Valérie Chamberland swims like a dolphin, quickly and fluidly, and for most of the past hour she has been darting through the warm, shallow water off the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Now, she is dangling upside down, hovering above a pillow-sized brain coral. Her rubber fins twitch steadily overhead, and as she sips air from the aluminum tank on her back, a stream of bubbles rises from her regulator’s mouthpiece.
The reef spread below Chamberland isn’t one of those flashy, fluorescent gardens seen in calendar photos and nature documentaries. Only a few dozen yards from shore, it lies almost literally in the shadows of a stone jetty, a busy casino, and a Denny’s restaurant. The waters that surround it are murky, and most of its corals are brown and lumpy, sparsely accessorized with bright-purple vase sponges and waving, rusty-red sea fans.
But as anyone who studies coral reefs will tell you, beauty doesn’t necessarily equal health, and this reef has good vital signs. It retains plenty of what reef scientists call “structure”—meaning that it’s three-dimensional, not flattened into rubble or sand—and most of its unlovely lumps are formed by brain coral, one of the sturdiest types of coral in the Caribbean. The reef is lively with fish, and it lies on the outer edge of Curaçao’s wing-shaped coastline, where fast-moving currents sweep out at least some of the island’s pollution and slow the growth of coral-suffocating green algae. It’s also sheltered from major storm damage: Curaçao, which is only 40 miles north of Venezuela, rarely experiences hurricanes.
Chamberland flicks away an agitated crowd of silvery butterflyfish, then descends slightly for a closer look at the mound of brain coral. She inspects the meandering grooves on its surface, looking for the tiny white bumps that appear immediately before its annual spawning. For the butterflyfish, the pinhead-sized bundles of sperm and eggs released during a spawning event are a calorie-rich feast; for Chamberland, they’re the raw materials she needs to further a long-running mission.
Over the past two decades, Chamberland and other scientists throughout the Caribbean—many of them now associated with a research and conservation group called secore, which stands for Sexual Coral Reproduction—have stubbornly advanced the art and science of raising coral babies. Through trial and error, these researchers have learned to better predict the quiet, hidden phenomenon of coral spawning, to fertilize coral eggs in the lab, and to foster young corals until they’re ready to grow in the open sea, on a living reef…
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