The Andaman Langkawi’s resident marine biologist Dr Gerry Goeden. Photos by Elena Koshy

“THIS is my playground!” chuckles Dr Gerry Goeden, the corners of his kindly eyes crinkling in delight. It has been several years since I last met with The Andaman Langkawi’s resident marine biologist and for some reason, I hadn’t expected to meet with him again. Not here, at least.

But no, as he keeps reiterating, this — hand sweeping the tranquil vista of the Andaman waters ahead of us with a flourish — is where he plays. The reefs, the corals, the fishes, and the fishermen here are his world, the elements that make up the canvas of his existence through the golden years of his retirement.

The genial American, who migrated to Australia at age 21 and worked on the Great Barrier Reef in fisheries research and marine park management, came to the fair isle of Langkawi as a retiree more than 10 years ago through the “Malaysia My Second Home” programme. His initial plan was just to “...learn more about the area. And then things happened and I embarked on the coral conservation project with The Andaman Langkawi.” Goeden went on to become the consultant marine biologist at the Coral Nursery, the resort’s sustainability project to nurture and grow new colonies.

The marine ecologist who spent his formative years in Florida Keys, a coral cay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida, actually recalls the first time we met — much to my surprise. “It was during the full-scale deployment of the Artificial Reef Module System (ARMS) in the vicinity of Datai Bay by Lafarge Malaysia and the resort, yes? End of 2014,” he states, quite matter-of-factly.

I nod delightedly before confiding to him that to this day, I haven’t forgotten the look of despair etched on his face as we both gazed towards the waters at the end of the event and he spoke so forlornly about the desperate fate of the coral reefs here and around the world.


Fishes can be seen returning to the bay due to the growing corals.

“The coral reefs comprise the most diverse ecosystem on Earth but are now threatened with destruction,” I recall him saying then, resignation lacing his words. According to Goeden, they occupy just over 0.15 per cent of the world’s oceans, yet they provide a home for an estimated 25 per cent of all marine species. “They’re the ‘engine room’ of the sea and their loss will cripple the marine environment on a global scale.”

Southeast Asian coral reefs, said Goeden, have the highest levels of biodiversity of the world’s marine ecosystems; maybe even the highest biodiversity since the beginning of life on Earth. But sadly, Southeast Asian coral reefs are now the world’s most threatened, being impacted by the activities of Man. What he’s doing in Langkawi might be considered small but it’s highly visible and this will go a long way towards directing the spotlight on the plight of coral reefs around the world.

Coral reefs are akin to undersea cities, where colourful fish dart with abandon, and there’s an abundance of intricate formations and all manner of wondrous sea creatures. But, as Goeden pointed out, coral reefs are more than just “pretty”; they play a very important role in everything, from water filtration and fish reproduction to shore line protection and erosion prevention.


Visitors get a lesson in marine life at the Marine Life Laboratory.

“We’re really lucky here in this part of the island because we have around 400 kinds of corals — that’s about two thirds of all the world’s kinds of corals here in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits area,” says Goeden, his words bringing me back to the present where we’re sat opposite each other in the resort’s rustic lobby area; him cradling his elixir — a glass of iced coffee — and me, my watermelon juice. “There’s more species within a square kilometre here than there is anywhere else on the planet. So we have a responsibility to protect it.”

Without coral reefs, people in this part of the world are going to be very hungry, warns Goeden. “Our children are going to grow up in a world where food will be a major problem. The wealthy countries will buy the food away from the poorer countries. And fish is right at the focus of what we’re running out of. Without coral reefs, we have no fish.”

CORAL GARDEN PROJECT

The Andaman Langkawi, nestled between a 10-million-year-old rainforest in tranquil Datai Bay and a 8,000-year-old fringing coral reef, marked a milestone on June 8 last year when it celebrated World Oceans Day 2017 by launching its own Coral Garden as the next phase of its on-going Coral Conservation project.

