PEMUTERAN, Indonesia — As the late-afternoon sun bathes the beach with a soft warmth, gentle waves lap quietly at the shore — and strollers occasionally stumble over a thick wad of white cables embedded in the fine, black sand.
The cables seem to disappear into the sea, where large blue plastic balls bob in the waves. And they seem to come out of nowhere, sprouting like a nasty growth on the face of this stretch of tropical paradise on Bali's northwestern coast.
The wires are part of highly original and ambitious underwater experiment: the use of low-voltage electrical current to stimulate regrowth in a badly damaged coral reef.
Conceived by coral expert Tom Goreau of the United States and German architecture professor Wolf Hilbertz, both members of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, the project began four years ago and has already achieved remarkable results.
Covering nearly 1,000 feet, the Karang Lestari Project — "coral preservation" in Indonesian — is the world's largest coral nursery ever built using this technology.
"You can really see the difference in the reef in just a short time," said Chris Brown, owner of Reef Seen Aquatics Dive Center, which co-sponsors the project along with local hotels and shops committed to preserving the reef.
Other areas adopt
The technique is also being used experimentally in other tropical locations, such as Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, but the project in Bali is the largest and most ambitious of its kind.
Indonesia is home to 581 of the world's 793 known coral reef-building species, and most thrive in Pemuteran Bay. The area has long been a favorite among scuba divers, who will go elsewhere, affecting tourism, if the reef dies.
Wires carrying the electrical current are secured to the bars and are plugged into onshore charging stations. Brown estimates the amount of electricity used in a week is equal to burning a single 60-watt bulb for a month.
Non-swimmers can follow the reef's renewal thanks to color photographs displayed at Taman Sari Bali Cottages, a sponsor that injected some $15,000 in seed money to get the project started in 2000.
New growth in days
Brown, an Australian who settled in this fishing village of 8,000 people in 1992 and a co-owner of the cottages, said that within days of receiving their first jolts of electricity, the bars grew a white limestone film. This covering provides the necessary substrate for coral growth.
The grids were then seeded with small fragments of live coral, which begin to grow "between five and 10 times faster than normal, with much brighter colors and more resilience to hot weather and pollution," said a co-owner of the Taman Sari Cottages, an American who goes by the single name Naryana.
Some corals have been transplanted directly onto the bars, attached by wires or wedged into specially designed spaces. Soft corals, sponges, tunicates and anemones were also transplanted.
Vibrant colors and growth up to half an inch in less than a month have been recorded. Grids that suffered power failures saw less vigorous development and duller colors.
"Today, the fish are back, including deep-water fish which come into the reef to rest during the daytime," Naryana said.
The regenerated reef has attracted mobiel squid, cuttle fish, sea urchins and starfish. Batfish, damsel fish and cleaning fish also have clustered in the area, along with dense schools of snappers.
Divers also have noted the presence of large groups of young fish — a good sign of future self-sustaining populations and the long-awaited return to a balanced ecosystem.
No longer a wasteland
Naryana, who was born Randall Dodge in Nebraska, described the reef as a "total wasteland" when the project began. He said the El Nino weather phenomenon bleached it in the early 1990s, killing most of the coral in shallow water, and the 1998 Asian economic crisis forced starving fishermen to adopt destructive fishing practices that caused further damage.
Another near-catastrophe came in the mid-'90s with the arrival of some 70,000 voracious Crown of Thorns starfish, most of which divers yanked from the water before they could devour the reef.
Concerned citizens like Brown and Naryana have long supported community programs to educate the locals about the long-term consequences of the reef's worst enemy: fishing with explosives.
"Fishermen from Pemuteran actually went out and stopped the bombers," Naryana said. "It took education, talking and demonstrations to convince them that ocean conservation is the future."
Naryana agrees with Goreau and Hilbertz that the reef project is not just about jump-starting an ecosystem but rather an investment in the preservation of rapidly disappearing coral species and the fish that breed there.
Brown hopes the technique will spread to countries that lack the money for more expensive methods to regenerate or improve their coral reefs.
"We find that electricity reinforces the coral that's already there, and has a profound effect on the condition of surrounding corals," he said. "It shows you can take good coral and make it better."
Additional background on reef restoration is online at www.globalcoral.org.
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