How I Sea: Melody Saunders Brenna

Source: The TerraMar Project - August 16, 2017 in Featured, TMP

How I Sea: Melody Saunders Brenna
Wind farm coral growth base. Image: Reef Life Foundation

Meet Melody, the CEO and Co-Founder of Reef Life Restoration and Foundation, a company with a mission to give the ocean’s corals a helping hand in our changing world.

How long have you personally been studying the marine environment for? And what’s Reef Life Foundation’s Mission?

Raised on horseback in Texas, I had never experienced the beauty of the ocean as a child. After SMU Dallas (marketing) I began my first company that designed hand-painted custom tableware, china and crystal.

Reef Life Restoration

Guyon Brenna and Melody Brenna. Photo: Reef Life Resoration

I was the youngest designer in Saks Fifth Avenue, featured in Washington and Houston where a client wanted an entire set of dinnerware based upon their Calder Mural, which was totally oceanic-themed! I went to their home in Laguna Beach, and completely fell in LOVE with the Ocean from that one piece of artwork.

It’s incredible how a moment so simple can completely change your life’s direction. With my attention firmly caught by the wonder of the ocean, I sought any way in which I could to merge my design talents with the call of the sea.

In 2006, the architectural stone company I founded- Milestone Architectural -was asked by ocean researchers in Florida to help work on a solution that could aid in the fight to save coral reefs.

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by climate change, pollution, and a myriad of other human activities. They rely on a critical relationship with algae called zooxanthellae, and when the corals are stressed by changes in their environment the algae will leave the coral, and the whole organism eventually dies. This process is known as coral bleaching, and it’s happening around the world at unprecedented rates.

Reef Life Restoration

Konstantin Sobolev. Photo: Reef Life Restoration

In Florida, the scientists were alarmed by coral demise along the eastern seaboard and believed that a solution could be to create undersea infrastructure and coral growth compounds to aid the recovery of damaged reefs.

Dr Konstantin Sobolev, global nanomaterials expert, my partner and co-founder wanted to understand everything about hows corals grow. He created studies of calcium carbonates, aragonite, mature coral skeleton layers and diverse coral growth patterns, down to the tiniest nanoparticle.

We paired his studies with our 20 years of architectural and commercial casting operations, and Reef Life Restoration Nanoscience was born.

So how can these structures you design help corals survive in a changing ocean?

To answer that, one of the questions we need to ask, and one of the questions referred to in the new Netflix film ‘Chasing Corals’ is: why do corals exist where they are in the oceans?—Why is it that there are coasts in the tropics with the right conditions, but no coral? That’s because they need some place to land on. This is one of the visionary and substantive elements which guides Reef Life’s work.

Our important contribution is that our structures can replicate everything that corals need to grow – anywhere.

Not only does this mean giving them the correct structure to attach to and grow on, but this also includes replicating their natural ecosystem including all other reef biodiversity. By creating hiding & spawning voids in the structure with a myriad of plant & animal attractants, a coral species’ marine environment can be replicated down to the very last fish.


Photo: Ellmax

Reefs are incredibly diverse ecosystems where every plant and animal plays a critical role to the balance of the system. To make sure corals, and their reef environments persist in a changing ocean, we have to do everything in our power to replicate this complexity.

It’s important to note that we tailor each design to fit the local ecosystem and coral species in place. Coral species can differ greatly in what they need to survive, and so our structures need to accommodate these differences.

The best part about our design is that it can be implemented on any type of infrastructure. From seawalls to wind farms and oil rigs we can create habitat to support coral growth while working with industry. It’s really a win-win thanks to the science of kinematics (the study of position, velocity, and acceleration).

Reef Life Restoration

Reef Life Diving Ruin. Image: Reef Life Restoration

One of the new creations we’ve been working on as well are safe mooring stations for boats to tie up to when they are in a reef location. Anchors can rip up coral reef structures when they are used incorrectly, and this can have a lasting impact on areas that see a high volume of boat traffic. We are calling the mooring station growth habitats, “Ocean Eco Clusters” individual Ecospheres that create a more stable benthic city which, when connected, have a positive effect on the marine biodiversity.

Reef Life Restoration

Mooring station. Photo: Reef Life Restoration


Do you think corals stand a chance if ocean chemistry continues to change at the rates we’re seeing today?

Simply, I believe that there’s always hope for our world’s corals, as long as there are people working to study and protect them. Perhaps not all coral species will survive, but there are definitely some that are proving to be more resilient.

One example I’ll give is of hard coral in our oceans and how they are adapting to a changing world.

The skeletal organic matrix of coral cells at a nanoparticle level is made up of calcium carbonate. Coral polyps attach themselves to this “Bone Structure” of acid rich proteins, which can grow 5 microns a day of a stony coating we know as a hard coral.

Hard corals prefer a pH of 7-8.5, but can actually adapt to more acidic environments. Corals can be affected by mineral deposits, toxin and heat levels, BUT can adapt at an energy level with the right conditions. 

In shallow water environments with strong wave action, hard corals exist that show the greatest promise. These corals may provide much of the regrowth and completely NEW, tougher, more resistant animals that can grow, propagate and colonize in completely new ways.

Reef Life also has the ability to recycle dead corals. Many people ask us to be a “First Responder” when reefs are damaged, and we immediately get to the damage and bring up corals, cast new reef, and replant.

Coral Reef

Photo: Ellmax

How have you seen the marine environment that you study change in your lifetime?

Oceanic viability has deteriorated, and continues in this path so swiftly that it’s difficult to calculate.

Since our research started 2006, I feel that a lifetime of detrimental change has happened before our very eyes. And it took a shocker of a film like ‘Chasing Coral’ to bring this into everyone’s living room so that the impact is inescapable!

Reef Life Restoration

Reef Life meeting with Paul Nicklen in NYC. Photo: Reef Life Restoration

What do you think is the biggest threat to coral reefs? And why?

Climate change is definitely the single most widespread and immediate threat to coral survival. The rest of the threats to (overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution) vary by region.

Toxic runoff from industry can stress corals into bleaching as well, and habitat destruction from boats or anchors can show its scars in high-traffic shallow reefs.

The projects we’re working on in Indonesia are threatened most by overfishing, dynamite fishing, and real destruction by the fishermen.

What motivates yourself and your team to continue this work each day?

For me, it’s the thought of future generations and how to save the ocean for them.  As Sylvia Earle so famously says, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

This is the real drive all of us at Reef Life constantly feel the force of.  Our grandchildren, and their generations to follow—how will we explain to them that we LET this happen and did not take every action in our toolkit to fix it.

How I Sea is a new effort by The TerraMar Project to dive into the minds of our global ocean community. We highlight opinions on conservation issues such as: marine pollution, overfishing, drilling, climate change, marine protected areas, scientific discoveries, and much more. Stay tuned for more.

Sign up today to become a citizen of our global ocean community and sign up for your very own passport to the world’s ocean by visiting us at: www.theterramarproject.org 

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