After arriving in Bali, the Flying Classroom drove four hours up and over the highlands to Pemuteran Bay on the northern shore. There, we had the opportunity to spend a day in the sea building artificial reefs with Celia Gregory, an eco-sculptor and founder of the Marine Foundation. After our dive, we sat down with Celia to learn more about her vision for re-growing our seas, one coral at a time.

What is the Marine Foundation?
The Marine Foundation is an eco-arts organization that I created. We’re based in the UK, but we work on projects internationally. I am taking scientific ideas for the preservation of coral reefs and marine ecosystems and adding an artistic perspective to it.

Have you always been an artist?
Yes, I spent my childhood running around wonderful art galleries in London. I was always interested in nature, too. My love of nature has always been an inspiration for my art.

How did you get the idea for the Marine Foundation?
I was no longer content with art just for art’s sake. I felt that with the environmental crisis we are facing, I—as a creative person—really needed to find a new way to approach environmental issues.

What did you find?
I just felt that the way people were approaching ocean conservation didn't seem to be effective. Everything was being done in a very negative way and the problems were still getting worse. So I thought, “Let's try to make this really positive!” Then when I started to dive, I saw that you could put things under the water called artificial reefs to regenerate marine ecosystems. It was scientific theory at that point. I wondered, ‘Why can't it be creative as well?’ That’s when I started to see how tourism could bring the environment, art and economy together to create a kind of positive system.

What do you mean by a positive system?
I mean something where everybody is benefiting. We’re not just taking something, consuming it, and then leaving something that has no kind of ongoing life. Through this program, fish are growing, tourism is coming in, the local people are making money, and we’re leaving a healthy ecosystem for future generations.

All photos by Oliver Uberti

What exactly is a reef?
In Bali, we’re dealing with what’s known as a tropical coral reef ecosystem. Corals are actually an animal and algae that live together in a symbiotic relationship. They form all of these beautiful calcium carbonate structures in all different colors. Indonesia is in “The Coral Triangle,” which is considered to be the rain forest of the ocean. The biodiversity is phenomenal. You have little baby fish living in there, and then the bigger schools of snapper swimming around the reef, and then the really big predators. Corals form the basis for this highly complicated system, but it's very fragile.

What was happening to the reef here in Pemuteran Bay?
Ten years ago, the reef was almost completely dead. It was suffering from a number of things. There’s a lot of dynamite fishing here in Asia, which is where they drop dynamite in the water to catch fish. They probably catch a very small proportion of what actually dies, but they destroy the reef. They also use something here called cyanide fishing, which is where they use cyanide to stun fish for use in the aquarium industry and for live-trade eating.

What’s live-trade eating?
When you're in a restaurant in China, for example, you’ll see fish in a tank. They will have used cyanide to stun these fish to catch them, but the cyanide will also have killed the coral. Bali then experienced a natural phenomenon called El Niño, which caused mass bleaching, but because the reef was already under stress it didn't recover very well.

El Niño?
El Niño is the name for a kind of natural occurring phenomena where the ocean temperatures rise. Coral are very sensitive and can only live within a very small temperature band. So when water temperatures go above a certain level, the coral bleaches and dies. Normally in a natural event, the water temperature would eventually drop back down to normal and everything would stabilize. What's happening with global warming is that these events are lasting much longer, the temperatures are rising much higher, and so there's much greater coral reef mortality. Also, the reefs are more stressed because of the dynamite and cyanide fishing, so their capability to cope with these scenarios has been very weakened.

Do fishermen still use dynamite and cyanide here?
The community of Pumeteran saw that something very bad was happening. Social entrepreneurs decided to set up a hotel and fund the initiative to start a marine conservation program here. The community actually stopped people from using destructive fishing methods. And then they then set up this Bio-rock conservation program.


What is Bio-rock?
It’s a scientific technique that uses metal sculptures and electricity to help the coral grow back more quickly.

