How the School met the Reef

14 March 2023
Samara Polwatta

Passion for corals

Sri Lanka is an island. Our identity is defined by the splendour of the blue resources surrounding us. I developed my passion for the ocean with gratitude to three individuals. Senior lecturer Ravinandana Gamachchige, journalist and conservationist Sudarsha De Silva and marine biologist Nishan Perera. They were the mentors who guided me on my path to learning more about these rainforests of the ocean.

A coral reef health survey was done by  Samara Polwatta.
Photo credit: Blue Resources Trust 2018

I took my first breath of air through a SCUBA tank in 2016. It was an exhilarating feeling to see life underwater in a small patchy reef in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. The experience made me more curious to become involved in coral reef conservation. Afterwards, I worked as an intern at the Blue Resources Trust marine consultancy . I was mentored by Nishan Perera and Akshay Tanna from 2016-2019. I learnt underwater surveying for reef health and fish abundance through this experience.

These surveys took place on the Kayankerni coral cove off the east coast of Sri Lanka. There, I saw this resilient reef that had acres of Porites domes which were around 500 years old. Small bush-like Acropora and Pocilopora along with cabbage-like Montipora were arranged parallel to the shoreline. After that experience, I became curious to understand the reef’s biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to local communities and the environment. Thereafter, I also received guidance to create the first high-resolution coral reef map of Sri Lanka at the species level. This was a significant milestone in my journey with the ocean,. This map was later used to declare the Kayankerni coral cove a Marine National Park.

Surveying the substrate of Kayankerni coral cove for mapping led by Nishan Perera, Akshay Tanna, Rose Brown, Anusha Bishop and Samara Polwatta.
Photo credit: Blue Resources Trust 2018

Need for restoration

While the reef is resilient, it also faces many threats from human activity. As an age-old tradition, communities have mined the corals to produce quicklime for construction purposes. This causes sedimentation, which is a growing threat as nutrients from rivers are washed into the ocean, causing algal blooms. Other threats to the reef include harmful fishing activities such as dynamite fishing, ghost nets and damage from the anchorage. It has always been my passion to bring the reef back to health by raising community awareness and encouraging active coral rehabilitation.

During my Masters, a  call was made for applications by the Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. Their unique program; Student Challenge on Nature-based Solutions, paved the way to make my conservation dreams come true. I managed to team up with four other young Sri Lankan activists who shared the same passion for nature and corals. They are ;Palindi Kalubowila, Chamil Karunathilaka, Bhagya Jayasundara and Pathumini Jayamanne. We wanted to merge the two concepts of ocean literacy and restoration, and hence “The School meets the Reef” was born. Our team was mentored by Marine Ecologist; Cas Digens who represented Arcadis.

Meeting the reef

Last July, we managed to find a site for our project: Kalkudah, located south of the Kayankerni Marine National Park on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The former jetty served as a natural harbour during British rule and is home to the endemic parrotfish Chlorurus rhakoura. It is also a hatching area for the endangered turtle species Chelonia mydas and Lepidochelys olivacea.Endowed with more than 210 reef fish species, as well as several coral species including Acropora, Montipora, Porites and Pocilopora, the site is in urgent need of restoration to protect its rich biodiversity. Therefore ,this became our site.

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The baseline survey was done by team member Bhagya Jayasundara and MEPA officers Mr Thayaruben and Mr Prasanna
Photo credit: Chamil Karunatilaka 2022

After testing several parameters such as salinity, water quality, depth and pH, we found the site suitable for restoration through coral recruitment. Despite the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, which is affecting transportation, our team along with several volunteers from Earthlanka and the collaboration of the Marine Environmental Authority managed to deploy three reef balls into the site with around 50 fragments of Acropora and Porites attached to them. These heavy reef balls would not have made it to the ocean without the local fisherman’s immense support, who had their “oruwa” artisanal fishing boat ready.

Back to school

Secondly, we also conducted two sessions on ocean literacy for 42 students living within the vicinity of Kalkudah. The program mainly focused on the importance of coastal ecosystems and how to conserve them. Interactive sessions were also part of the program and included the modelling of coastal ecosystems, as well as SCUBA diving. 


Seven months have passed since our initial deployment. We saw results every month with continuous monitoring efforts led by Chamil and other divers from among the Earthlanka volunteers. Based on these sessions, we found our methods to be both successful and replicable. Acropora had grown by 3–5 millimetres as measured from the last monitoring session in January. Although monitoring was difficult during the offseason due to strong winds and turbid water, we could still observe the growth of these coral fragments.

Fourth monitoring session in January 2023
Photo credit :Chamil Karunathilaka
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The winning moment of the best Nature-based solution at the Wageningen University Student challenge
Photo credit: Mareva Meulemans

Path to COP27

With these tangible outcomes and the vast number of private-public stakeholders involved in our project, School Meets the Reef won the title of “Best Nature-based solution” amongst the other eight projects submitted by fellow teams to the WUR Student Challenge. This gave our team the opportunity to bring our story to COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. It was presented at the Action hub and received considerable praise for its actionable objectives. It was a proud moment for the whole team to represent the efforts of Sri Lankan youth.

Our collective goal is to enter the second phase of our project and build further linkages with stakeholders both within Sri Lanka and globally. We hope to enable the coral reefs to become even more resilient and make the local community aware of the importance of these valuable ecosystems.

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Representing the team at the COP27 Action Hub event on “ Youth initiatives on Nature-Based Solutions” organized by Wageningen University and Research
Photo credit: Aya Mounier

Samara Polwatta

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Supporting partners 2023

Supporting partners

The Restoration Stewards program provides funding, mentorship and training to deepen the impact of youth-led restoration projects. The year-long program is run by the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) under the banner of Generation Restoration to support and highlight the work of eight young restoration practitioners and their teams in 2023.

During the program, the Restoration Stewards and their teams are  supported to further develop their project and serve as ambassadors at both global and local levels. Globally, the Restoration Stewards share their journeys in a series of vlogs and blogs documenting their stories of inspiration and challenges and participate in different international events to showcase their work. Locally, they are sparking a restoration movement, mobilizing local communities and creating pathways to connect, share, learn, and act for livelihoods and landscapes.