These coral reefs are not just spectacular sites to behold; they're also essential to the ecosystem, providing a habitat and breeding ground for countless species of fish, and protecting land from erosion.
When I took my first scuba lessons in the Florida Keys about a decade ago, I was ready for it to be a new and exciting experience. What I wasn't ready for, however, was an entirely new world -- one that I could barely wrap my head around. It was a world that would quickly become a personal and professional passion.
These days, if I'm not on the water or under it, I'm reading about it or researching it. But 10 years after that first lesson, those very same reefs that I fell in love with are in serious jeopardy.
In fact, they are dying.
"When I first started diving down here in the 1970s, you'd get to some of these reefs, and there was elkhorn coral as far as you can see," Ken Nedimyer, a longtime local diver, recalled. "You go out to a lot of those reefs now and they are all dead, or they are 90% dead. It just breaks my heart."
"To see that happening in my lifetime is really depressing."
Rather than sit by and watch the reefs die, Nedimyer decided to do something about it. He created a nonprofit conservation organization called the Coral Restoration Foundation
, which aims to bring coral reefs back from the brink of death by employing a technique Nedimyer pioneered: reproducing disappearing species of coral in underwater nurseries and then replanting them in the dying reefs.
After humble beginnings, the foundation's success has been staggering.
"We started with one species and now we are working with seven or eight," Nedimyer said. "We started with just three genetic strains of staghorn coral, now we have about 150 genetic strains. ... It's just getting a lot bigger."
Fighting against climate change
The Coral Restoration Foundation uses what's called an asexual reproduction technique: Nedimyer and his team plant thimble-sized pieces of coral in their nursery that grow to be as large as a footballs within a year.
Three-quarters of those football-sized pieces of coral are then planted back in the reef, while the remaining 25% is cut into even smaller pieces that are used as a sort of coral fertilizer in the foundation's 2-acre nursery, located 25 feet beneath the sea, some 3 miles off the coast of Key Largo.
Nedimyer took me on a tour of the nursery in May. Seeing the rows of living, breathing coral hanging from plastic piping was awe-inspiring.
"It never ceases to amaze me how fast we can grow those corals and how well they are doing," said Nedimyer, who told me he and his volunteers are underwater any "good diving" day.
Now in its 10th year, the foundation boasts some eye-popping numbers.
"We started with three corals and built that up to 5,000 corals," said Nedimyer. "We have at any given time 40,000 corals in our nurseries in Florida. Last year we put 20,000 corals on the reef."
Success doesn't come easy. Much of the work is trial and error, and much of it is a battle against the seemingly unstoppable. Climate change wreaks havoc by rendering once vibrant, multicolored coral reefs colorless.
"Corals bleach when they have been subject to really hot or really cold water," explained Nedimyer. "Last year there was tremendous sunshine, low wind and day after day of that."
Many of the area reefs have lost 99% of their coral due to bleaching, he says.
But Nedimyer is as much a problem-solver as he is a pioneer. He and his teams dove for weeks searching for the 1% of coral that did survive -- and that's what they are growing now: the "survivors."
"So now we are growing corals that are resistant to the heat," he said. "We took advantage of really bad conditions to find something that is going to survive."
'I don't want to be the only one'
Emboldened by the success in Florida, Nedimyer has taken his fight global, helping to start nurseries near the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Jamaica and Mustique, as well as off the coast of Colombia in South America. He has plans to start programs this summer in Curacao, Barbados and St. Lucia.
"The goal is to set up a program, train these people, and let them own it," he said. "That's already happening in two of the countries we've been in for a while. I don't want to be the only one doing it. That would be a failure if it were just me."
The day I joined Nedimyer in his nursery 25 feet below the sea, I experienced just how difficult -- and how rewarding -- his work can be. It wasn't easy battling the current and navigating the perils of fire coral, but as we chipped away the rock to make room for our new coral, I had a tremendous sense of pride. It may have only been a few tiny pieces, but knowing that it would one day grow and help restore the ecosystem was a humbling experience.
"I'm just wondering if I have enough lifetime left," Nedimyer said. "Can I train enough people? ... Can we plant enough of those to be able to bring the corals back to life?"
A rhetorical question, though he answered himself.
"I think we can."