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The luxury developer protecting coral from climate change

Meet the high-tech tourism developer using robots and AI to bring coral back to life in the Red Sea

By Ian Taylor

21 March 2024

鶹Ƶ. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

Heat repellent architecture at the Six Senses Southern Dunes resort

On the glittering Red Sea coast, there’s a luxury tourist destination that has it all: white sands, impeccable accommodation, world-class yachting and – perhaps surprisingly – a cutting-edge laboratory that’s protecting coral reefs from climate change.

AMAALA is designed to be a new kind of sustainable destination. It’s not finished yet (the first guests will arrive in 2025) but the destination is one of the first by Red Sea Global (RSG), a Saudi Arabian developer whose ambition is to redefine what regenerative tourism can do.

Run with 100% renewable energy, AMAALA is one of two carbon neutral luxury destinations that RSG operates (the other, called The Red Sea, is also in Saudi Arabia). They’re test beds for sustainable development and hubs for new technology and ecological research.

“Corals cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface but sustain 25% of all marine life”

With two hotels already open and four more welcoming guests this year, RSG is building mangrove nurseries and experimenting with carbon negative concrete. But arguably its most ambitious project is to protect and regenerate corals, which are under extreme pressure from warming temperatures, in the Red Sea and beyond.

“Corals cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface but sustain 25% of all marine life,” says John Pagano, Group CEO of RSG. “To protect and enhance the coral reefs under our guardianship we are using advanced technologies, such as remote operated vehicles and machine learning, to monitor coral cover. These innovations can produce 3-D images and automatically analyse these images, enabling our scientists to quickly identify and respond to threats like coral bleaching and invasive species.”

RSG researchers have also created offshore coral nurseries to help sustain and grow rescued corals, while a coral nursery on dry land could supercharge the speed at which new coral can be nurtured.

The work forms RSG’s ‘coral commitment’, announced at COP28 in Dubai last year. There, it signed a letter of intent with the Coral Research & Development Accelerator Platform (CORDAP), a body set up by the G20 to fast-track research into new solutions to save the world’s coral from our rapidly changing climate.

The company’s scientists have already enjoyed some success. They are monitoring around 300 reef sites in the Red Sea, deploying advanced technology like robotic submersibles to photograph the corals. The 3D images they produce are then stitched into vast digital panoramas of the reef sites.

“We have the processing capability to create 3D models and have our AI analyse these models,” says Dr Jess Bouwmeester, associate director of marine enhancement at RSG. “It means we have real quantitative data from every image collection that we’re doing. We’re working in patches of 5x20m and collecting these mini digital twins from over 100 reefs in the area. The data we get from the AI analysis then allows us to monitor our coral reefs over time with high resolution.”

The technology allows Bouwmeester and her colleagues to quickly identify signs that the coral is struggling to adapt to warmer temperatures, after which the health of the affected corals might need to be closely monitored and the reef potentially supplemented with new corals.

This is where RSG’s Coral Gardening Pilot Project comes in. Beginning in 2021, researchers established offshore floating nurseries to nurture and regrow rescued corals. The pilot achieved a 97% survival rate.

The nurseries are suspended from floating platforms, allowing researchers to provide the optimum conditions for coral to grow, while also minimising threats. “They’re sheltered from predators, they’ve got good water conditions, and they are protected from sedimentation,” says Bouwmeester. “And because we have accelerated growth, we can transfer anything that grows above the normal rate to the reef or to artificial substrates to enhance our coral cover.”

鶹Ƶ. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

Bouwmeester can also adjust the depth of the floating nurseries, lowering them into deeper water or raising them to shallower depths, which allows her team to control temperature and light conditions for the corals.

“A good example of that came last summer when we had a temperature stress event,” she says. With global sea temperatures higher than usual due to climate change, coral bleaching was reported all over the world. Bouwmeester and her team were able to shade their corals beneath the floating platforms, decreasing added stress from full sun exposure, which reduced stress and kept them healthier – but they are also developing an onshore coral nursery and breeding programme, to have the option to boost the natural coral reefs if, in the future, the recovery from a bleaching event is low.

