Siddharth Pillai’s first scuba-dive was in 2013 when he was 12 years old. As is the case with most scuba-divers, once he saw the as yet unexplored sea-world, the interest became a passion. From then on, Siddharth scuba-dove regularly, exploring the Indian marine world.
What he did not know was that soon, a dive would shape his life.
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“I was diving in the Andamans in 2018, and I could see the sea-bed plundered. We dive to see and understand this marvellous world beyond the land and yet, when I dove near the islands, there was absolutely nothing to see. The coral reefs were dead and that is the sign that this part of the ocean has ceased to be a habitat of fish,” Siddharth tells The Better India (TBI).
The devastation and isolation he saw made the 17-year-old Mumbaikar resolve to do his bit for the oceans.
A year later, the result is for everyone to see: a first-of-its-kind 3D printed coral reef that aims to help fish habitat and currently being tested in Puducherry and showing promise. We spoke with the eco-warrior about how a Mumbai student, pained at the sight of the depleting underwater life, is helping conserve coral reefs in Puducherry.
A coral reef can be compared to a building where we reside. Any rock or a similar solid structure provides the platform for an underwater ecosystem to flourish. From fish to molluscs, worms and sponges, sea creatures find a home in these ecosystems. Unfortunately, all it takes is uprooting or displacing the rock to demolish the homes of several fish schools. And overfishing, dumping of toxic chemicals as well as trawling has taken the rocks out of their beds, leaving innumerable marine species homeless.
This is what Siddharth, who about to start his class 12, is out to change and though it seems like a complicated procedure to bring back the fish, it really isn’t.
“After the dives in Andaman, I went to Puducherry to dive with Temple Adventures (TA). Here, I met with a marine biologist who explained the importance of coral reefs and how human activities have killed them.
This organisation offered to give me a platform if I wanted to replenish the reefs and since it’s not very easy to get such opportunities, I held on to it,” Siddharth says.
Temple Reef Founndation (TRF) is the conservation wing of TA, that has been actively involved in artificial reef construction since 2013. Their objective is to work towards sustaining India’s marine and coastal resources through the promotion of cutting-edge research, public education and development of innovative methods to conserve and manage India’s biodiversity. TRF had experimented with treated automobile shells, steel frames and concrete but Siddharth wanted to do something unique with the support of the organisation.
Donarun Das, the COO of TA explains that artificial reefs are man-made habitats for marine life. “For a very long time, natural reefs were the safe haven for fish that facilitated their aggregation. But since human activities started destroying it, we are trying to use tested materials to replenish them. These materials will act as structures which the corals will latch on to,” he said.
Taking a leaf out of their book, Siddharth started experimenting with material that won’t negatively affect marine life and can be replicated.
He credits his father, Sudhir, in helping him conceptualise a 3D model of an artificial reef. For a good month and a half, he learned how to use a 3D printer following which he experimented with material that is porous (for the coral to hold on to), non-corrosive (so it doesn’t get damaged in the ocean) and also eco-friendly. With a crowdfunded amount of Rs 2 lakh, Siddharth, with his father’s support, was able to afford this experimentation.
“We finalised a combination of dolomite and cement in a 10-90 per cent ratio. We made a negative mould and asked a mason to make the blocks from this mould. This design is replicable as well as stackable so we can form reefs as high as 1 metre and as wide as 20 metres on the ocean bed. Each block weighs 11 kg and this design was finalised sometime in January-February 2019. Just two weeks ago, we dropped the blocks near Puducherry and now we wait,” Siddharth says.
They experimented first with 5 kg “reef” blocks on September 2018, and were luckily successful. Together with TRF, Siddharth has now arranged 200 blocks off the Puducherry coast.
Christened “Bennington’s Reef”, this “housing” project is a wonderful tribute to the late Linkin Park vocalist, Chester.
Das explains that they took the blocks on a boat, dropped them at the desired location and a few trained divers went underwater to stack them as desired. And now the team awaits for fish to discover this new habitat and start building their homes. Of course, it will take some time to get an entire ecosystem running but divers like Das are confident that it wouldn’t be too long till they start seeing results.
If the system succeeds then Siddharth has asked TRF to use his mould to make more blocks and drop them in the ocean. It won’t be long before we will be able to see the marine wildlife “latching on” to Siddharth’s innovation and calling them their home.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)