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A freediver gets up close to one of the underwater coral sculptures
A freediver gets up close to one of the underwater coral sculptures. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Electricity, broken tanks and exploded cars

Russian fugitive Sergei Polonsky has partnered with marine conservationists to create an underwater sculpture garden

In the turquoise depths off Sihanoukville’s coast lies a strange new structure. With its metal bars stretching out of a Bayon statue in the symmetrical shape of a lotus, it could be a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie.

Its creators, however, say the contraption is the key to preserving the local coral reefs once new tenants settle in.

“We take dying coral to our coral nursery and give them a second chance at life,” said James Mostert, co-founder of Save Cambodian Marine Life, which installed the “electro-reef” in February near Koh Damlong, about 60 kilometres from the mainland.

With conservationists seeking to protect the reefs even as developers aim to profit from them, James Mostert and his local partner, Pierre Kann, have found common ground with Russian fugitive and former billionaire Sergei Polonsky in their quest to save Cambodia’s coral.

Using the seabed next to Koh Damlong as a starting point, which is one of several islands claimed by Polonsky slated for development, the duo aims to make coral growth into a sustainable business model.

Metal frames are used as a ‘coral nursery’. There are also plans to grow coral on tanks
Metal frames are used as a ‘coral nursery’. There are also plans to grow coral on tanks. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“It is the new place for tourist divers to come and explore, so I believe as long as this project is well known, they will love this project,” said Kann.

Kaspars Cekotins, one of Polonsky’s lawyers, said his boss was intrigued by the eco-tourism concept.

“He’s contributing to make it more appealing for tourists,” he said, adding that the businessman, who is wanted in Russia on allegations of fraud and embezzlement, was himself an avid diver.

“The development of artificial reefs and the electro reef is the first of this kind in Cambodia, and he wants to just see how it’s going to work,” Cekotins said.

Ouk Vibol, deputy director of the Department of Fisheries Conservation, said trawling boats threaten the reefs along Cambodia’s coastline with their nets and anchors. While a 440 square-kilometre fishery management area encompasses the Koh Rong archipelago, Vibol said only about 0.1 per cent was designated as a conservation zone.

The electro-reefs might provide a partial solution, he said.

Divers pose around an unfinished structure
Divers pose around an unfinished structure. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“One, it can create artificial breeding ground for fish, and the second is that we can attract tourists to visit that place,” he said, adding that he personally donated money to Save Cambodian Marine Life.

Mostert and Kann started their coral farming last year with 15 non-electrical coral frames near Koh Rong Samloem. To get the coral growing, divers collected recently broken coral pieces scattered in the seabed. Once attached to the metal frames, which are regularly cleaned of algae and fungus, the dying coral can be regrown into thriving colonies.

“You get a lot of broken coral unfortunately from fishing boats that throw their anchors down and hit the reefs,” Mostert said, adding that the saved coral bits have grown up to five times their previous size. After two or three years it can be transplanted back to the natural reefs or kept as breeding stock.

The electro-reefs take the concept a step further by putting a 12-volt current through the frames’ poles. The result is the formation of limestone, which allows the corals’ polyps, the tubular structures used for feeding, to remain extended for longer periods of time.

“It’s like a Viagra for coral,” Mostert joked, adding that the electrical current, which is too weak to harm humans or sea life, caused the coral to grow roughly three times faster.

Low voltage current promotes limestone growth
Low voltage current promotes limestone growth. PHOTO SUPPLIED

While the traditional coral frames are simple metal rectangles, Mostert and Kann are aiming to make the electro-reefs aesthetically pleasing “underwater art” for divers to explore.

“If we can generate more funds to build more electro reefs, we can make more shapes like manta rays, dolphins – you name it,” Mostert said.

It is not just electrical coral, however, that the team hopes to grow. The next step is to create what Kann calls an “underwater war museum” near Koh Tang, which was the site of a battle between US Marines and Khmer Rouge soldiers in the May 1975 “Mayaguez incident”.

The plan, said Kann, was to obtain surplus tanks and helicopters from the Cambodian military and dump them into the sea to serve as coral frames. “They will not just be diving into a wreck – they will also observe Cambodia’s war history,” Kann said.

Kann said he would need extensive government help to get the project moving, though he said a meeting last month with Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen, gave him encouragement.

“I don’t have enough money to spend on military tanks without the government’s cooperation,” he said.

A lotus sculpture before it was put underwater
A lotus sculpture before it was put underwater. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Mostert added that the military hardware could even serve to protect the reefs from trawlers.

“If you put your net down next to a 20-tonne tank, you can imagine whose going to win.”

The project, said Kann, could also be helped by Polonsky, though he admits the Russian tycoon may be hamstrung due to his business troubles.

In recent months, Sihanoukville has been rocked by a feud, which has included allegations of attempted assassinations, between Polonsky and long-time Cambodia-based Russian businessman Nikolai Doroshenko.

Polonsky also still faces local charges of intentional violence and illegal detention after he allegedly threatened six boatmen with a knife and forced them to jump overboard from his yacht in late 2012, although Polonsky’s lawyer Umar Archakov told Post Weekend last month that the businessman had been framed by Russian “enemies”.

Kann said a fire in his car last month may have been an arson attack linked to the feud, though he admitted he never asked for the case to be investigated.

He said he was certain the incident, which occurred while the car was lent to an acquaintance days after a car belonging to Doroshenko exploded while unoccupied, was not connected to the reef project.

The remains of the Mercedes, however, may become the first exhibit of the war museum if marine biologists give their approval.

“The scientists say maybe it is not a good idea, but I’d really love to put it under-water,” he said.

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