Meet the Bahama Coral Farmers Regrowing the Ocean’s Reefs

They were headed for success. Then Hurricane Dorian hit.
April 20, 2020, 8:05pm

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The year 2019 started off pretty great for Sam Teicher and Gator Halpern. They’d been listed on the Forbes 30 under 30 and won a UN Young Champions of the Earth Prize. Their groundbreaking idea, a commercial farm for climate-change-resistant super-coral, was attracting excitement and, more importantly, cash from a community of investors eager to get into the emerging business of coral reef restoration.

In early June, they opened Coral Vita, their first farm, in Freeport, Grand Bahama.

“We were in a really exciting spot. We had all the tanks flowing. We were growing 24 different species of coral,” Halpern said. “We were getting close to out-planting those corals.”

Using a technique known as accelerated evolution, which involves increasing heat and acidity in the growing tanks so only the strongest corals survive, Sam and Gator were priming their crop for life in the rapidly changing ocean. The survivors were supposed to be planted out to repopulate Grand Bahama’s dying reef.

That’s when things went wrong.

On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian, the strongest storm to ever hit the Bahamas, tore through the island, wreaking havoc. At least 70 people were killed, and thousands were displaced. Some parts of Grand Bahama are still without power or running water.

Their coral-growing system drowned under 17 feet of storm surge. The waves scattered their tanks, and Coral Vita’s operations were put on hold.

The unprecedented destruction caused by Dorian was closely linked to the island’s degraded reef.

“The hurricane underlines how important coral reefs are,” Teicher said. “Along with things like mangrove forests, reefs act like natural seawalls. So when these storms come, they protect lives. They protect infrastructure. They protect homes.”

But when Dorian came, the reef, which has lost over 80% of its coral since the '70s, was no match for the waves, which pounded the shore and mashed up the sparse remains of the original coral structure.

When the water subsided, investors renewed their interest in getting the farm running and proving that it’s possible to mend the world’s dying reefs. So now, Sam and Gator are putting the finishing touches on their second farm and harvesting seeds for their second crop of coral.

“As climate disasters get more and more extreme, the need to restore these natural ecosystems we depend upon is only greater and greater,” Gator Halpern said. “So we're not only rebuilding the farm like it was, but we're actually expanding the farm to prepare for threats like these increasing hurricanes.”