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In June 2013 I attended a Biorock / reef conservation program on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.  This is a recap of the experience, serving both as a record for friends and myself, and also a help to the decision-making if you’re thinking about joining the program.

Gili Trawangan is one of the three gili (Indonesian for small island) situated between Bali and Lombok.  To get there, one would usually fly in from Jakarta (about 1.5 hour) to Denpasar (on Bali) or Praja (on Lombok), and travel by boat afterwards.  I arrived in Lombok and find traveling to Trawangan straight-forward.

Map: Gili Trawangan in Asia

Gili Trawangan within Asia

Map: Gilis in Bali/Lombok

The gilis: three small islands between Bali and Lombok.

Gili Trawangan is about 7.5 km in circumference and easily walked around in 1.5 hour.  It is entirely tourism-oriented, with a main strip well-equipped with ATMs,1 places to eat,2 and places to stay.  While bahasa (the Indonesian language) and sasak (indigenous language of Lombok) are spoken, one can easily get by with only English and little or no knowledge of bahasa.  It is a quaint island with no automobiles or dogs, but many bikes, cimodo (horse drawn carts), and tailless cats.3

Pier of Gili Trawangan.  No one seems to use the pier.

Pier of Gili Trawangan. No one seems to use the pier.

From the hill-top: Gili Meno, Air, and Lombok in the distance

From the hill-top: Gili Meno, Air, and Lombok in the distance

Gili cats often have kinked or no tail

Gili cats often have kinked or no tail

Cimodos; along with bicycles, the only locomotion on the island

Cimodos; along with bicycles, the only locomotion on the island

Coast of Gili Trawangan (North)

Coast of Gili Trawangan (North)

Gili Trawangan's one of two locomotion options

Gili Trawangan’s one of two locomotion options

There are some 15 or so dive sites around the three Gilis, some deep, but most shallower than 18 m and thus accessible by open water divers.  Visibility is generally good at 10–15 meters, with regular sighting of turtles and occasionally sharks.4  The diving is good, and there are at least a dozen dive shops offering instruction in PADI / SSI qualifications and in multiple languages.  The shops are all in price agreements, but they do have different history and reputations.5

Leslie with turtle

Swimming with a green turtle at 24 m

Warty sea-slug

Lobster

Brain (massive) coral

Green turtle at armslength

White sea cucumber

A colourful sponge

Stinging hydroid.  A cousin of jellyfish, it lives up to its name.

Nudibranchs are able to steal the weapons (nematocyst) from fire coral and plop them on their own back

Lion fish hiding behind a rock to avoid the strong current

The Program

Biorock is a simple (on paper) technology developed by Goreau and late Hilbertz for reef restoration.  By passing a low-voltage current through a metal framework, the alkaline micro-environment helps deposit a layer of limestone (calcium carbonate) onto the frame, upon which coral can grow at a vastly accelerated pace (200–600%) and can better tolerate adverse conditions.  The technology has been deployed in many countries, and there are bi-annual November workshops led by Goreau which teach the theory and practice.  Since 2008, the workshops have been held on Gili Trawangan, organized by Ms Delphine Robbe.

Watch a 10-minute documentary about Biorocks by Adrienne Gittus here.

Delphine heads the Gili Eco Trust, an organization that promotes and mandates sustainable practices on and around the Gilis.  (You can hear her speak about what she does at a TED talk in the box below.)  With ten years of experience and some 60 biorocks deployed and maintained, Delphine is also one of the worlds’  leading experts when it comes to the Biorock technology.  She teaches this 2-weeks conservation/biorock program every few months.

Delphine Robbe TED talk: Restoring the Gili Islands' Coral Reef

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtFeiVFdIRI]

Over our two weeks Delphine was assisted by Siân Williams, a PADI instructor certified to teach the Biorock specialty herself.  The course runs out from Trawangan Dive, one of the oldest (and certainly one of the largest) dive shops on the island.6

With 7 participants, we were one of the largest group since the program had been running.  Most of our group was in their early/mid-20s, and I surprisingly find myself the senior citizen amongst the group.  Scuba experience runs the spread from freshly certified open water divers to experienced Advanced Open Water divers and dive master trainees.  Two were going to stay on the island to volunteer for the Gili Eco Trust, and three, including myself, were previously involved in marine conservation.  Between the group there were 2 French, 2 Brits, a Tunisian/French, a Belgian, and a Chinese/Canadian.  Most of the instruction was in English, but with half the group being francophone (Delphine is also French), a non-negligible part of the communication was in French.7  Our group got along well, which contributed to the experience.

