Humans of Handprint: Meet Ryan Donnelly, CEO of RRF – Nursing Coral Reefs Back to Health

Built On Partnerships
Assisted Reef Recovery


It’s often the individual threads that make the most compelling stories. Welcome to “Humans of Handprint,” a special segment dedicated to shining a spotlight on the incredible individuals who are the driving force behind Handprint’s impactful journey. As we delve into the lives, passions, and experiences of these remarkable people, we discover the heart and soul of our impact partners that thrive on the dedication and inspiration of its diverse team.  Join us on this journey as we get to know the faces and voices that breathe life into Handprint’s mission, and witness firsthand the profound impact they have on the world.

In this chapter of HoH we sat with Ryan Donnelly, CEO at Reef Restoration Foundation, while he shared with us his journey and experiences. 

Ryan Donnelly 

Ryan is the chief executive officer in charge of the operations of Reef Restoration Foundation. He presents ideas to his board, who decides strategies and budgets. In other organisations, the CEO comes up with the strategies and the board signs off. He works with 4 others in his team who manage the reefs and safety regulations. 

After an extensive career dealing with coral reefs, he joined the company in 2020. Before, he has done projects around the world in environmental research, fishing and aquarium industry and foreign aid development. Even throughout his work with corals, he believes he does not know enough about the subject.

“No-one can be an expert.”

The field of restoration is so vast and new developments are being discovered everyday. There are an infinite amount of ways to tackle restoration and the most important job is to share the knowledge. The knowledge RRF uses was first tried out in Florida. 

Restoring Coral Reefs

Restoring coral reefs is a large part of the regeneration that the world needs. In 2016 and 2017, there were two major coral bleaching events; one from a heat wave and the other from a cyclone. Coral bleaching is a byproduct of climate change which is occurring in reefs around the world. 

It was due to these events that the Reef Restoration Foundation was started. At that time, restoration or intervention in the Marine Park was not permitted. Because of the damage done during the cyclone, the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority held a summit, inviting 70 qualified professionals to comment on the existing policies and shape new ones. The government began setting up funding and groups applied to be permitted to carry restoration works, including RRF. 

About Reef Restoration Foundation

They began by establishing the first ocean-based nursery on Fitzroy Island, expanding outwards from there. They brought experts in from other foundations that guided them. The community got behind the project, because protecting the reefs is protecting jobs and livelihoods. 

They begin the process by choosing coral fragments which have broken off and died as well as corals which show the ability to survive. They then attach them to coral trees which are suspended in water away from the stressors to the reef. The coral pieces are then planted into the reef again in clusters that mimic the patterns of the reef. 

Coral Bleaching

Coral Bleaching is an event that is happening world-wide. When the water gets too warm, often a result of climate change, the coral will expel the algae which live inside them. It results in the coral turning white, hence the name. It makes coral more susceptible to diseases and the stress of the reefs.

RRF tackles coral bleaching through two ways; resilience and recovery. By having at least 20 genotypes of each species, they facilitate adaptation and the natural process to surviving nature. By creating an additional reef to what already exists, they are ensuring the reef survives whatever comes.

In terms of recovery, the system allows them to lower the reef into deeper, and thus safer waters when a massive wave comes, so that the species survives. They can be brought up when the event is over and transferred to the main reefs, where the species diversity will help them recover. 


Built On Partnerships

Community is a big aspect of what RRF does. RRF has a small team of highly certified divers and conservationists that work on the reef. Additionally, there are 60 volunteer divers from around the area that work with the team on the projects. The foundation also works with local indigenous groups. 

Tourism is also what funds the economy of the Great Barrier Reef. For that to be possible, the reef needs to be in the best possible condition. Partnerships between tourism agencies and restoration projects is key. RRF is offered seats on all the diving boats going out to their sites that include nurseries, making it possible to have multiple sites.

If you would like to know more about coral reefs, visit Reef Restoration Foundation.