Volunteer diving with Rescue a Reef

Today was the day! We finally got to join Rescue a Reef on one of their coral restoration outings with Paradise Divers out of Key Biscayne. We had been in touch with Rescue a Reef for what seemed like forever, but with weather problems and travel conflicts it never worked out for us – until today! Whoo Hoo!

Rescue a Reef is a coral restoration program from the University of Miami and allows for volunteers, or citizen scientists, to learn about and participate in coral cleaning, maintenance, and replanting efforts. It’s a great hands on experience for divers, snorkelers and a wonderful way to learn about and pass along the message about this all-important cause. They focus on restoring endangered or threatened local staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) and have built a coral nursery out in Key Biscayne from which they harvest pieces of growing coral and use these to repopulate local reefs.

Pieces of staghorn coral

The process takes love and attention, and they are always looking for volunteers to help process the coral, which is a delicate operation. This is especially tricky when underwater and managing tools while maneuvering around the reef doing tasks.

The first step was a training session put on by senior research associate Stephanie Schopmeyer of the Lirman / Benthic Ecology Lab at the University of Miami. Using mock up models, she outlined our tasks before we left on the Diver’s Paradise boat. She showed us what was to come and how we would clean the coral trees and later do the planting. The trees are made up of PVC piping and have coral pieces attached on limbs with wires or filament. These are left to grow in the flowing current.

We were surprised to learn how fast the coral actually grows in these ideal conditions. Finger sized corals on the trees can grow to grapefruit sized bunches in 6-12 months, and are ready for harvesting. Once attached to the reef, they can grow to a basketball sized grouping in 2-3 years. Dalton Hesley, also a Research Associate, says they expect to see 10-15cm of linear extension per branch in a year. This is a substantial amount of growth for a coral, which is why it is a great species for active restoration.

After the briefing, we were onto the dive boat to setup our gear and get to the nursery. We had a special surprise treat in that CBS News was on board to highlight the program and to feature it on a news segment, great publicity for Rescue a Reef! The crew was equipped with a drone, and all kinds of cameras and recording equipment to capture the episode live from the vessel. Quite the challenge on the small boat amongst lots of divers coming in and out of the water, but they managed superbly and didn’t miss a beat.

Our first dive was at the nursery. The coral PVC trees were about 6 ft tall and 4 ft wide and each had 8 or more branches with 2 to 3 corals per branch. Equipped with a wire brush and some heavy-duty wire cutters, we set off to clean our tree as best we could, removing barnacles, clams, and algae from the structure. This stuff was crusted on solid, and it took quite some effort to remove those barnacles. We had to laugh at the fish that showed up under the tree as we knocked off the barnacles and clams. They were happy to enjoy their free lunch!

Once the tree was cleaned, we were asked to harvest some of the growing coral into finger sized mini trees, which we would gather and transport to the second site for planting. The process for this was to use those same wire cutters to clip off a small branch and to carefully gather these into a transportable container that the research scientists had placed on the sandy bottom. This whole dive took a little under an hour and a full tank of air for us. Soon after, we were heading back up to the boat for a surface interval break and off to the next site for planting.

Back on the boat, our knowledgably scientists and volunteers again treated us to more briefings about the coral. Out of the water, the staghorn coral has a real distinctive smell, kind of like crab! And amazingly the cut corals would ooze a kind of thick clear liquid, which we presumed was a protective mechanism that they may use to get reattached to the new site once planted. Dalton explained to us that this is a Mucus and that the role of coral mucus can vary from species to species, he later provided us with a link to a summary by the coral restoration foundation, check it out here. Fascinating creatures! We also learned that corals reproduce in an asexual fashion. Individual colonies are both male and female and once a year coral spawning takes place where gamelets are released and these get distributed by currents to settle into neighboring areas forming new colonies.

At the second site we were equipped with tie-wraps, heavy mallets, and sturdy nails. The key was to find a suitable spot on the reef to drive in a nail to which we would attach a mini coral finger with two or more tie-wraps. Some of the more experienced staff had larger specimens that they were attaching with multiple nails. Finding a good area was key, somewhere that would allow the coral to grow without competition. Once we drove in the nail, we would scrape around the edges of the new perch with a metal brush to clean the surrounding reef area allowing the coral to attach more easily. We were told that the coral would grow around the nail and the tie-wraps so these could be left on without a problem.

One of our babies 🙂

Divers will have to pay special attention to gauges and buoyancy when doing multiple tasks like this, as it’s easy to lose track of time and find that you are low on air. The site is shallow, and at 25 feet, our computer did not even demand a safety stop, but all the same, just a heads-up for those wanting to come out and try this activity. Buoyancy is also very important, as you don’t want to damage the reef that you are trying to save! Fortunately there was little to no current and everyone on the dive was great in the water.

As we slowly rose up to return to the boat, we looked down on the little nursery that was growing with a sense of pride. We are now more fascinated than ever on how these little baby corals we helped place will grow, how big they might get, and how the colony might once again become a healthy reef full of life. The thought of someone dropping an anchor or hurting these little delicate living creatures as they are trying to reestablish themselves on the reef would definitely upset us!

Coral garden

We wish that more people would get out and do these types of activities, as we simply know the world will be a better place because of it. Some hands on ‘ownership’ for our planet! We can’t just assume that someone else will do it, or that it’s too small to make a difference. Every positive step helps, I know that the work we did today helped the reef, but it also helped us and made us feel good!

A big thank you to Dalton and Stephanie and the enthusiastic team that put on these dives to help restore the coral reefs of Florida. We were really impressed and encouraged by the young people on board and their passion for this cause. It gave us hope for the future of our planet! We plan to be back and to help again if we can – it’s a great cause and it really was a good feeling to participate.

With trip coordinator Dalton Hesley from Rescue a Reef

If you want to become a citizen scientist and join an expedition or learn more about how you can help, check out their website.

The university also has a citizen scientist program for shark tagging, perhaps another story in the future…

Nathalie and Jaan

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