Staring at the limestone wall surrounding Windley Key State Park in Islamorada, I can make out polyps of brain coral, tunnels dug by worms, and the filigree of sea fans– all while standing on dry …
Coralpalooza 2016 Helps Save Our Reefs
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist
Threatened coral reefs off Florida are a bit larger and richer today, thanks to some 200 divers who volunteered for Coralpalooza 2016.
The mission of the daylong event held in early June was to take staghorn coral raised in underwater nurseries and plant it in several gardens off the Florida coast. Staghorn was nearly wiped out over the past several decades by white band disease, leading to its designation as a threatened species in 2006. Since then, coral scientists have pioneered strategies and techniques aimed at restoring these reefs to pre-1970s condition.
Four coral research centers– Mote Marine Lab; the Coral Restoration Foundation; University of Miami; and the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University –coordinated the Coralpalooza blitz, guiding the out-planting of 1,865 corals to Florida reefs. And boy, was it fun!
I joined NSU coral researchers Dave Gilliam, Liz Larson and 15 volunteer divers in tending the garden dubbed “Staghorn City” about 20 feet deep off the town of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. First we dived down to the NSU nursery off Fort Lauderdale where we found staghorns growing on some concrete artificial reef modules that resemble large layer cakes. Larson shepherded us over to a stand of Christmas Tree-like structures where segments of coral grown on the artificial reefs hung from monofilament lines like holiday ornaments. We clipped the lines, placed the coral in bins, and brought them up to the boat.
After a short ride, we arrived at Staghorn City and dived down to begin our marine gardening project, which Larson aptly describes as “like going to a plant nursery and then transplanting in your yard.”
First, each team of four to five divers mixed gobs of two-part underwater epoxy by rolling the dough-like stuff around in our palms until it turned a single color. Setting it aside, we used wire brushes to scrape sand and algae away from small sections of the hard bottom substrate so that the epoxy would stick. Then we gently picked up a segment of the staghorn we’d taken from the Christmas trees, and let it fall about a foot to see how it would land. That told us the best position to glue it to the bottom. Pinching off a Hershey Kiss-sized dab of epoxy, we stuck it to the substrate and carefully pressed the coral down into it. Larger segments required more than one spot of glue. We repeated this process until all the coral we had collected from the nursery was transplanted. Over two dives with a break for lunch in between, the group successfully planted 315 corals.
When our dive team had finished its work, Larson took us on an underwater tour of the garden, which sported numerous lush, maize-colored stands of staghorn. I couldn’t tell whether it was “farmed” or had been there for years. One particularly-healthy looking section, Larson told us, was only a year old.
While most coral species are very slow-growing at about one centimeter per year, staghorn grows much more quickly– about ten centimeters annually, according to Larson. Not as delicate as other species, it forms new colonies when branches break off and adhere to the bottom. So it does fine when being handled by diver-farmers.
We returned to the boat thoroughly pleased with our effort. Said one diver from Tampa: “It gives you a new appreciation for the coral reef when you are diving on it.”
I’m hoping for a Coralpalooza 2017 return trip to Staghorn City to see how our garden has grown.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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