The Successful Coral Garden

The project begins in Bonaire. Three years ago here, I completed my Open Water with the local dive operation “Wannadive”. They have a history of protecting and conserving ecosystems that we enjoy as divers here, and they have been involved in many projects to that effect, including creating and managing coral trees to help in the recovery of elkhorn and staghorn coral.

The Coral Garden of Wannadive

Algae, tropical stroms and hotter water have damage the Caribbean’s Staghorn and Elkhorn reefs. But scuba divers are helping the corals back on track. These corals, which mainly grow in the shallow water, are important. They serve as a breeding ground for the entire reef and they protect the coastline. The absence of these corals is a serious attack on the fish population.

WannaDive owner, Bart Snelder, tells an enthusiastic story about the coral gardens: “Our breeding method is designed to support the growth of these hard corals and accelerate their recovery.”

In collaboration with the Coral Restoration Foundation, several diving schools have set up coral  gardens, often in places where the coral had been badly damaged. Bart says:  “WannaDive also has a coral garden under our management. We take care of the coral garden ourselves, but we still consult with the foundation about the best approaches.”

The maintenance of the garden is fairly simple but very labor-intensive. Three or four times a week we have to dive to the coral garden for a few hours at a time. The coral cuttings are vulnerable, and we need to keep them clean. They must be free from parasites, water fleas, water worms, algae and crabs. In this way the coral cuttings grow quickly. If they are big enough, the cuttings are then placed on a rack. Eventually the cuttings are stuck added to the reef with a special epoxy.

Bart continues: “The coral gardens are funded by donations and the income out of courses and training that WannaDive provides. Individuals who get their diving certificate often also volunteer to help maintain the coral gardens.”

In the meantime, the coral gardens have also been propagated independently, a successful sign!

Bart’s story got me excited about using the coral garden as a subject for the underwater photoshoot. The coral garden is beautiful and provides a good location for a photoshoot. The installation is a fairly simple structure that is anchored in the ground and kept upright by buoys. Small pieces of coral are hang there like Christmas ornaments.

The photoshoot was also made possible by the effort of some dedicated volunteers:

Model:Emma van der Veen
UnderwaterPhotographerNoustha Koeckhoven
Safety diverJullian Baker Echavarria
Bubble makerNorman van Holst
Backstage videoBryan Rolfe and Tamanaé Vargas - Salazar
Dive centerWannaDive Bonaire
Music backstage videoMichiel van Bokhorst

Pre-dive briefing. Left to right: Norman, Jullian, Noustha, Emma

For this photo, I wanted to take a literal interpretation of “coral garden”. Normally one maintains a garden by watering it with a watering jug, but of course the coral has enough water already. So instead of water coming from the spout, I decided to use air bubbles. The coral garden is at a depth of about 4 meters, and the model has to pose without air or a mask – so it is very important that important that she feels comfortable underwater. Luckily, Emma, my model, has years of diving experience, and this was no problem for her.

To ensure a smooth operation, we discussed everything well beforehand, as communication underwater is much more difficult. Once down, we could only communicate with sign language or by writing instructions on my slate.


Waterproof make up and braided hair.

Every diver had a task. Julian, the safety diver, provided the air supply for the model. He carried an extra dive tank with a long hose attached to a regulator. Emma signaled when she needed air through sign language. Between poses, Emma put on her mask again so she could see the rest of the team and get instructions for what to do for the next shot. In the meantime, Norman ensured that air bubbles from the watering jug continuously flowed through a garden hose.

Communicate with the slate

Since the photoshoot was new for almost everyone involved, we did everything step-by-step. We began with allowing Emma get used to posing underwater without an air supply. Once the poses were mastered, we then added the air hose to create rising bubbles from the watering jug.

During the photoshoot, Bryan (on the first day) and Tama (on the second day) filmed the photoshoot to document the whole process (you can see this video online).

The whole thing would be far too easy if nothing went wrong. On the first day, after spending hours in preparation, and in spite of the excellent work of the model and team, there was a malfunction with the camera mid-dive. Fortunately, the team was enthusiastic enough to try again for another day.

In some ways, the second try was a gift, as we were able to improve on a number of points after reviewing the first day’s photos. I bought a longer garden hose so that the “bubble maker” and the safety diver wouldn’t be in each other’s way. I also decided to take the picture from a different angle to provide a better backdrop for the shot.

The second time around things went much more smoothly. Everyone already knew what the tasks were and therefore little explanation was needed. I even decided to experiment with some different effects, like throwing sand behind the model. In the end, though, I chose the photo without sand, as it gave too much action to an otherwise peaceful scene.

After the photoshoot, the work for the dive team was over, but was only just beginning for me. The first, and perhaps biggest challenge, was to pick just one photo out of many. Once selected, post-processing began, where I made necessary corrections. These include eliminating the bubble-making garden hose, color corrections (in particular removing the blue cast), and making several minor enhancements.

Though I have done many underwater photoshoots over the years, this one was the first of its kind for me, and presented some new and interesting challenges. My hope is that it will just be the first of many highlighting the efforts that people around the world are making to protect our ocean ecosystems.

Noustha Koeckhoven