (Scientist; Chief Gardener, Banyan Tree, Maldives): These are coral gardens in Banyan Tree. And we have about 10 of them around the island, in the lagoon.

HAMILTON: Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem is the chief gardener and scientist here. He spent 20 years running the nations agricultural programs before coming to Banyan Tree. Now, he takes every opportunity to pull a diving mask over his silver hair and glide through his underwater gardens. At the moment, though, Azeez is standing on the jetty, watching several large tuna hunt smaller prey, then a luminous parrotfish appears. He scowls.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: They munch on corals. I hate them.

HAMILTON: Azeez protects his corals the way a parent protects a child.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: They are the children, you know? If they die, you know, we die. That is as simple as that. It's because of the reef that we are alive. So we have to do everything we can to protect the reef.

HAMILTON: Azeez didn't use to worry about his corals so much. Then in 1998, he learned just how vulnerable they are. That was the year a strong El Nino arrived and made a warm ocean dangerously hot.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: It rose to about 33 degrees Celsius. Normally it's about 27, 28 degrees Celsius. So at 33, it was boiling hell. And about 80 to 90 percent of the corals in the Maldives died.

HAMILTON: Worse yet, scientists began saying that global warming would probably lead to more El Nino events like this one. Azeez says the events of 1998 changed him.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: I never believed that, you know, an entire region could be wiped out. It never occurred to me. I mean, no one believed that this could happen until it hit us. Then only I also realized yes we are in danger because of global warming and this can happen again and again.

HAMILTON: So Azeez began looking for ways to protect the coral. He and his staff began doing experiments to see which varieties could tolerate extreme heat or adapt to it. And Azeez took a more radical step.

He knew that corals on an artificial reef nearby had survived the 1998 El Nino. The reef was an experimental design that used electricity. No one knew how it had protected the coral from extreme heat. But Azeez knew he wanted a reef like that for this island.

(Soundbite of waves splashing)

HAMILTON: The Banyan Tree staff built a reef from steel bars and wired it to a power source on the beach. The small current causes minerals from ocean water to build up on the steel, forming a thick limestone crust that's perfect for coral.

(Soundbite of waves splashing)

HAMILTON: The electric reef is on the far side of the island in about 15 feet of water. Rob Tomasetti, who manages the marine lab, says it's one of the best places to go snorkeling.

Mr. ROB TOMASETTI (Manager, Marine Laboratory, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru): If we're lucky, we might see a couple of sharks.

HAMILTON: I'll look forward to that.

Mr. TOMASETTI: Let's go.

(Soundbite of waves splashing)

HAMILTON: We swim out to the electric reef. From a distance it looks like underwater topiary — corals of every color growing in the unmistakable shape of a lotus flower 35 feet across. Swim down to one of the lotus petals and you can see the delicate structure and color of individual corals. Back on shore, Azeez reels off some of the varieties living on the Lotus reef.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: Finger corals, hard corals, massive corals. We have tried to plant as many species as we can.

HAMILTON: Once you get out to right where the lotus is, right where the electrified reef is, suddenly there are fish everywhere.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: Yeah. We saw a lot of sharks, blacktip sharks and whitetip sharks, and plenty of groupers, and butterfly fish, and a lot of small fishes that hides between the corals.

HAMILTON: Azeez sees this reef as a kind of greenhouse for corals. He's counting on it to keep a critical mass alive when the next El Nino strikes.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: The corals on this structure - you can take pieces from that and make your own garden again.

HAMILTON: Azeez had used a similar technique to help his gardens recover from the devastating El Nino in 1998. Divers transplanted tiny bits of coral that were still alive to reefs that had died. The corals are coming back, but it's a long process. So Rob gets help from guests at the resort.

Mr. TOMASETTI: Three days, we've adopted a turtle and saved the reef. Thank you everybody. Thank you for coming for our monthly reef cleaning.

HAMILTON: The guests will swim around the island, picking up garbage and removing predators.

Mr. TOMASETTI: This is a crown-of-thorns starfish, you can easily see where to get their names. So please pass around. These are very poisonous.

HAMILTON: And they devour coral.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: Okay. Rob, please get ready again and let's get into the water.

Mr. TOMASETTI: And, of course, if you see any trash as well, pick it up.

HAMILTON: Before long a guest finds a crown-of-thorns on the reef. Azeez swims over, snares it with a steel hook and drops it into the hold of a waiting boat.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: There you go.

HAMILTON: This is the enemy.

Dr. ABDUL HAKEEM: Yeah. That's our enemy. Enemy number one.

HAMILTON: Of course, it isn't really. It's just the enemy they can see. Azeez says the real enemy is global warming.

John Hamilton, NPR News.

BLOCK: At our Web site, you can see a video of the stingrays being fed at the Banyan Resort. And learn more about climate change around the world. There are also related videos from public television's Wild Chronicle series at

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