Why Hong Kong has the toughest coral in the world, and how agnès b is on a mission to help save it

The French scientific vessel Tara, brainchild of agnès b owner Agnès Troublé, is on a two-year mission to explore Pacific corals. It called in on Hong Kong where it discovered that Hong Kong coral is surprisingly resilient

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 8:43pm

The large schooner berthed at Central Pier 9 earlier this month had travelled some 32,400 nautical miles before arriving in Hong Kong.

The French research vessel Tara set sail from Lorient, northern France, in May 2016 and is on an epic two-year oceanographic mission to explore the coral reefs of the Pacific. On its 10-day port call in Hong Kong the 16-person team, known as “Taranauts”, hosted hundreds of visitors, but they were here primarily to study coral.

“Hong Kong is an interesting place to sample coral because of the economic development and its impact on ocean biodiversity; we look at the impact of the pollution,” says scientist Sarah Romac from Roscoff, France, speaking in the vessel’s wet laboratory.

The biggest surprise, the team found, was local coral’s resilience.

The Tara Pacific 2016-18 expedition is not a French government, European Union or official university initiative. Backers of the foundation that runs the project are associated more with the catwalk than the laboratory.

The Tara project is the brainchild of Parisian fashion designer Agnès Troublé owner of the label agnès b and her son Etienne Bourgois, who bought the 36-metre aluminium sailing vessel in 2003. She started her fashion and design empire in a Paris shop in 1975. Today it has 2,100 employees and more than 332 stores and outlets around the world, including 25 in Hong Kong.

Cynics might expect a marine scientific project initiated by a well-known fashion house to be more focused on stylish crew uniforms than high-level scientific investigation, but as one of Hong Kong’s leading coral scientists is keen to point out, that is definitely not the case with Tara.

David Baker, assistant professor at University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science, insists that the Tara expeditions are all about “absolutely essential hard science”. Four members of his laboratory team assisted the Taranauts in a coral sampling mission in local waters.

By all accounts, the Tara Expedition Foundation has never been just an exercise in corporate social responsibility or a wealthy family’s vanity project.

In the boat’s crowded saloon, the executive director of the foundation, Romain Troublé (a nephew of Agnès) illustrates the group’s scientific credentials. He slaps a copy of the journal Science, dated May 22, 2015, on the table with a cover headline that reads “A world of plankton”.

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The edition reports the findings of the Tara’s previous Oceans Expedition (2009-13), which involved the collection of plankton samples from 600 locations around the world. The project enabled the creation of catalogues of species and genes on a scale never before undertaken.

By continuing the investigation of the biggest database compiled on the planktonic ecosystem, researchers from France’s leading scientific laboratories, including the French National Centre for Scientific Research, achieved a new milestone by analysing the expression of more than 100 million genes belonging to complex organisms, from microscopic algae to small planktonic animals.

“After we had our plankton research published in Science, our scientific credibility was established,” says Troublé.

They are now partnered with 27 of the world’s best-known research institutes, including Nasa and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Ten partner laboratories send up to seven scientists to us for about one month at a time,” he says, and goes on to outline the importance of the current expedition.

“We are trying to establish how coral actually works, by sampling at 35 different reefs with three locations on each reef.”

The Taranauts, he adds, have already visited 25 locations between Panama and Japan.

In all the trip will equate to 20,000 samples and 3,500 dives. It is on a scale never attempted before, over the Pacific Ocean, which is home to about 40 per cent of the world’s coral.

Coral health is important, because these fragile ecosystems are widely regarded as the nurseries of the seas and oases of marine life. Although they cover less than 0.2 per cent of the ocean floor, they represent 30 per cent of all marine diversity. Tara scientists believe even a minor increase in sea surface temperature of about 0.5 per cent is likely to produce cataclysmic levels of coral bleaching.

Hong Kong’s corals may be the strongest on Earth, as they have survived more than a century of coastal development
David Baker, assistant professor at University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science

The boat is essentially a floating data gathering platform, granting ecologists, marine biologists, plankton experts and oceanographers from the world’s leading institutes access to big data from a wide geographical spread. It also conducts its own investigations.

On-board experts, including Romac, a plankton molecular ecologist from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, collaborate to establish an extensive genomic, genetic, viral and bacterial on-site analysis of coral biodiversity.

“What we are seeing is that although climate change is a stress factor, the impact is heterogeneous even between sites on the same reef. Local stresses such as sewage, sedimentation and overfishing also make an impact,” says Troublé.

It is those stresses that brought Tara to Hong Kong’s coastline, which is routinely subject to all three.

While unspoilt coral reefs in exotic locations make for stunning underwater videos, these scientists are equally interested in coral communities located in the murky waters of highly developed Hong Kong. Here, local coral communities appear to have developed an unusual resilience to both climate change and intensive urban development. Local scientists are keen to collaborate with the Taranauts to investigate how Hong Kong’s special corals manage to survive, when they are subject to such persistent abuse.

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“Hong Kong’s corals may be the strongest on Earth, as they have survived more than a century of coastal development,” Baker says. His team at the Swire institute are keen to compare local coral data with other data sets and work with the Taranauts to try and understand what makes Hong Kong corals so special.

“Scientists in Hong Kong can compare familiar local reefs with our data gathered over many different sites, and that is of great interest to them,” Troublé says.

After leaving Pier 9, Tara spent two days sampling at Ngo Mei Chau (Crescent island), about two nautical miles north east of Plover Cove, and at Sham Wan (Turtle Bay), in the south of Lamma Island. At both sites the Taranauts were joined by four members of the Baker’s team: Shelby McIlroy, Jane Wong, Vriko Yu and Till Röthig, who all dived at the sites.

“We targeted the coral Porites lobata [also known by the common name lobe coral, which is a species of stony coral],” Röthig says.

“Additionally, plankton and sediment samples were taken. We saw a lot of different corals, maybe 20 to 30 species, but only targeted the Porites for Tara’s comparative sampling effort.”

Röthig explains how, once underwater, his team first take photographs of the coral colonies, then use a hammer and chisel to break off tissue from the colonies.

Those small samples are stored in sterile ziplock bags before being transported to the Tara on completion of the dive. Once on board, the samples are split seven ways and preserved by flash-freezing in liquid nitrogen, or with chemicals such as formaldehyde, for further processing at the respective destination institute.

“In the end we get a picture of population, structure, symbiotic association with algae, bacteria, viruses, health or stress state,” he says, adding that the high tolerance of Hong Kong’s corals makes them fascinating.

“It’s a small but important piece of this gigantic scientific puzzle which Tara is trying to solve,” he says.

Romac says the on board team will report back once the detailed analysis is complete. “We will compile a health report on Hong Kong’s corals in collaboration with our partners at Swims [the Swire institute],” she says, before the vessel’s departure for the western shores of Taiwan.

Diving for coral samples in the chilly waters of Crescent island on a misty morning is far removed from the urbane world of European haute couture, but the unlikely connection means Tara crew adopt a subtly untypical style in their scientific research.

“We want to interest the public in the state of their marine ecosystems,” says Romac.

She believes the inclusion in the Taranauts team of journalists producing high quality newsletters and online videos, plus an artist interpreting the ocean from a completely different perspective, is an integral part of the project. The Tara makes a determined effort to engage with those outside the rarefied confines of the ocean research community and demonstrate that great science, such as great design, can profoundly inspire people.

“This is not just a scientific adventure, it’s a human adventure too,” she says.