Do your part to protect Florida’s endangered coral reefs with these tips on how to safely see these beautiful ecosystems from marine biologist Colin Foord.

In southern Florida, there’s a small, but mighty movement growing stronger and louder. While Miami is often viewed as a magnet for popular culture, fashion, and excess, a determined and strategic group of scientists and artists is pushing the environmental concerns that are affecting all of Florida’s shorelines to the forefront, garnering national and international attention for their cause.

Coral Morphologic, a hybrid art/science endeavor that chronicles Earth’s imperiled coral reefs, was founded in 2007 by marine biologist Colin Foord and musician Jared McKay as a multi­faceted platform to blend science and art in a way that enamors popular culture with the beauty of coral, while simultaneously inspiring the next generation to restore the reefs.

Because Florida’s endangered coral reefs are a vital part of the shorelines that attract many Opal visitors to Florida, we asked Coral Morphologic’s Colin Foord to tells us more about what makes Florida’s coral reefs so special, where to dive in Florida to see these spectacular reefs, and what visitors can do to help save them.

Q: Why should the public care as much about Florida’s reefs as, say, the Great Barrier Reef?

A: The Florida Reef Tract, stretching up the Atlantic coast, is the third largest coral reef formation in the world. It protects the coastline from storm surge during hurricanes, while also providing people world-class fishing, snorkeling, and diving opportunities. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, which is located dozens of miles offshore, Florida’s reefs are conveniently located within a few miles of the coast, making them much cheaper and easier to visit on a day trip.

Q: What are some of the factors that are endangering Florida’s reefs?

A: The past several summers have been unusually hot, which causes corals to “bleach,” resulting in eventual starvation if the water doesn’t cool down below 86 degrees. This thermal stress, combined with higher levels of nutrients in the waters, has elevated the incidence of coral disease and algal overgrowth in recent years

Q: What’s the impact of losing these reefs? 

A: Without living coral reefs, Florida would lose the keystone ecosystem of its marine environment, meaning that commercial and sport fisheries could collapse, leaving the state without a critical source of food and income. Dead reefs can’t protect the coastline as well against surge during hurricanes, resulting in more beach erosion and flooding.

Q: For those who are traveling to Florida and want to snorkel, where would you send them?

The best snorkeling in Florida is in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary from Key Largo to Key West. John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo offers half-day and full-day snorkel trips. In my opinion, the best snorkeling spot in all of Florida is around Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park. Located 80 miles west of Key West, DTNP is only accessible by ferry (or seaplane). Day trips can be booked through the Yankee Freedom ferry in Key West and provide several hours to swim and snorkel around the historic fort.

Q: What about where to dive in Florida. Are there spots reachable by chartered boat that are too good to miss?

Scuba diving offers a more immersive look at Florida’s reefs. The northernmost part of the Florida Reef Tract offshore Jupiter and Palm Beach offers excellent drift diving from 60 to 100 feet with sharks, goliath grouper, and sea turtles. In Miami, dive charters offer trips to explore the world’s largest collection of artificial reefs consisting of sunken military tanks, airplanes, oil rigs, ships, and even an underwater cemetery. In the Lower Keys, dive charters to Looe Key are a great way to see classic Florida Keys coral reef habitat.

Q: What are some of most interesting species particular to the Florida reefs divers might see?

Because goliath grouper have long been a protected species in Florida, their population has made a remarkable recovery over the past several decades. It’s possible to see several of these six-foot-long fish weighing hundreds of pounds lurking under ledges or in wrecks and will usually allow close approach. Sea turtles make use of Florida’s long sandy coastline to lay their eggs every year and are commonly seen while diving. Except for surfers in murky water close to shore, shark attacks are rare in Florida. Florida boasts nearly the same biodiversity as tropical coral reefs further south in the Caribbean, so divers can expect to see a dizzying array of angelfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, wrasses, and gobies.

Q: What ways could vacationers and divers turn a trip to Florida into an opportunity to help out?

The Coral Restoration Foundation in Tavernier (Key Largo) is a nonprofit global leader in coral transplantation. They maintain a coral nursery offshore where staghorn and elkhorn corals are grown from cloned fragments of hardy strains. Divers who are interested in helping can do one dive in the nursery, and the second dive transplanting a coral back onto the wild reef. Since their inception, CRF has transplanted tens of thousands of corals back to reefs in the Keys. Even non-divers can still “adopt-a-coral” or give as a gift.

Q: What are the things divers/snorkelers should know so that they themselves don’t become part of the problem?

Aside from not touching, standing on, or breaking off the corals on the reef, be sure to use coral-safe, eco-friendly sunscreen before snorkeling, diving, or other ocean water sports. The chemicals in traditional sunscreens (oxybenzones) have been proven to be detrimental to coral health, so it is important to use only those that have zinc oxide as the active ingredient. If you are operating a boat, be sure to anchor away from the reef in the sand, or better yet, dive on a mooring buoy.

Learn more about Coral Morphologic’s unique mission in the Vice Media documentary called Coral City.

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