RCL workers take the plunge to help ‘Rescue a Reef’ off Miami

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It begins with a cookie, sometimes a nail, one finger or four, and a hard bed. And with luck, a coral reef – or part of one – is born.

This is the end of a process carried out by the Coral Restoration Lab at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science. As part of its ongoing Rescue a Reef program, the researchers invite “citizen scientists” to take part in their underwater work on the Florida Reef Tract.

The initiative began in May 2015, with this year incorporating a collaboration with Royal Caribbean, including a dive to mark World Oceans Day, June 8. Employees joined UM scientists in diving and snorkeling both to harvest coral grown in underwater nurseries and transplant them in areas ravaged by last year’s Hurricane Irma.

Six dives with employees and naming rights came as part of a $50,000 donation to the cause, so their work site will be called the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Reef.

Stephanie DeMars, RCL corporate responsibility senior analyst and a scuba diver, has twice taken part in Rescue a Reef. The work included harvesting finger-sized fragments of staghorn coral – a fast-growing but threatened species – nurtured on PVC pipe “trees” set up in a nursery. Then they were “outplanted” at another site using two different methods. Snorkelers made small, round concrete “cookies” with two to four coral fragments glued to each cookie, which in turn is epoxied onto the hard ocean floor.

SCUBA divers used a more common method of driving nails into this limestone substrate. A fragment is attached to each nail with a zip tie, and within two to three months, the growing coral envelops its anchor.

After that, the staghorn – a living thing – continues to grow by producing polyps that divide and add to the coral’s endoskeleton. In time, explained Dr. Diego Lirman, associate professor of marine biology and ecology and lead scientist for Rescue a Reef, hopefully, the coral matures and reproduces by releasing eggs and sperm that develop into floating larvae, which drift and settle onto suitable places to expand the reef.

“The work that we do is called coral gardening,” Lirman said. “We fragment coral, break it into little pieces, then each piece will grow into a bigger colony.”

DeMars said RCL’s goal is to outplant 1,000 staghorn corals off of Miami Beach in 2018. “It’s important here in South Florida as we have hurricanes with increased wave action,” she said. “It helps mitigate those stressors.

“And a lot of fish species grow within coral reefs, so they’re very important to the marine environment.”

With work performed in depths of about 15 to 30 feet deep, snorkelers can’t spend as much bottom time as divers, but are able to shuttle coral fragments and tools – including small metal brushes to clean algae from the coral and substrate – to the divers below.

Alina Zerpa, an RCL summer intern, was one of them.

“The divers did most of the work,” she said, “but as snorkelers, we set up the cookies and we got to put them onto the ocean floor.”

The experience, she said, “was super good. I mean, it’s hard for it not to be, you know?”