Mar 302011

At the Coral Restoration Foundation Nursery

If you’ve ever tried tending a garden, you might be able to imagine the complexities of planting and maintaining a nursery located twenty feet under the sea.  I got just a taste of what it takes to be an underwater gardener when I joined a trip, organized by Captain Don Voss of Marine Cleanup Initiative, Inc. (MCII), to help plant endangered coral with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida.  The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) is a non-profit organization that develops off-shore coral nurseries and reef restoration programs for critically endangered coral reefs in Key Largo, Florida and elsewhere around the world.  Through their experiences growing endangered staghorn and elkhorn coral in the Florida Keys, they’ve developed an inexpensive and easily-replicated process for creating natural-looking coral reefs with a minimal footprint on existing reef structure.

Removing the algae from the coral bases

On our training and volunteer trip, we learned how to maintain the coral nursery in Key Largo and had an opportunity to plant coral on Molasses reef, a popular site within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (the Lonely Planet guide to diving the Florida Keys ranks it among the top 10 most visited coral reefs in the world).  Unfortunately, a combination of historical cold fronts, a sea urchin die-off, declining water quality, and in some areas, heavy traffic, have taken their toll on existing staghorn and elkhorn populations.  By first replicating and growing, and then planting these coral on existing reefs, CRF hopes to re-establish healthy and genetically diverse populations.  From monitoring at planted sites, CRF has recorded a 95% survival rate for their transplanted coral.   Even more promising, through genetic testing, CRF has determined that certain populations of the transplanted coral are actually reproducing.

The Coral Garden

The first step in creating a healthy coral nursery is the creation of the coral stock.  Each coral originates from a small fragment snipped off of a larger parent coral.  These small pieces are mounted on concrete bases and tended for more than a year within the coral nursery.  Every few months, each coral “seedling” and its base must be cleaned by hand of algae and other accumulated debris.

It's raining algae

Through trial and error, CRF has also developed a promising new method of growing these fragments on suspended lines tethered to the ocean floor.  All of the corals are painstakingly tagged with genetic information to ensure genetic diversity among the planted coral.  On our visit, we cleaned the nursery coral and helped with routine maintenance of the site.

Coral string

The second aspect of the coral restoration is planting the nursery stock on existing reefs.  Each planted coral will take about 2 years to reach a mature size, at which point it may continue to grow and reproduce.  Planting coral involves several steps: first, an area on the reef must be cleared of algae and made flat for the attachment of the nursery coral.  Second, the coral base is attached with a special epoxy.  The epoxy is mixed underwater and feels something like putty.  After a half hour, it will harden and form a permanent attachment.  Third, ID tags are affixed next to the newly planted coral to aid in monitoring efforts after the planting.  For all of these activities, divers have to contend with their buoyancy (we used a large amount of weight for these maintenance and planting dives to keep us on the bottom), sea surge, preventing damage to existing coral structures, monitoring bottom time, and staying safe below the water.

A new home for fish

It was certainly a new, if somewhat disconcerting experience to chip away at the reef with hammers and chisels.  But it was also strangely peaceful to be stuck working in one place as the fish begin to ignore you and you notice the little things, like strange worms burrowing in the sand, and the waving of sea rods and sea fans.  It was also satisfying to have a hand in the restoration of a small part of the ocean ecosystem.

Back to the boat

After planting our last coral, we had enough air in the tank for a short meander through the reef formations on Molassess.  And almost on cue as I ascended to the boat, I caught a glimpse of a sea turtle cruising past the reef as if to review our handiwork.  I think she approved.

A glimpse of a Turtle

If you go:

  • Because the volunteer program is in its early stages, CRF can’t accommodate indivual volunteers.  So organize a group or club training session, or join MCII on one of its next trips to Key Largo (tentatively scheduled for mid-May).
  • The prime planting season for coral coincides with the warmer water temperatures of spring and summer.  This is also a great time for diving the keys.  If you can, schedule a few extra days to explore the reefs in the Florida Keys (you can see more photos from this area in a previous post).  I like Horizon Divers.  Ask guide Mike Ryan to take you to the Spiegel Grove wreck!
  • Try the delicious salads and the Key Lime Pie at the Key Largo Conch House.  And if you’re driving to the Keys from the north, don’t miss the fruit shakes at Robert is Here, in Homestead, Florida.

Tools of the trade

About the photos:

I used my Olympus Pen E-PL1 and underwater housing for all of my dive photos.  The compact underwater rig was great for this trip, since I was tending and planting the coral in addition to taking the photos.  I left my external flash guns at home so I could keep everything streamlined and avoid the arms hitting the coral or tangling in my tools while I wasn’t shooting.  I used a 9-18mm lens, which I borrowed from my Olympus rep and which I’ve found to be indispensable for the underwater Pen setup.

Check out the complete set of my underwater photos from the coral restoration on Flickr!

  10 Responses to “The Underwater Gardener: Restoring Staghorn Coral in Key Largo, Florida”

  1. Great stuff! Love the line nursery photos : )

  2. Beautiful photos, quite awesome to see the staghorn corals hanging like clothes from a line.

  3. Great shots and story! Had a wonderful weekend with your group and many thanks for all your help.
    Wayne Sicard, Yellow Team Co-Leader

  4. Your photos are awesome. What a great experience!

  5. great pictures cant wait to go back and do it again.

  6. What an incredible trip! Traveling, diving, volunteering, AND photography!?!?!? That’s my kind of livin! Way to be. Next time, take me with you. I could seriously see adding underwater photography to my studio. Now if I only knew how to scuba. Hmmmm…

    • You would love SCUBA! There’s a ton of great diving just off of California, if you can deal with cold water. The neatest thing about diving, in my opinion, is that you never know what you’re going to see down there. There’s always a surprise around the next corner . . . and that’s why I got interested in underwater photography! : )

  7. hey I am very intorested in helping out with this project to start my career in under water gardening and reef restoration projects. are thare any groups I could jion to get started?I would love to volunteer! please contact me if you have any info or ideas, thank you for your time.

  8. […] editor found the photographs that I posted for my story, The Underwater Gardener, and she wanted to use it for her magazine […]

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