Notes from the reefs of Sri Lanka: A restoration journey

The School Meets the Reef initiative began as a humble seed project during the Nature-Based Solutions Challenge organized by Wageningen University in 2022. Little did we know that this seed would germinate into a powerful force for coral restoration and advocacy.

Winning moment at the WUR Nature based solutions challenge, photo by WUR

Becoming an Ocean Restoration Steward

In 2023, I had the privilege of donning the mantle of an Ocean Restoration Steward. This role allowed me to amplify my enthusiasm and collaborate with my dedicated team at School Meets the Reef. Together, we became the voice of the coral reefs – a bridge connecting Sri Lanka’s youth with the vastness and significance of our oceans. 

During my term as a Restoration Steward, I learned crucial skills in project and team management and designed activities to bring together local communities and deepen their impact on Sri Lanka’s oceanic ecosystems.

My time with the program was certainly very busy, as at the same time that I was leading this hands-on restoration project, I was also juggling working as a consultant for UNDP and finishing my Master’s thesis. 

The effort, however, was certainly worth it. Being a part of the program helped me secure a PhD opportunity at the University of British Columbia (UBC),  where I am currently working with Professor Amanda Vincent, the cofounder of Project Seahorse.

My research at UBC is an extension of my restoration work with reefs and associated species, as I will be investigating seahorses in Sri Lanka, with a particular interest in trade, fisheries, ecology and habitat.

Guided by a mentor

During this restoration journey, I reconnected with an extraordinary mentor: Nishan Perera. Nishan, who I had the pleasure of collaborating with prior to my time as a Restoration Steward, is a leading Sri Lankan marine biologist and coral reef ecologist, serving as the director of the Blue Resources Trust (BRT). His wisdom, passion and unwavering commitment fueled our mission.

At a conference with Nishan and the BRT team in 2019. Shehan Boteju

Taking restoration to new heights

Our project expanded beyond mere enthusiasm. We delved into monitoring, evaluation and the expansion of our impact on my home country’s reefs.  

As we started our work with the Restoration Stewards program, we managed to plant one species of coral –  Acropora – and we were happy to place three reef balls, the technology we adopt to conduct our restoration efforts, in one of our nurseries. 

By the end of 2022, these corals had grown by 3–5 mm. Throughout 2023, we added three more reef balls containing Acropora and Porites coral species to our nurseries, and by the end of the year, we also saw a growth in these new coral polyps of 3–5 mm.

By joining forces with BRT, we reached countless different communities and stakeholders to join us in our activities, including students, fishers, tour guides and local leaders. Together, we nurtured a sense of ownership and responsibility for our marine ecosystems. 

With the help of BRT, we have reached over 190 students from eight schools in the vicinity of our project, with the ultimate goal of encouraging the protection of corals and raising awareness of the importance of tackling plastic pollution.

A global stage

We’re very thankful to the Global Landscapes Forum for providing us with a global platform. Our work resonated across continents, thanks to the many opportunities that were offered to us through the Restoration Stewards program.

Our journey was featured on ThinkLandscape, Jadi PNS and the Restoration Stewards blog, spreading awareness far and wide. Another highlight was being able to share insights, exchange ideas and connect with like-minded conservationists during GLF Nairobi 2023, as were the many other activities I was able to be a part of.

These platforms propelled our initiative, garnering support from government bodies and international organizations. Our purpose was no longer local: it became a shared vision for a healthier planet.

Gratitude and beyond

I cannot express enough gratitude for this program. It has equipped me, a young steward, with wings to soar. But this isn’t the end. My collaboration with the GLF continues. The Restoration Alliance beckons, promising new collaborations, shared victories and a thriving future for our oceans.

So, let’s keep writing our notes from the reef – a symphony of hope, resilience and restoration.