The Coral Restoration Foundation

The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) is a nonprofit organization established in the Florida Keys that seeks to revitalize the Caribbean reefs by replanting coral species that have largely disappeared over the past few decades. Elkhorn and Staghorn corals are two keystone species in the Caribbean that provide fish and invertebrates with the necessary habitat that they need by growing in a branching fashion up towards the surface. They live in shallow, warm waters and are particularly fragile to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. Their populations have plunged over the last thirty years as ocean surface temperatures have risen and the acidity of the oceans has been amplified due to our relentless carbon dioxide emissions. This is an immense stress on the species that when combined with other stressors such as overfishing, water pollution, disease and competition, the corals simply cannot keep up. CRF is working diligently to restore the reefs of the Caribbean by replanting Elkhorn and Staghorn corals on the reefs and their efforts are truly paying off! They have reclaimed several hundred hectares of reef in the Caribbean and fish populations are rebounding in and around their restoration sites. I had the pleasure of diving with the CRF team lead by restoration specialist Francesa Virdis. Francesca is from Italy and has been working hard on improving the Bonaire reefs through the foundation. She has several “trees” or vertical coral farms that hang suspended in the water column that serve as nurseries for the coral. Free from predators and sedimentation, the corals thrive in the shallow, sunlight waters of the nursery.

Fragments of surviving corals are selected from specific genotypes of corals from around the island to ensure proper health of the colonies and reproductive success of the newly planted corals. For example, Elkhorn survivor genotype A would produce offspring with a higher chance of survival if bred with Elkhorn survivor genotype B. Through generations of proper breeding of these “survivor corals” the hope is to create a reef that is more resilient to the effects of a warming world. The survivor corals on the island have made it through mass coral bleaching events and by having them reproduce with other survivors it produces a healthy population of corals more resistant to ambient temperature changes.

During our dive we clipped fragments from one of the trees Francesca had selected as being mature enough to be planted on the reef. The corals have been growing here for months and are now ready to be transplanted. The team uses milk crates to carry the corals underwater from the nursery to the restoration site and then secures them onto a metal structure designed to simulate the reef or directly onto the reef with heavy duty zip ties or coral glue. I was able to help the team secure the corals onto the reef and inspect the trees for their growth progress. Mark Evans, a photographer for sport diver magazine UK, photographed the team and I while we were planting the corals. Mark and his family were extremely pleasant all week and the Tinsley’s and I enjoyed getting to know them. I absolutely loved having the opportunity to participate in hands on fieldwork that is truly making a different in the health of our oceans one coral at a time. The Coral Restoration Foundation is venerated as a true champion for our oceans and I feel immensely lucky to have been able to work with such a commendable organization.

After working with the Coral Restoration Foundation all day, I spent the evening with Bryson-Bell and Rowan! From pushing Bryson-Bell on the tire swing to spotting fish with Rowan off the dock, I love spending time with them because of their infectious love for life and unending enthusiasm for everything they do. Rowan has acquired a British accent during our time here from his friend Luke who is from the UK. Everything that comes out of his mouth is now said in an innocent British accent and he prides himself on telling everyone that he’s now British! Danae said she’s praying he doesn’t say that when we get to customs back in the US haha! Every morning he comes waddling into my room and asks if I’ve put on enough sunblock because he says I’m super white and he doesn’t want me to look like a lobster when I go home. Bryson-Bell has impressed me with her seemingly endless knowledge of fish species. I’m amazed by just how many she was able to identify on our snorkel and when water tubing the other day she was the only kid left on the raft after everyone else had flipped off! Simply put, they’re awesome kids and I’m going to miss them like crazy when we leave in a few days!