Two miles off the coast of Key Biscayne and 30 miles under the waves, pieces of coral sway from white pipes like tinsel on Christmas tree branches.
These PVC “trees” create coral nurseries, a restoration effort led by the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Miami Seaquarium visitors on July 19 got to view a miniature coral garden up close at the unveiling of the “Rescue A Reef: Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration” exhibit.
Rescue a Reef originally started as a citizen science project and grew into a a massive rescue effort to rebuild the nation’s only inshore reef. The exhibit featured the same coral “trees” used in the nurseries and mimicked the coral gardening process. The new aquarium tank is on display in the park’s main building alongside educational graphics explaining restoration techniques.
Camp Seaquarium students listened intently as UM research associate Dalton Hesley explained how the nursery would help regrow Miami’s coral population.
“We’ll collect small pieces and replant them to promote natural recovery,” he said, gesturing to the 500-gallon tank. “Each branch can grow 10 to 15 inches per year and provide a home for fish.”
These aren’t your ordinary baby coral polyps — they’re local staghorn, and in one year they’ll be the size of basketballs, Hesley said. Staghorns are a hardy and fast-growing coral that work well in regrowth efforts. Eventually, the exhibit will expand to include a mock-reef so visitors can see both sides of the coral restoration process, he said.
Although Madison Lord, 11, wants be an actress and singer when she grows up, she said she’d love to explore coral reefs around the world.
“Sometimes I go snorkeling with my mom and dad every once in a while,” Madison said. “I like seeing the coral and they’re important.”
When Madison is older, she’ll be able to be one of the volunteer divers who help Hesley and his team build and install coral trees. To participate, one must be at least 18 and open-water certified or have strong snorkeling skills, he said.
“Everyone knows coral reefs are declining, but a lot of people don’t know why or what they can do to help,” he said.
Camper Maddie Volpe, 10, saw coral in Mexico while on vacation with her family, but the exhibit was the first time she saw them at home in Miami, she said.
“They’re really cool. They provided homes to many fish and keep them safe,” she said.
For Maddie and others to continue enjoying coral reefs, people need to get involved, Miami Seaquarium education manager Shannon Jones said.
Jones works alongside Hesley to educate guests on the importance of conservation coral reef. It’s critical that kids get excited about coral and helping the ocean, she said.
“Even though they may be out of sight, they should not be out of mind,” she said. “They’re the building blocks of the ocean and there’s a lot of things people can do in their everyday life to help out.”
To learn more, visit sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/research/projects/coral-restoration.