“We think of the land-based nurseries as a back-up system for the natural life cycle out in the lagoon,” says HH Princess Shaikha Al Saud, a marine conservationist on the team. “If there’s an issue with the reproductive cycle or a major stress event, we still have really good stock to rely on.”

The breeding programme helps scientists enhance corals and maintain genetic diversity, which can be an issue after mass bleaching events, Princess Shaikha says, but it also helps them address another issue: corals’ narrow reproductive window.

“They will spend between six and nine months developing their eggs and sperm for everything to be released over just two hours a year. That’s it,” Bouwmeester says. “That’s your only reproductive window.”

That window usually begins around 10pm in the Red Sea, making it even harder for researchers and conservationists to study. So, to make it easier, Bouwmeester intends to play a trick on mother nature.

“We’re going to have four different systems where we trick the corals with the temperature cycles and the light cycles,” she says. “If I can trick the corals to think it’s night during the daytime and day during the nighttime, I can get them to spawn at 11am, a time that works much better for me because I will be awake and have a functioning brain.”

RSG & the future of regenerative development

Coral protection is just one part of Red Sea Global’s commitments to regenerative tourism. Here are three other innovative projects that it has underway.

The mangrove nursery

In the summer of 2023, RSG opened its first mangrove nursery as part of a commitment to plant 50 million mangrove trees by 2030. Mangrove forests can store as much as five times more carbon than tropical forests and they also sequester it 10 times faster.

The carbon-negative concrete

RSG has partnered with Partanna, a company that claims to have created a concrete that not only avoids carbon emissions but also removes carbon from the atmosphere. The companies will operate a pilot programme to initially install 11,000 carbon-negative paving stones.

The carbon sink

At the end of 2023, RSG announced a new 20-acre wetlands which doubles as a chemical-free way of treating wastewater. The wetlands are made of reeds that naturally absorb the water’s nutrients and metals, and the treated water is then used at RSG’s landscape nursery.

In the future, Bouwmeester will also get different corals to think it’s spawning time at different times of the year. “So now my team and I can do four spawning events per year, not just one.”

With time, she says this could mean an exponential increase in the number of new corals grown to increase coral cover, by replacing lost colonies or boosting the coral community.

“If there was another bleaching event or a temperature stress event we would be able to release our swimming larvae to a reef and supplement what is going on in the wild,”Bouwmeester says. “We can also keep our larvae in our tanks for longer and just let them settle and grow, then plant those directly out on the reef. That usually gives us even higher survival numbers.”

Soon, RSG will also begin testing 3D-printed materials to create artificial substrates for relocating coral colonies or growing new ones. Essentially, it means creating new reefs to support marine life. And the cool thing is, everyone’s invited.

“Research and tourism can work together, for people and planet alike”

RSG’s vision is for tourism, conservation and research to co-exist and sustain each other at its destinations. The marine life institute it is building at AMAALA, Corallium, will include a number of visitor experiences alongside its laboratories and rehabilitation centres. Tourists will be encouraged to participate, play and learn.

“We believe that academic research and tourism can work together, for people and planet alike” says Pagano.

“The facility goes beyond any existing marine life attraction. It has 10 zones that provide everything from augmented reality experiences to night diving, as well as dedicated spaces for the scientific community to advance research projects.”

Bouwmeester is looking forward to welcoming visitors, too. “We want to get them involved,” she says. “As soon as people start learning about corals they tend to be a lot more protective of them. In terms of environmental awareness, getting the tourism sector involved with some of our work is extremely important.”

It’s an optimistic, pragmatic approach to conservation. Hopefully, we can keep learning from the coral, Bouwmeester says.  “Corals surprise us in a lot of ways,” she says. “We know they’re some of the most sensitive organisms in the world but they do have the ability to bounce back. What we want to do is support that resilience and boost it when we can.”

 

Find out more about Red Sea Global at

 

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