How are they built?
The structures that we put in the coral garden are made from steel rebar, a standard building material here. They bend and shape it into these amazing shapes to form whatever sculpture they need. These forms are then welded together, so they're super strong. Because they’re metal with lots of space in between means they're very heavy—which is good for anchoring them down—but also, there's no resilience. In other words, if it was a solid structure and a wave hit it, there's a good chance it would topple over. Because there are gaps, then any movement of water can flow through them. Once a sculpture is constructed, it gets towed out to the location either on a boat or with inflated life jackets. Then they will sink it and wire it up.

Then what?
Then we'll collect coral from around the reef. Baby corals or corals that have been whacked off by divers. These little broken fragments can be tied on, and then they'll regenerate. Coral is a competitive species. If they're growing very close to each other, they'll start to throw acid at each other. So actually by separating them, we can make them grow even bigger than they would have if we'd kept them together.

It's similar to growing carrots in a vegetable garden. If you kept all the seeds together, the carrots would stay very small. So what you do is you take little seedlings and you separate them, and they grow into big carrots.

Do you think of yourself as a gardener?
Definitely. Instead of just being people that extract from the sea, we're now becoming guardians for it. We've got special areas where people aren't allowed to walk on the reef, special areas where you enter into the water if you want to swim, special areas where boats have to come through. Just like a garden on land, if you don't have a pathway running through the flowerbeds, no flowers will grow.

How does the electricity help?
The electricity actually helps the coral grow. There’s a metal framework and a titanium mesh with positive and negative charges going to each one. This creates a localized positive field within the water. That positive charge attracts calcium carbonate out of the water and onto the metal, which binds the coral to the metal fairly quickly.

Where does the electricity come from?
We started with cables running from the land. Then I installed a wind energy structure in 2011. That was an amazing learning curve for all of us. Now we’re using solar. I think the corals really like it because it fluctuates with the clouds and the sun, and you know, nothing in nature is constant. Everything in nature has a kind of natural dance to it.

How long does it take the corals to grow on the structures?
A few days. The moment you put the metal underwater it's turning white.


Who makes the sculptures?
The team at Bio-rock center. They have made some unbelievable art pieces like the turtle and the hammerhead shark.

What about you?
When I came here in 2010, they were using very basic geometric structures. I was like, well, let's be more artistic. So I made a female figure sitting on a beautiful lotus flower covered in coral. Once we did that, the community then realized that you didn't have to make a square box. Now there are a total of sixty Bio-rock structures in the bay.

How has the community embraced the project?
I work with a team from the community and they all love what they do. So, you know, they're the best spokesmen really for the fact that you can earn a good living by doing good for your environment. They're incredibly proud of what they've done here. They won an award two years ago, where they actually won 20,000 US dollars that was then fed back into the community. Everybody in the village now knows it's doing incredibly well. In fact, they've been invited to do projects all over Indonesia.

Does this project change their view of tourism?
Bio-rock is a program that has worked, but it's taken ten years to work. So, it took great vision on the part of people at the beginning. Most people in the world are so motivated by short-term profit. That’s the biggest challenge that environmental programs face. How do you quantify the environmental benefits that people are going to get? This location now is starting to receive very strong economic benefits. We can now prove that. So people from Pemuteran can go and speak to other communities at the beginning of their programs and say, “If you stick with this, you'll make money in the future.”


How can followers of the Flying Classroom help?
Like Barrington did, they can pay to have names sculpted out of metal wire. That supports the community and the management of this project. Then we take your name and put it on one of the structures with the little baby coral. So you're part of the reef forever and also helping the community make this an ongoing success.

Amazing! Bio-rock really is art and science coming together. It’s cool for kids to know that they can still help out in the oceans even if they're not marine biologists.
I personally believe that everybody on this planet is creating, whether you're a little flower creating your little flower or if you're a scientist creating through your scientific study. Creativity is how you approach whatever you do in your life. You can enter into your education to do a specific job. But the truth of it is that in twenty years, the job that you're doing, you may have completely created yourself.