This post got a bit long, I hope you stick around and read it because it’s something that is very important to all of us as occupants of this planet. (At a minimum scroll down to the end and click on the link for the video!) One of the things that we’ve been noticing over the years is that the coral reefs are dying. This isn’t our imagination, it’s a very real thing that is happening worldwide. Most of the Great Barrier Reef (a thriving reef I dove early in my diving career in 1995) is now dead. The coral loss is due to rising temperatures in the oceans as well as pollution. For example, in our salt water aquarium in our house we have a few species of corals. If the temperature rises to warmer than 82 degrees or so, the corals close themselves up, pissed off at the heat wave. We have a heater on the tank, and we also have a chiller on the tank for during the summer months when the sun streams in through the window and heats the water. The connection between rising ocean temperatures and coral loss is well documented and well proven by marine biologists worldwide.

For a few days during our vacation we decided that we wanted to give back to the gorgeous reefs we’ve all had the privilege to dive on all these years. So we hooked up with the Coral Restoration Foundation out of Key Largo, FL.

We met Roxane at the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) office. She took us into the classroom and explained the importance of coral reefs, and why their efforts to restore them are important. She showed us pictures of the reef off of Key Largo from the 1950s and pictures of the same reef now, so we could see the difference. In the 50s the reef was alive with tangled messes of stag horn coral, which is now endangered. Stag horn corals create skeletal structures that will attract other corals and marine life to hide among the branches and thrive in its thickets. The coral reefs also block wave action that will prevent shoreline erosion as well.

At the CRF they have a sample of a tree that they use to grow corals underwater. The trees are made of PVC pipe and fiberglass, and they hang fragments of stag horn on the branches of the trees as if they were Christmas ornaments. The fragments then grow hanging off the trees until they are large enough to be harvested and then planted onto the reef rock substrate. This is a sample of what the coral trees look like.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music volunteered at Coral Restoration Foundation

She taught us how to crimp monofilament line on to the frags of stag horn, and the different pieces from the different trees are tagged with numbers so Roxane can later on tell which ones are thriving and which ones are not. She collects data on the frags that get planted later on so she can be sure to know which ones are better suited for transplantation. She also showed us on a sample reef in the classroom how to plant the pieces.

The plan was to go right out onto a boat to the coral reef nursery so that we can practice what we learned. But Tropical Storm Emily had different ideas and the afternoon dive was cancelled. Instead we went out on Tuesday August 1st, and it was a perfect morning. Conditions had calmed substantially after the storm. CC, our captain drove us out to a site called The Nursery. CRF has 11 acres that they can use to plant their coral “trees,” however they’re only using 1 acre at the moment. As the organization grows they’ll be able to do more. The trees look skeletal and are lined up in rows. They have an eerie look about them, like a modern post-apocalyptic depiction of a forest. You can see the frags in the foreground, and the lumpy things on the end of the branch on the right is what we had to clean off.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music volunteered at Coral Restoration Foundation

The PVC pipe trees are weighted and the trees float upward, and the branches extend off from the trunk. From the branches CRF has hung the frags of the stag horn coral. Our first job as volunteers was to clean a tree. Underwater, as you can imagine, surfaces get covered with algae and concretion which then prevents the frags from having an environment where they can thrive and grow. We were handed chisels that we could use to chip the unwanted growth away. As we chipped away mussels, algae and concretion hog fish came to explore and grab a snack. Roxane warned us about how they are unafraid. I actually clobbered one of the fish with the butt end of my chisel. I wanted to reach out to it and pat it on the side of the face where I’d hit it. Of course it swam away, as it won’t want to be consoled after I’d just smacked it upside the head.

Todd worked on the higher branches of our tree, and I worked on the lower ones. Sean and Brian were working on another tree. The thing that was interesting about working on these trees is that they move. Imagine picking apples from a tree in an orchard. The tree just sits there, and you walk up to it and pluck the apples off, right? Well, these trees are not rooted into the ground like an apple tree is. Imagine if you grabbed on to the branch of that apple tree and the whole thing swung toward you. They are weighted at the bottom so they won’t get carried away in a current. But the rest of the tree sways with the waves. So, I found myself colliding with another coral tree behind me and I had to constantly be aware of that, so I wouldn’t damage the tree behind me.

Once we finished cleaning our tree, Roxane gave us some frags that we would then place tags on. This was surprisingly intricate work to do underwater. We had to loop the monofilament around the branch, thread a numbered tag onto the thread, and then crimp it using pliers. We each tagged a few and then we surfaced for our next dive.

CC drove us to another site called Pickles Reef. This is where we would plant the frags we harvested and tagged at the nursery. We descended where Roxane showed us how to plant the frags. We were each given 5. So between the 4 of us we managed to plant 20 frags. The idea is that the frags will grow up and mesh with other frags to create an entangled thicket of stag horn. She demonstrated, just like we learned in the classroom the day before, how to scrape the rock down to a bare patch. We had to connect the frags to the rock in three spots each, to ensure that the frag would stick. This is Brian planting his frags. He's scraping away the spots to stick the epoxy to the rock.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music volunteered at the Coral Restoration Foundation

This is what I struggled with a bit. The frags are rooted to the rock with three lumps of an epoxy, kind of like play doh. We had to scrape away the algae and dirt with a hammer in three spots that would align with the shape of the coral. Then fix each point of the frag on with the epoxy. I struggled with the precision of having to anchor the frag in three spots. I also struggled with working on something so intricate with the slight surge shoving me back and forth as I tried to work. Roxane helped me complete the rest of mine, while Todd, Sean and Brian managed to stick theirs on.

I would have thought to stand up the coral frag on its end, as if it were a tree, and fix it that way. I am used to seeing trees rooted into the ground. How could a tree possibly grow on its side, right? The reason why they plant them on their side using three points so that the coral is more likely to stick. Then the coral will still grow upward, even though its laying on its side.

After we finished planting we headed back to the surface. On the way back I noticed a few other pieces that were planted in the past—I could see the epoxy holding those to the reef, and the tags on those frags.

Overall, an awesome experience that I think every diver should do to give back to the environment that we love to explore. To learn more about the Coral Restoration Foundation visit their web site here.

Here is a video that Todd made to show what our volunteer experience was like as well. This video is awesome, he did a great job making this and I highly recommend it!

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.