During the launch, Goeden had said: “This isn’t The Andaman’s project, this is your project. This isn’t The Andaman’s ocean, it’s our ocean. So it’s crucial for us to work together, to protect our ocean and rebuild our reef.”


The Andaman's Coral Curator monitoring their transplanted corals.

Coral transplanting was organised and children and adults were encouraged to join in the ‘hands-on’ activity and transplant live baby corals onto special substrates called mini-ARMs (Artificial Reef Modules), that would, after a few months of nurturing in the resort’s Coral Nursery (built in 2012), be moved into the newly-launched Coral Garden.

“When we started with the Coral Nursery, things were a little haphazard,” shares Goeden. “We were putting in a few pieces here and there. Then we decided that we should try to focus our efforts in one place; a spot that people could go to. Thus the idea for the Coral Garden emerged.”

This is all very much in line with the resort’s 10-year plan to rebuild the reef. The vision is to have a Coral Garden in the ocean where they can eventually move the newly-grown corals and start to rebuild the fringing reef along the bay that was damaged by the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

Asked if the “garden” is anything like what you might see on the Great Barrier Reef, Goeden chuckles. “Don’t expect some glorious garden kind of set-up. The reality is that these corals grow incredibly slowly. In fact, what you actually see is many lumps of cement with lots of corals stuck on!”

(At the time of writing, the Coral Garden, measuring about 100 metres in diameter radius, holds 50 mini-ARMs with about 300 corals. There are plans to expand the radius and move 5,000 baby corals into the garden throughout the year).

“I’m essentially using the ‘garden’ as a model to educate the more-than-20,000- guests who come to The Andaman annu¬ally and tell them that they CAN make a difference,” adds Goeden before sharing that the Coral Nursery is also being expanded with the installation of three hatchery tanks. These tanks are special circulation tanks designed for coral propagation. Corals from the Coral Hatchery will be transplanted on the mini-ARMs that will then be held in the nursery for several months to guarantee their success prior to their trip to the Coral Garden.


The makeshift incubator before the big ocean action.

There’s also a Marine Life Laboratory located down a hidden nook on the resort’s spacious grounds, which happens to be Goeden’s haven. Launched in 2015, it functions as a research lab for marine science and biology students to help increase their understanding of coral reef ecosystems and effective artificial reef management.

DESIGNING ARTIFICIAL CORAL REEFS

The coral reefs in the waters of the Andaman are heavily fished and heavily worked, shares Goeden, his expression forlorn. “They’ve had a double hit, what with a growing human population on the island and increased demand for seafood and traditional products, like the gamat (sea cucumber).”

Meanwhile, over the last 50 years since World War 2, forest clearing has been rampant and the amount of mud going into the sea has greatly increased. “It’s like a snow storm landing on the corals. There’s no way that they’re able to get all that stuff off.”

Hence, the urgency for creating these artificial reefs. But, warns Goeden, it’s not cheap to develop an artificial reef and many factors have to be considered. Building an artificial reef, he adds, is a lot like picking the right house. “We need a space that we can retreat into and feel secure. That’s human nature. And it’s the same with animals. Their home has to be the right shape to suit their body and size too.”


The tranquil Coral Nursery is popular with visitors to the resort.

In the quiet solitude of his lab, Goeden, whose passion includes photography, spends much time observing, among other things, fish behaviour. And the knowledge he acquires, he applies to his reef designs. “We need to make these artificial reefs from substances that are carbon neutral or carbon negative if possible. Concrete produces five per cent of the world’s CO2. The idea is to make things with the minimum amount of concrete and more natural materials.”

Concrete, he continues, lasts 50 to 100 years in the sea. Ideally, he wants his artificial reef modules to last 250 to 500 years. “So eventually, whatever we put there becomes a real reef, and whatever we make is under there somewhere.”

