After Dorian, saving coral reefs even more urgent for this alumni startup

After a “biblical flood,” alumni Gator Halpern and Sam Teicher have been rebuilding their coral farming business — and its home on the island of Grand Bahama.
Gator Halpern ’15 M.E.M. and Sam Teicher ’12 B.A., ’15 M.E.M survey the damage done to their coral farm

Gator Halpern ’15 M.E.M. and Sam Teicher ’12 B.A., ’15 M.E.M survey the damage done to their coral farm which was hit with 17 feet of water during Hurricane Dorian. (Photo credit: Carlos Mason)

When the founders of Coral Vita began constructing their land-based coral farm in Freeport, Grand Bahama in August 2018, they knew it had to be able to withstand tropical storms.

Gator Halpern ’15 M.E.M. and Sam Teicher ’12 B.A., ’15 M.E.M built their farm and buildings to withstand a category 5 hurricane and up to nine feet of flood water (four feet above the highest flood level projected for the region).

Six months after their first corals began growing, Hurricane Dorian hit. The “biblical flood,” as Halpern calls it, came crashing in with 17 feet of water, sweeping 20 of their 30 coral tanks out to sea. The remaining tanks were locked up in their lab, which was badly damaged but remained standing.

A coral tank at Coral Vita before Dorian
A coral tank at Coral Vita before Dorian

All their corals, which they grow up to 50 times faster than in nature using a process called microfragmenting, were lost. But in the aftermath of Dorian, the alumni were called to a new, more immediate mission of search and rescue. “We transitioned into direct relief work,” Halpern says, “using our power tools and truck to deliver aid. Our team was one of the first to reach towns east of Freeport where people were stranded.” They helped clear roads, delivered food and water, and brought gas to boat and jet ski owners who were making rescues.

As the Yale alumni traveled through the devastated island delivering needed supplies, they began finding their tanks – 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide fiberglass basins painted bright blue – amid the debris. “We were amazed to find a coral tank in someone’s yard 35 miles east of our farm,” Halpern said. “They told us there was another one in a neighbor’s backyard. The search began.” A friend who had been delivering aid via helicopter alerted them that he’d spotted several of their tanks on a stretch of coastline with mangroves that were clogged with debris, including overturned cars and parts of houses. So far, they’ve found 15 tanks scattered along the coastline. The island was without power and running water for a month, Halpern says, so the rebuilding itself had to wait.

In the last few weeks, the two cofounders and their local team have begun that process – cleaning out the debris, salvaging materials, and restoring damaged buildings. “We had to gut a lot of walls and redo the electrical,” Halpern says. “And we’ve ordered all the technical aquaculture equipment that needs to be replaced, which should show up in the next week or two.” They will build their new storage shelter 19 feet above sea level.

In many ways, Dorian has only reinforced the urgency of Coral Vita’s mission, say the alumni, who met as students at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and launched their startup at Yale. Their mission is to counter the impact of climate change on the world’s corals by rebuilding lost reefs, and, in the process, bring back the diverse ecosystems and the shoreline protection that reefs provide.

Reefs offered critical storm protection on Grand Bahama, notes Halpern. “There’s a coral reef that rings the southern half of Grand Bahama,” he says. “That’s part of the reason why that area was not nearly as damaged as the north shore.”

Reefs provide a natural seawall, he explains. When reefs are present, massive waves will break on them half a mile offshore, cutting wave energy by an average of 97%, and greatly reduce the impact on the shoreline. Healthy reefs provide food for hundreds of millions of people, support a quarter of all marine life and tropical fisheries, and sustain many coastal economies that depend on reef-related tourism. However, more than 50% of the world’s reefs have died already due to climate change-related rising temperatures and ocean acidification, as well as overfishing and pollution, and over 90% of the remaining reefs are projected to die by 2050.

Coral Vita recently launched a foundation dedicated to coral reef restoration, environmental education, and climate disaster adaptation to help communities in the aftermath of storms.

Sustaining coral reefs and other ecosystems like mangroves and oyster reefs is one of the main missions that Coral Vita is working on,” Halpern says. “The value of that has never been more clear.”

Slideshow: rebuilding after Dorian

Photographs by Carlos Mason


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