Students in scuba gear diving in ocean to rebuild coral reefs

In August 2022, 14 SPU students and two professors spent two weeks on the island of Bali, Indonesia, to study marine life and help rejuvenate the island’s valuable coral reefs.

Purple and white Christmas tree worm in coral
Purple and white Christmas tree worm in coral

Not every student gets to earn college credits by diving around a sunken ship in the Bali Sea. But as Sydney Caldeira watched parrot fish, garden eels, and puffer fish swim through the crevices of the USAT Liberty, she found herself in awe of her underwater classroom.

“The color and diversity of the different species were astounding,” said the SPU senior, who intends to be a teacher with her major in elementary education and minor in biology.

Caldeira’s dive experiences constituted far more than underwater awe. In August 2022, she joined 13 other students and two professors for two weeks on the island of Bali, Indonesia, to study marine life and help rejuvenate the island’s valuable coral reefs. The students provided eager labor for a local community working hard to come back from a devastating blow to its livelihood.

Coral reef destruction

SPU biology professor Tim Nelson ’87 organized the trip to Bali out of his passion for hands-on learning. As an undergrad at SPU, Nelson did field research at Blakely Island Field Station in northwestern Washington. “We were doing real science, actually learning ecology and not just having fun in the woods,” Nelson said in a Response magazine article in 2018.

Nelson joined the SPU faculty in 1991 and now directs that same field station. In pursuit of similar hands-on experiences, SPU’s biology department runs numerous study-abroad experiences. Over the years, students have studied marine life in the warm waters around Cancun, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Maui, the Galapagos Islands, and Belize. Fall 2022 marked the first trip to Bali.

In 2019, a family friend invited Nelson to bring students to a coral reef restoration project in the Indonesian fishing community of Les Village. She had formed the group Sea Communities to help impoverished coastal communities, and she thought of Nelson because of his training as a marine biologist and experience as a research diver.

In Les Village, the local economy depends upon capturing small fish to sell to aquariums. The U.S. imports about 7.6 million ornamental saltwater fish each year.

To keep up with the demand, fishermen across the region, from the Philippines to Indonesia, tried a new technique to temporarily stun the fish to make them easier to catch. They squirted cyanide into the coral reefs where fish were hiding. Unfortunately, the cyanide poisoned the living coral and made new coral growth difficult.

“Once they realized what was happening, they stopped the practice,” Nelson said of the local fishermen. “But it was too late. The reef where they’d been making their living was destroyed.”

Climate change has also played a part in reef destruction. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere lead to acidification of the water, which dissolves coral.

Various groups are now working with Les Village to restore the coral. In 2022, one group of researchers documented 533 restoration projects across the entire country — some more successful than others.

After a scouting trip to Bali in 2019, Nelson made plans to bring a team from SPU in 2020. COVID-19 canceled that trip, plus another planned for 2021. The trip finally came together in 2022.

One thousand, eight hundred minutes of travel to a dive experience

SPU students and local citizens in Bali, Indonesia stand together for a group photoAfter a 30-hour journey from Seattle to Bali via Seoul, Korea, the team arrived — some carsick from the final, winding road to the village, right before a full day of dives and lectures. Caldeira was determined to make the most of the full two weeks, despite her exhaustion. “It was crazy to think we were in a different region of the world, experiencing a new culture and rebuilding a coral reef. It all felt surreal,” she said.

The fishermen and Indonesian researchers leading the project were excited to have them there. “We were the first large group to visit Les Village post-COVID,” Nelson said. “The folks there were positively emotional to have us in to rejuvenate the tourist economy side of things. It had been a rough couple of years for Bali.”

And Nelson, himself, was thrilled to be giving his students such a valuable experience. “The sciences aren’t about sitting around and talking in a room,” he said. “The analogy I might make is to the person producing art versus the person just appreciating it. We’re producing. We’re doing science. We want students actually doing what scientists do.

“Coral reef ecosystems just aren’t found in Seattle,” Nelson said. “The water is too cold.”

In Bali, the local fishermen served as dive guides to teach students the techniques necessary to grow new coral. First, they harvested small pieces of existing, healthy coral and planted them onto a hard surface in shallow water to grow. For adhesion, students used an underwater-setting cement invented by a local fisherman. Dive guides would then routinely check the growing coral to keep it healthy. “After a year or so, the corals get big enough to be transplanted to the reef and make it on their own,” Nelson said.

Next, students started transplantation, using coral prepared by another group the previous year — again using cement. Sea Communities has been implementing this cycle of restoration for about 10 years.

“It was an amazing experience to dive down and glue coral fragments down to surrounding rocks and mounds,” Caldeira said. “It was an honor to be part of that community’s journey in rebuilding its reef.”

Another participant on the trip, Mathea Kurtz-Shaw ’22, hails from a family of SPU study-abroad veterans. Her grandfather, Ross F. Shaw ’52, led trips to Hawai’i and the Virgin Islands. Her uncle, Franklin R. Shaw ’77, traveled with a team to Hawai’i.

“As a Christian, I have the responsibility to care for and protect the environment — whether that’s the colorful corals we studied in Bali or the more muted algae that permeates Puget Sound,” Kurtz-Shaw said. “Beyond that, reefs play an important role in local economies as big draws for the tourism industry and for fishing and farming.”

Over the course of two weeks in Bali, students spent mornings doing dives and conducting surveys on fish diversity; then they enjoyed afternoons of local exploration, including a hike up Mount Batur, an active volcano. In the evenings, Nelson joined Janet Bester-Meredith, SPU associate professor of biology, and a visiting scientist from the University of Singapore to deliver lectures on topics such as the ecology of coral reefs and past restoration techniques.

Students also gained valuable insight into the effects of climate change and the importance of helping local communities achieve their goals. “Places like this don’t need charity,” Nelson said. “They need sustainable kinds of changes that bring long-term benefits to the community, not just a quick infusion of benefits.”

Future dreams

The two weeks in Bali passed all too quickly. Nelson hopes to bring another team of certified divers to work among the coral in August 2024. SPU students interested in the 2024 trip can contact Professor Nelson or applications will be available soon on SPU’s study abroad site.

Nelson also dreams of returning with SPU professors and students from other disciplines. Engineering students, for example, could study alternative energy sources to avoid burning coal. Other students could teach English to those involved in Les Village’s tourism industry. He envisions multiple teams sitting around the dinner table each evening, discussing what they learned from their host-experts.

orange fish swimming amid coralSeveral students from the 2022 trip hope they can return in 2024, as well. “To see the growth of the reef structure and the reintroduction of fish populations would be such a glorious moment because I would know I left a lasting impact,” Caldeira said.

“Marine conservation is far more important than people realize. You don’t need a lot in order to make a difference. As a future educator, I hope to inspire my students to make a difference in the world around them like the people of Les Village have done.”


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