(At this point, some background about me should help make sense of my interpretation of the experience.  I’m a chemist by training and an Advanced Open Water diver.  I co-lead a coral monitoring program in Hong Kong, where we train up our 16-18 years old students from non-divers to doing Reef Check and Coral Watch.  I’ve been curious about the Biorock method for several years, and read everything I could lay my hands on in the past few years.  I thus joined the program as a novice diver with strong scientific background and modest exposure to marine conservation / identification.  My goal was to evaluate biorock as a technology, and be able to build a biorock in Hong Kong in subsequent years — if it is as promising as the literature suggests.)

PADI specialty courses usually come with structured and well-produced learning manuals.  As a “distinctive specialty”, the learning manual that comes along is distinctly shoddy, consisting of a typo-riddled 20-pages text document.8  The main content is split between introduction to marine conservation (7 pages) and the biorock process (4 pages).  Everything in the manual is one hop away from the Marine Conservation and Biorock wikipedia articles.  The only page I find of value was the last page: a diagram and some technical specifications for the construction / maintenance of biorocks.

Delphine supplements the manual with a pair of books passed along between the group: Coral Reef and Climate Change, and a new CRC press monograph on biorock (Innovative Methods of Marine Ecosystem Restoration).  Both of these were excellent books.  The former is a complete course on marine conservation.9  The latter contains much of the evidence used to support claims of biorock usefulness (e.g., that coral growth is accelerated 200-600% on electrified framework than passive substrate), and comes with a CD filled with pictures of biorock success cases.10

Trawangan Dive previously communicated the course11 to run for 14 mornings with theory and 2 dives on each day (i.e., 28 total).  Without Siân and Delphine on site before the course, the shop could not tell me what the course was about.  The confusion would persist after the course started, with different staff / instructors thinking that the course includes different things, and we were never quite sure what dives / boats do we go on the next day (or even later on the same day). 12  Having missed two dives from a cold, I did around 12 dives (4 shore + 8 boat) through these two weeks.

While I thought it was a biorock course, the 2 weeks should definitely not be thought of as that, but instead a marine conservation learning-volunteering program.  The split in time is roughly 20% on coral reef background, 40% on biorock-related processes, and 40% on service/awareness raising (click on the title to expand the details):

Coral reef background

  • coral ID (3 dives + 2 theory session),
  • coral gardening,
  •  coral watch (1 dive)

Biorock

  • biorock theory (2 dives + 2 theory session),
  • coral collection + attachment (4 dives)
  • biorock cathode frame building (2 days),
  • biorock cathode welding (1 day),
  • biorock sinking
  • biorock maintenance (scrubbing) (1 dive),

Conservation

  • Gili Eco Trust (1 theory session)
  • Dive against debris (1 dive),
  • Untying/retying/deploy buoy line (2 days)
  • Visit to Tanjung Luar market (2 days)

Coral Reef Background

The course began with a basic introduction to the “stationary creatures” found underwater, identifying and distinguishing between algae, sponges, anemone, and soft/hard coral.  The focus was a narrow one, with the explicit purpose to learn enough to know what was growing on the existing biorocks (in particular, what species are not desirable to have on them).  It contains neither the depth of a coral identification course, nor the breadth of a Reefcheck course (e.g., no fish/substrate ID was done).

Algae of some kind

Algae of some kind

Newly attached coral fragments on dragon biorock.  Sponge growth.  Closeup.

Newly attached coral fragments on the dragon biorock. Sponge growth. Closeup.

Ascidians, hard, and soft coral

Ascidians, hard, and soft coral

Anemone

Anemone & soft coral

From there, we did some “coral gardening” — restoring flipped-over coral, removing tangled fishing lines, picking off coral predators like crown-of-thorns and drupella.

Siân removing some polyp-eating drupilla snails from a coral

Siân removing some polyp-eating drupilla snails from a coral

Biorock

During the biorock portion, we learnt about the biorocks’ history on the Gili islands, basic background about how biorocks work, and their construction.  We visited several existing biorocks, and determining whether the circuit is still “on” based on visual signs underwater.

Motorcycle biorock

Motorcycle biorock

Star pufferfish inside biorock

Star pufferfish inside biorock. At night large numbers of fish seeks refuge inside the biorocks.

Dragon biorock

Dragon biorock

Biorock cleaning: scrubbing away the algae

Biorock cleaning: scrubbing away the algae

A shallow depth biorock with prolific coral growth

A shallow depth biorock with prolific coral growth

 

Newly attached coral fragments

Newly attached coral fragments

Several dives were “collection and attachment” dives.  In these dives, we descend with baskets to collect wave/anchor-broken coral fragments (e.g., until 110 bar), get back on the boat, and dive again near a biorock in order to zip-tie them.  This seeds growth on the framework.13

The main time-consuming portion of the biorock comes in the construction of a cathode.  These are built out from metal rebars bent into shapes, first tied together with metal cables, and then welded for strength.  The group decided on a whale-shark,14 and we’d huff-and-puff for two days to get the basic shape ready.  The welding was partly done by us, and mostly completed by a professional welder.

