Some local scientists last week made a significant discovery in the Florida Keys: Staghorn coral that was farm-raised and transplanted two years ago appears to be thriving.
But these aren't just any scientists. They're 21 highly trained and federally funded students from the Tampa Bay area, part of a group named the SCUBAnauts.
"It's a great honor," said Nick Johnson, a 17-year-old from Dunedin who will be a senior this year at Palm Harbor University High School. "No one has ever seen it before. It's like discovering something new. To know you've done that and no one else has before, it's a great feeling."
The students' discovery marks the first known verification of successful reproduction and growth of transplanted, nursery-raised staghorn coral in the area.
The five-day trip was paid for with a $20,000 grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. In addition to providing the first visual confirmation that transplanted staghorn coral is capable of reproducing in the Molasses Reef region near Key Largo, the students are collecting specimens for research and cross-fertilization to create future transplants.
"We're helping with repopulating staghorn coral as a whole," said Mack Bunbury, 17, of St. Petersburg. "It's an awesome thing we can say we did."
The students' finding is encouraging to scientists, who have been searching for ways to regenerate the once-massive staghorn coral population that has all but disappeared in the Keys. Since 1980, about 98 percent of the staghorn population has been wiped out by disease, hurricanes, bleaching, algae overgrowth and the impact of humans.
"Along the Florida Keys, where there used to be huge stands of the staghorn and elkhorn coral, they're not growing there, they're not manifesting like they used to," said Dr. Jen Dupont, a marine scientist and SCUBAnauts adviser. "These are really the primary reef-building and habitat-forming corals of the Keys. At least they used to be. You just don't see them out there anymore."
Staghorn, along with elkhorn coral, are now listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
The coral being monitored by SCUBAnauts was transplanted from a nursery two years ago by the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation, led by Ken Nedimyer.
"Originally, (Nedimyer) didn't think these corals were mature enough to produce babies or spawn. We were originally thinking they would take five years to reproduce," said Dupont, a Knauss Fellow with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Research. "They are spawning just fine. So this is the first time we've seen that this actually does work."
SCUBAnauts is a collaboration of local and federal agencies and institutions, including USF, NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Formerly known as SCUBA Scouts, the group was formed in 2001 by U.S. Navy Capt. David Olson and Walter Jaap, a longtime marine biologist now retired from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Members, ages 12 to 18, attend middle and high schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. The students undergo extensive training on diving techniques and safety, including CPR certification, before they're allowed to participate in a dive.
During their recent Keys trip, the students have been studying the reproductive habits of staghorn coral. The coral spawn late in the evening, and after two or three dives, the group has been trudging back to their hotel after midnight, students said.
"But it's great because they get to see how real scientists work," Dupont said. "The corals don't go for 9 to 5 jobs."
Student Santannah Manning, 16, said the long days and late nights have been well worth it. The more scientists are able to learn about staghorn coral, the better their chances for repopulation, which will offer additional protection from storms and more habitats for marine life.
"A lot of people now are getting into the green movement, and the ocean is a part of that," she said. "And these particular corals, to see they're starting to thrive and come back, it's really important for people to be aware of this."
Manning, a four-year SCUBAnauts member who starts her junior year at Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa in two weeks, said she'll share this "once-in-a-lifetime" summer break experience with her classmates.
"I tell them all about the trips and what we're learning," Manning said. "No one can come back to school with the same stories."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.