So what’s the best kind of design? Goeden mulls the question before replying that the emphasis shouldn’t be on what’s the best but one with the species in mind. “If we have a Malaysian coral reef, we know the kinds of fish that we want to catch. Let’s say we want to catch lots of little garoupa (which is pretty much the market demand for on this island), then we must analyse the kind of space that fish this size needs. And bear in mind that they’ll reproduce.”

What they’ve done thus far is put a filter there that keeps the little ones safe while exposing the larger ones to commercial fishery. “Everybody wins. The fish gets to reproduce to their optimum size; the fishermen catch them at their peak size, and in turn, make a lot of money. That’s the idea. If you want different kinds of fish, like snapper and so on, then you design accordingly. You can’t just have a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The shape that’s currently in place is described by Goeden as a tapered cube. “A bit like the base of a pyramid with holes placed strategically to cater for the circula¬tion of water inside. I have many of them out there now (approximately 54). What I’ve learnt is that we need to change the holes a little bit to make the circulation better. This is a muddy place and there’s a problem of mud overwhelming the artificial reefs.”


The vibrant colours are captivating.

The fish aren’t too fussy, says Goeden, before swiftly adding that if we’re serious about maintaining biodiversity and the ocean (the loss of biodiversity is the largest problem facing the planet now), then we need to put in a lot more effort into building artificial reefs and protecting corals from global warming.

“We’re losing something like one species of coral per week between now and the middle of the century. Global warming and reef destruction are the cause of this,” shares Goeden, adding: “When you start to change the planet’s atmosphere, many things start to kick in. And it’s complicated by the fact that Man is over exploiting coral reefs and using chemicals like cyanide and dynamite to catch fish. In the process, they’re pulverising the reefs and turning them into gravel. It’s almost impossible for species in this area to survive the fishing pressure.”

EYE ON THE OCEAN

Without realising it, we both stare out into the darkening canvas, a flurry of thoughts cascading through our minds as we ponder what will happen to us as a species. It’s Goeden who’s the first to break the silence.

“I try to appreciate that everything on this planet has a place and deserves to be here. We’re the ones who have a conscience so we need to take responsibility. We need the ocean; without it, we’ll die. I don’t want to think that our species have come so far as to walk on the moon and then stupidly just end up cutting our own life support system.”

Shifting closer as his voice drops, Goeden says: “If you’re on a boat and the boat is sinking, you have two choices. You can, as they say, rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic or you can get a bucket and bail. The choice is simple. I’d bail. Really, 80 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are going to be gone by 2050. If we don’t change the way we do business on the planet by 2100 — and that’s not too far way — then all the corals in the world will be extinct.”


Goeden explaining what happens at the Coral Nursery.

Coral reefs, he adds, support 25 per cent of the species in the ocean. “It’s like reaching into your phone and pulling out some of those micro-processors. It might still light up its little blue light but I doubt that your phone will work anymore. And that’s what we’re doing to the ocean. We’re throwing away the good bits; the stuff that you need to make it all work. To be honest, I’m pessimistic more than I am optimistic. But, if we all say it’s a lost cause, then it WILL be lost. We WILL be rearranging the deck chairs at the rate we’re going.”

Artificial reefs, believes Goeden, is a move in the right direction. “If I build something over there and it’s full of fish, the fishermen will go there. They’ll no longer put their boats on top of the corals here at low tide and walk around with spears trying to catch fish or sea cucumbers. This will help reduce the pressure for a while. In turn, the corals’ survival will be better, the sea cucumber numbers will increase and the fish will reproduce even more. If that artificial reef stretched to the horizon, then we could actually produce more fish than we need.”

Ultimately, says Goeden with finality, we need to turn to the ocean. “We can’t create more farmland because we’re just about using all there is. In fact, it’s in decline thanks to over-farming. IF we’re planning on bailing, then we need to look to the ocean.”

intanm@nst.com.my

Details on the Coral Conservation Project at www.theandaman.com

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