Genetic material of Jamie-the-Whaleshark: 15 mm rebar (uncuttable), and 8 mm rebar

Genetic material of Jamie-the-Whaleshark: 15 mm rebar (uncuttable), and 8 mm rebar

Jamie-the-whaleshark in gestation

Jamie-the-whaleshark in gestation

Siân bending rebar with a log

Siân bending rebar with a log

Rama and Arabella fitting a fine mesh to Jamie's tongue, which would soon carry a Gili Eco Trust implant

Rama and Arabella fitting a fine mesh to Jamie’s tongue, which would soon carry a Gili Eco Trust implant

Arabella welding Jamie

Arabella welding Jamie

Jamie-the-Whaleshark finished and awaiting complete welding

Jamie-the-Whaleshark finished and awaiting complete welding

10 people carrying the frame down to the beach

10 people carrying the frame down to the beach

Fins are attached to the frame.  The first stretch is just lifting.

Fins are attached to the frame. The first stretch is just lifting.

Walking Jamie into the sea

Walking Jamie into the sea

Leslie attaching a coral fragment to Jamie-the-Whaleshark

Leslie attaching a coral fragment to Jamie-the-Whaleshark

Attaching coral fragments to Jamie-the-Whaleshark.  Note the strong current.

Attaching coral fragments to Jamie-the-Whaleshark. Note the strong current.

The giant structure was then carried down the beach and into the water.  This is probably the most memorable experience of the two weeks: 9 people carrying an honking unwieldy piece of metal, sloshed about by strong surge, shoved unceasingly by current, tripping over rocks (and breaking coral), kicking up so much sand that there is arms-length visibility… well, we made it after all, and the newly christened Jamie-the-Whaleshark now sits snuggly outside Gili Divers.

Some more challenging “seeding” is required.  The current at the site runs strong, especially in the afternoon, when it runs in excess of 2 knots (> 1.0 meters/sec).  We were finning hard just to stay at the same place, and I was astonished by how fast we consume air from the tank given the shallow depth.

The last piece of the biorock maintenance comes in the form of cleaning it of undesirable growth of algae and sponges, which can crowd out reef-building hard coral.  This is easily done by scrubbing it with a stiff brush, whereupon the coating creatures go away leaving behind a strong limestone structure.

In the scrubbing, one interesting observation is the parallel deposition of brucite (magnesium hydroxide) as well as limestone (calcium carbonate).  Apparently at higher current (e.g., closer to the anode), brucite is formed preferentially over limestone.  This is a problem because the formed substrate is mechanically fragile and easily falls apart.15

Biorock: more exposed brucite.

Fragile brucite broken from gentle tapping.

The technically critical part of the electrical setup comes in laying the cable and connecting up the anode.  We talked through this, including some tips and tricks won through hard experience.16  We, however, did not do anything on that part, since we simply re-used an existing anode.  The ocean is a hostile place for man-made structures; from the perspective of trying to setup a biorock from ground up, the lack of this hands-on part gives me the jeebies.

Conservation

The last component of the program, which time-wise was equal to the biorock section, were service/awareness-raising/volunteering activities.

We spent 2 days visiting the Tanjung Luar fish market (well, an hour at the market, but with 10 hours round-trip travel time and an overnight stay in Mataram).  We arrived just before Ramadan, and the market was bustling busy, and we saw manta ray and sharks slaughtered for their gills and fins respectively.  (There were dolphins too — those are now illegal and less in the open.17)  As a vegetarian for compassionate reasons,18 I find the sight and smell nauseating (doesn’t help that I also gets car-sick from the long windy ride).  It’s thoroughly unpleasant, and I suppose that’s the point: the hygienic clear cartilage comes from endangered species, in a totally unnecessary bloody act that causes immediate suffering (to the animal) and irrevocable harm to our children’s generation.

Tanjung Luar: teeming with activity

Tanjung Luar: teeming with activity

Tanjung Luar: fetching buckets of sea water

Tanjung Luar: fetching buckets of sea water

Tanjung Luar: bullshark hauled in

Tanjung Luar: bullshark hauled in. My first and only bullshark sighting.

Tanjung Luar: sharks

Tanjung Luar: more sharks

Tanjung Luar: There were three manta rays on this day.

Tanjung Luar: There were three manta rays on this day.

Tanjung Luar: dead manta ray, with gills cut away.  The first manta I laid eyes on.

Tanjung Luar: dead manta ray, with gills cut away. The first manta I laid eyes on.

