The heroic effort to save Florida’s coral reef from extreme ocean heat as corals bleach across the Caribbean
Armed with scrub brushes, young scuba divers took to the waters of Florida’s Alligator Reef in late July to try to help corals struggling to survive 2023’s extraordinary marine heat wave. They carefully scraped away harmful algae and predators impinging on staghorn fragments, under the supervision and training of interns from Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education, or I.CARE.
Normally, I.CARE’s volunteer divers would be transplanting corals to waters off the Florida Keys this time of year, as part of a national effort to restore the Florida Reef. But this year, everything is going in reverse.
As water temperatures spiked in the Florida Keys, scientists from universities, coral reef restoration groups and government agencies launched a heroic effort to save the corals. Divers have been in the water every day, collecting thousands of corals from ocean nurseries along the Florida Keys reef tract and moving them to cooler water and into giant tanks on land.
By mid-August, coral bleaching had been reported in the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is particularly devastating because some of the healthiest remaining coral reefs are in the southern Caribbean. Scientists worry they may be seeing the sixth mass bleaching of Caribbean corals since 1995 and the third within the past 12 years, and the heat is likely to continue.
While corals can recover from mass bleaching events, long periods of high heat can leave them weak and vulnerable to disease that can ultimately kill them.
That’s what scientists and volunteers have been scrambling to avoid.
The heartbeat of the reef
The Florida Reef has struggled for years under the pressure of overfishing, disease, storms and global warming that have decimated its live corals….