Scuba Diving - - Currents - BY BROOKE MORTON

As sea tem­per­a­tures con­tinue to rise and threats to co­ral reefs in­crease, there is no mir­a­cle cure — but Fa­bien Cousteau and the Ocean Learn­ing Cen­ter, along with a team of Dutch en­gi­neers, are gam­bling that 3D print­ing just might be a solution.

By re-cre­at­ing the ex­act struc­ture of a co­ral, these printed de­signs can mir­ror the ge­netic makeup of elkhorn, staghorn or any other va­ri­ety, thus in­creas­ing the odds of suc­cess. In Fe­bru­ary, Cousteau and his team de­ployed the first stage of their project: 36 tiles of co­ral off the Caribbean is­land of Bon­aire.

“We are print­ing cas­tles in 3D, so why not print or­ganic un­der­wa­ter cities with or­ganic ma­te­ri­als?” asks Cousteau. By cities, Cousteau means colonies of co­ral where in­di­vid­ual zoox­an­thel­lae, aka sin­gle-cell di­noflag­el­lates, will take up res­i­dence.

“It’s an on­go­ing process to find which or­ganic ma­te­ri­als work best at at­tract­ing zoox­an­thel­lae to these vir­gin build­ings,” he says. “So far, we have for­mu­la­tions that are 100 per­cent or­ganic and that mimic co­ral struc­tures found in na­ture.” Cousteau and his team are await­ing per­mits for in­stal­la­tion of ad­di­tional 3D-printed corals in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands and the Florida Keys.

Mean­while, a Nether­lands-based mar­itime ser­vices provider called Boskalis is also pre­par­ing to de­ploy 3D-printed corals, cre­ated by en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer Astrid Kramer, in the Mediter­ranean Sea off Monaco. Six reef units printed in Italy will be sunk to 89 feet pos­si­bly in early fall. Each took 13 hours to print and is com­posed of dolomite sand and a ma­rine-safe bind­ing agent. Each mea­sures 40 feet by 6 feet, and weighs 2.5 tons. The top half of each unit is rounded, like a mush­room. The lower half re­sem­bles a ham­ster wheel, hol­low with sup­ports on the out­side.

Most ar­ti­fi­cial reefs can’t mimic the nooks and cran­nies of a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring co­ral colony. Kramer’s de­sign — much like Ep­cot’s Space­ship Earth — al­lows polyps to face the sun in myr­iad di­rec­tions, just as they do in the ocean.

More­over, she chose lo­cally dredged sand as the build­ing block for the Monaco project. “So many ar­ti­fi­cial reefs fail be­cause they are un­suit­able for that spe­cific lo­ca­tion,” she ex­plains.

It’s too soon to tell if the reefs will be a suc­cess. For now, Cousteau is work­ing to raise funds.

He adds: “At the end of the day, I don’t want this to be a tech­no­log­i­cal ex­er­cise. We’re do­ing this be­cause we are all hop­ing for tan­gi­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits.”

Fa­bien Cousteau (top) and the Ocean Learn­ing Cen­ter are de­ploy­ing 3D-printed “corals” off Bon­aire.

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