Tanjung Luar: another shot of the gill plates.  The demand is fuelled by its supposed usage in traditional Chinese medicine (claims seems to be a recent invention?)

Tanjung Luar: another shot of the gill plates. The demand is fuelled by its supposed usage in traditional Chinese medicine (claims seems to be a recent invention?)

We then did a Dive Against Debris, a fancy name for a Project Aware initiative where we collected the garbage, sorted them systematically, and reported the data for monitoring.

We also did a Coral Watch dive at Halik’s Beach (8 meters).  Coral Warch is an international organization for monitoring coral bleaching, which is itself a proxy for coral health.  The protocol consists of comparing coloured slates with coral heads, recording the darkest and lightest observed colours, and reporting back onto the co-ordinating website.

Siân doing a coral watch

Siân demonstrating a coral watch

The last (and my least favourite) part of the experience was untying hundreds of buoys tightly tied onto several hundred meters of line, and re-tying them back on in a slightly different fashion.  The first task was 4 hours with a set of pliers between 4 of us; the second was two afternoons (~6 hours) with the full team.  And I didn’t even know why we are doing this.

Arabella, Rama (& Sam), and I spent a morning untying the little buoys from the rope...

Arabella, Rama (& Sam), and I untying the little buoys from the rope…

This turns out to be for lining the beach areas.  While the dive shop boats have permanent mooring at their site, local boats do not and have to drop anchor (which damages the reef).  The buoy line was to signal to them that this is a no-anchor area.

The tying of the buoy line was fun, if a little hairy in the middle.  See, while the village elders and Gili Eco Trust agreed on the line being deployed, not everyone was on-board or notified.  A dive shop (Gili Scuba19) found out that there was going to be a line, which means they would need to pull up their engine while going over it.  So they got on their kayak and started waving and shouting angrily at us in the water, with some fucking choice words thrown in for no good fucking reasons.  Not cool.

At the end of the day…

At LPCUWC, we organize a Project Week to Malaysia for our coral monitoring students.  We have 5 days.  In each of those days we start at 8 am, dive thrice (debriefing and learning in between), and come back to shore to do 2 more hours of theory; we call it a day at 8 pm.  It’s intense.  I came with that expectation, that this was to be 14 half-days of a structured course, with theory and two dives every day. I am ultimately happy and grateful for the intrinsic rewards, but the extrinsic expectations were misplaced.

This is a marine conservation introduction/service program, with a biorock building component.  I would recommend this experience if you are interested in marine conservation, have little background, and is open to learn more and the full spectrum of activities.  Conservation is a long term, profit-free, and often thankless task; it is invaluable to get to pick the brain of someone who’s dedicated and in this for the long haul.  I find the advice and war stories from Delphine (about conservation and biorock) as much learning as the “official” curriculum.

You should probably not be doing this if you’re a novice diver only interested in squeezing as much affordable diving in as you can — at US$ 600, the program is a shade cheaper than doing a Divemaster (US$ 830), but you do 14 dives instead of 50+ dives.20  You also should probably not be using your rare 2-weeks annual holiday on this: while most are leisurely half days, not having a schedule ahead of time means that you can’t plan activities around the program.

Personally I did not learn as much as I hoped to (see misplaced expectations above), and I blame that on MamaPolyp Linda and Triggerfish Selwyn (co-leaders of Coral Monitoring) who trained me too well.  While I remain shaky about building biorocks from scratch (due to the lack of hands-on with anode wiring), I now have a much fuller perspective about Biorocks that is impossible to acquire otherwise.

There are two things I mean by this italicized phrase.  The first is simply being viscerally convinced by being with a flourishing biorock reef, covered with sprawling coral, and teeming with fish using it as a habitat.  This is particular cool on night dives!

The second is a more accurate calibration of my scientific skepticism.  The lay perspective is that science is all about the facts.  Scientists suffers from a less innocent understanding, and distinguish between “facts” and the true picture.  Reported facts are often distorted, decorated, hidden in a closet, or conditional.  Spending time with Delphine, actual biorocks, and a careful reading of the biorock monograph gave me a better sense of the scope and limits, all of which are difficult to assess otherwise.21

Lastly, I enjoyed the variety of experience on the program (which you could see from the pictures), and it makes me care enough to write and reflect upon the experience.  I enjoyed the camaraderie with my peers (hat tip to Charles, Arabella, Rama, Tina, Lea, and Leslie), and it was lovely knowing Delphine, Siân, Adrienne,22 and the DM/instructors/staff at Trawangan Dive.  I will probably be back to Gili Trawangan as a dive master trainee next year, and I look forward to seeing Jamie-the-Whaleshark all grown up!

Jamie-the-Whaleshark Biorock with Basket

Jamie-the-Whaleshark Biorock with Basket