KEY WEST — A strange scene plays out in the depths below the clear azure water of Key West's Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park on a recent morning, one that doesn't quite fit with the serene ambiance of the area.
About a quarter-mile offshore, two Mote Marine Laboratory scientists dive into the water, holding trays with tiny pieces of coral mounted on a ceramic base. They delicately grasp each circular piece, resembling something one might see at a dinner party — a miniquiche or canape — and place them gingerly into the rock, nearly 15 feet below the surface.
Soon, scientists expect the 320 pieces of coral planted in late July will grow and fuse into full-size mountain star coral, which will spawn and produce coral of its own. The nearly 6,000 coral fragments planted last year in an underwater landscape mere meters from this one have already begun what David Vaughan, executive director of Mote's newly completed Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration, calls "re-skinning." It will take them two to three years to fully come together, but Vaughan said their progress is a positive indicator for the 7,000 corals they planted in another section this year.
"This is the good news — that's what's different," Vaughan said. "This is now a turnaround that we can make a difference growing corals. But it's not over."
Corals have been under attack in the world's oceans for some time. In the 1970s, Vaughan said, the Florida Keys lost 20 percent of their corals through bleaching, a process in which changes in conditions such as temperature can stress and kill them, turning them white and causing the algae inside them to leave. The Florida Keys have experienced bleaching in 12 of the last 14 years, he adds, and in 2005, half of the coral reefs in the Caribbean were lost to a bleaching event.
Vaughan grows frustrated when he hears from climate-change deniers who contest the destruction of coral and its importance.
"They say it's just a natural change, that it goes up and down, and I say yes," Vaughan said. "But it may have taken 150,000 years to gain this half degree, and we just gained it in 20 years. The corals can't run away fast."
To those who say "So what?" to coral, Vaughan has a message. Coral reefs are responsible for 50 percent of the world's fisheries, 77,000 jobs and a $7 billion industry. Picturing the world without coral reefs is not pretty.
That's why Mote has enlisted citizen volunteers for the second summer to help with coral restoration in the state park. Scientists like Vaughan hope the project will educate the public about Mote's work and the importance of preserving reefs.
In Sarasota, Mote is best known for its projects championing marine wildlife such as sea turtles and manatees or its work with environmental phenomena, red tide in particular. But its coral research, which began as a small center on Summerland Key known as the Tropical Research Laboratory, has slowly become an international force in the coral world. The only problem is that it lacks the benefit of Mote's proximity, so this program is a way to raise awareness.
"The word gets out there, and it gives people a feeling that they're contributing to the solution, especially with something as big as climate change, where so many people feel like they're helpless," Vaughan said. "Here, I think people are feeling some fulfillment in being involved and actively planting corals."
Dorothy Quigley, 71, grew up in the Keys, where the coral reef was a big part of daily life.
"I loved what Mote is doing," Quigley said. "I just wanted to be a part of it."