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Mars Coral Reef

Restoring hope: the Mars Ambassador Coral Reef restoration program

Marion Thebault, a Mars Associate, shares her life changing experience of participating in the Mars Coral Reef Restoration Ambassador Program.

Over 50% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost over the last 30 years.

Many reefs around the world have now lost the capacity to recover and regenerate on their own. If we don’t take action, more than 90% of our planet’s coral reefs will be gone by 2050.

Yet in Sulawesi, Indonesia, people are smiling, corals are thriving – and hope is growing.

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Sulawesi, Indonesia, where I had the privilege of learning how to restore a coral reef with MARRS (Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System). As an Ambassador for this important cause, I’m thrilled to be able to share the remarkable journey I've been fortunate to experience and offer some personal reflections.

In 2019, I embarked on a journey to launch 'Sheba Hope Grows' in Europe – the world's largest coral reef restoration programme. Little did I know that three years down the line, I would find myself there in person, restoring coral reefs, with my own two hands.

In my role as a programme Ambassador, I jumped at the chance to join the team for a two-week restoration training expedition in Indonesia. And as life experiences go, it far exceeded all my expectations.

My initial goal was simple: to learn how to restore a reef. To do my part. However, my experience in Sulawesi has given me so much more than pure technical skills and knowledge. It has left me with a profound sense of purpose and an unwavering commitment to this cause. A life experience that will never let go.

It’s the people who have undoubtedly been one of the most profound highlights of my journey.

The expertise, dedication and sheer passion shown by the Indonesian MSS team was mind-blowing. Their dedication to rescuing and restoring the reef, an inspiration. They were generous with their wealth of knowledge and valuable advice, and their unbridled passion for the project, truly inspiring. With their incredible help and guidance, we felt fully equipped to dive in and start to rebuild these amazing, yet fragile, underwater worlds.

What struck me the most was their remarkable teamwork – the way each member harnessed their unique strengths to ensure the project's success. Their collaborative, selfless spirit was a testament to the power of teamwork, and it has left an indelible mark on me.

However, it's not just the experts who play a pivotal role: the local Bontosua Island community is integral to its success. As Lily Damayanti wisely noted, 'Without the community, we can't achieve anything.' I was deeply moved by their kindness and their eagerness to contribute. I have fond memories of us all, engaged in conversation and laughter as we worked together to tie coral fragments on the reef stars. Their 'joie de vivre' was undeniably contagious.

And then there are the Ambassadors – the exceptional team I was fortunate to be part of. Our collective love for the ocean formed an instant bond. Throughout those two weeks, our shared desire to make a lasting difference and to be an integral part of this bigger community remained at the forefront of our mission. We were determined to give back as much as we received, united by our shared passion for the ocean and the hope it represents.

The sheer scale and effectiveness of the MARRS method is breath-taking.

Having taken part in other restoration projects where success rates often struggled to surpass 50%, I was astounded by MARRS. To date, 900,000 coral fragments have been carefully planted, nurture, and grown using 60,000 reef stars. And the most awe-inspiring aspect of it all? The corals are not just surviving, they’re thriving at an astonishing pace.

Under the expert guidance of Philippa Mansell, the remarkable MSS team took us through the following intricate steps:

1. Land Training and Theory. Our journey began with land training, where we delved into the theory behind the MARRS. It was a crucial foundation that helped us grasp the intricacies of the method, understand the needs of the coral, and practise the art of building Reef Stars together.

2. Coral Collection. This phase took us to a coral nursery near the reef to collect coral fragments. Two essential rules guided our work: first, collecting 'corals of opportunity' – those corals that are broken off from the reef, but still had a chance. Secondly, we followed strict instructions not to harvest more than 10% of any coral colony from any given area within a four-year cycle, allowing ample time for recovery. Ensuring a diverse collection of coral species was pivotal to the success of the restoration.

3. Reef Star Coating. This segment of the process was managed by the island community adjacent to the reef. While we learned the method, we also had the privilege of connecting with the islanders, even sharing our mutual passion for football, a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries.

4. Coral Tie-On. Among these steps, my personal favourite was the rendezvous with the local community to affix coral fragments to the Reef Stars. The experience of working hand in hand with the community, sharing laughter, and attempting to communicate in Indonesian was truly one of the most memorable highlights of my journey.

5. The Build. This phase marked the zenith of complexity and pure, awe-inspiring wonder. First, we had to free dive to collect the reef stars from the boat and immerse them close to the building area. Once immersed, the task of artfully connecting the reef stars together began – a process designed to mirror nature's own handiwork. I was profoundly impressed by the MSS team's innate connection with the reef and the ocean, as they seemed to listen and understand the needs of this unique ecosystem, allowing them to build in the most natural and harmonious way.

6. Quality Control and Maintenance. The final and perhaps most underestimated step in this intricate process is quality control and maintenance. It is also the most time-consuming aspect, but essential for its long-term success. Post-construction, the dedicated team returns at intervals of two, six, eight and ten weeks. During these visits, they meticulously tend to the reef stars, removing encroaching algae, replacing any lifeless coral, and fortifying the entire structure. This level of care and attention is paramount, without it, the reef could not survive.

Throughout the Ambassador Programme, we planted 400 Reef Stars, equating to 6,000 new coral fragments. These fragments will evolve into vibrant habitats for countless new fish and marine species. The journey has been intense, filled with challenges, but it stands as one of the most profoundly rewarding – and unforgettable – experiences of my life.

My final takeaway is a simple one. It’s not too late! We have in our hands a scalable, proven method that is making a tangible difference. With the right partners, the right individuals, and the unwavering dedication of all involved, we hold the power to rejuvenate our reefs and ensure a brighter future for

our oceans. Together, we can initiate a transformation – changing behaviours, fostering connection and educating others.

As an Ambassador, I am willing to support this cause, both above and below the waves, collaborating with Mars and with any potential partners who share our vision.

Together, we hold the power to safeguard this remarkable ecosystem.

Together we bring hope, to the underwater world. And for us all.