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Miami Underwater Festival at Frost Museum of Science makes a splash

Ellen Down, 23, a student from Florida International University, talks about coral reefs and sea anemones in their natural habitat.
Ellen Down, 23, a student from Florida International University, talks about coral reefs and sea anemones in their natural habitat. Miami Herald Staff

Dissecting an invasive lionfish to find out if it was a male or female was one of the activities, Kirsten Hernandez, 10, was excited about at last weekend’s fourth annual Underwater Festival.

“I want to learn about fish and the ocean,” said Kirsten, who wants to study marine biology when she grows up. “There was a pouch filled with eggs in it, that is how we knew it was a female fish.”

The Underwater Festival was held June 11 to 14 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, in celebration of the global World Oceans Day. Visitors got introduced to themes that will be featured at the museum’s future site in downtown Miami, such as information on the 500,000-gallon Living Core Aquarium.

“This was our last major signature event before we move in the fall,” said Gillian Thomas, museum president and CEO of the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science. “It ties well to the future because we are expanding our interest in almost everything marine.”

The festivities began on Thursday with Dr. Nicole D. Fogarty, 39, of Nova Southeastern University’s College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, who spoke in the museum’s fifth installment of its Science Up Close series about her “Romance on the Reef: When Threatened Coral Species Mate” studies.

Coral hybridization, the mix of different species producing a new breed, is the focus of Fogarty’s research.

“There are two threaten species of coral, the staghorn coral and elkhorn coral, that have declined over the last 30 years by over 90 percent in the Caribbean and Florida.” Fogarty said. “These two species actually mate to form a hybrid, the fused staghorn coral, and what we are actually finding is that the hybrid is actually increasing while the parent corals are decreasing.”

David Shiffman, 30, a Ph.D candidate at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami, was also a participant at the event.

He spoke about the ecology and conservation of sharks.

The public was also given information about the Adopt-a-Shark program of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program at the University of Miami.

“We put GPS satellite tags on our sharks that can be tracked anywhere they go in the world,” Shiffman said. “People can join us out on the boat when we tag a shark, they can name it and then they can follow it on their home computer for a couple of years.”

According to Adopt-a-Shark, the goal of this program is to understand the migratory routes and living patterns of these sharks to identify certain locations and seasons that are important for mating, giving birth and feeding.

The Miami Science Barge showed its prototype of the future, a 120-foot by 30-foot marine laboratory that will be a satellite of the museum.

“The Miami science barge is going to be interactive, where we will teach kids about sustainable farming and solar energy,” said Chad Teal, 25, innovation manager of the Miami Science Barge Aquatic Systems.

The weekend activities also included a photography exhibit from the 2015 University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Underwater Photography contest, ocean-themed films, live animal encounters, an astronomy show and ¡Descubra! Meet the Science experts, Sonia Ortega and Modesto Tamez.

The festival also raised awareness of the current challenges the ocean faces by climate change.

The marine environment of South Florida is rich with life but is nevertheless threatened, according to Shiffman.

“Mangroves, coral reefs and even the local fish stocks are in trouble, sea level rise is a huge issue it is so great for the museum to be bringing experts from various fields together in an informal, fun way for members of the community to learn about,” Shiffman said.

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