As soon as he was able to walk, Tom Goreau ’70 was swimming in the warm waters off Jamaica, where he grew up. He remembers water so always clear and blue he could see even the corals and marine life covering the bottom. His father was diving below, releasing waves of bubbles that Goreau would follow. This was in the 1950s, before diving equipment was commercially available. Thus, Goreau’s father – Thomas Fritz Goreau, considered the first specialist in marine diving – built equipment from scratch that allowed him to dive to a few hundred feet. “He probably held the world record for scuba diving with compressed air at the time,” says his son. Goreau’s grandfather, Fritz Goro, was the inventor of macro photography – with extreme close-ups of small objects – and the first to use it underwater. Together, Goreau’s grandfather and father took some of the earliest photographs of corals. Her mother, Nora Goreau, also had a notable connection to the sea: she was the first Panamanian marine biologist.
Goreau – whose family story is told in the new documentary Coral ghosts—Witnessed for seven decades the constant global decline of coral reefs, which have degraded into fields of rubble and algae. “My expertise is how were the reefs,” he says. In a nutshell – magnificent. “And now they’re basically gone, like Hiroshima looked the day after the atomic bomb.”
In the 1980s, building on his undergraduate degree in planetary physics from MIT (and his graduate degrees at Caltech and Harvard), Goreau pioneered the use of collected sea surface temperatures. by satellites to predict how much the corals would turn white. But we are well beyond this threshold. Climate change has cooked and bleached corals. The acidification of the oceans dissolved them. And local pollution sealed their fate.
As chairman of the nonprofit Global Coral Reef Alliance (GCRA), Goreau helps local and indigenous people identify the stressors that are killing their local reefs and how to reduce this negative impact. He targets his message to older fishermen “because only they can remember what it was,” he says. Younger audiences are less receptive – the teeming marine life stories of their elders are like myths to a generation that knows coral reefs as weak places barely able to support a few small fish.
But Goreau found a way to help: a system he adapted, called Biorock. He and his small GCRA team weld webs of steel rebar together, plunge them underwater to where the reefs once stood, and stream them through them. Over time, a thickening limestone crust develops to cover and strengthen the canvas. They graft coral fragments there, which continue to grow and sometimes exceed the original structure. The result attracts many sea creatures and protects eroded beaches from waves (as reefs once did). Biorock can also be used to restore other marine habitats such as seagrass beds and salt marshes, notes Goreau. It’s a way, he explains, to “regenerate the ecosystem and work with people who are trying to save the last bit of what they have.” He has built around 700 of these man-made reefs and hopes they could help somehow make a difference.
One of the places he’s settled is the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific. In the 1940s, the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll were forcibly evacuated to the other islands so that the United States could test their atomic bombs. Today, Goreau hopes his electrified reefs can protect these islands from flooding and sea level rise. Bikini Atoll was also the place where, decades ago, his father and grandfather were started their photography work. Some 25 years later, while Goreau was studying at MIT, his father – like many displaced people from Bikini Atoll – died from accumulated radiation exposure.
The underwater world that Goreau knew as a boy, and all that it was filled with, is long gone. It leaves him feeling “very much like someone who is the last member of a dying culture,” he says – a man who knew of an ocean that now only exists in his family’s albums of faded photographs.