Morgan Liston popped up from below the Gulf of Mexico's shimmering surface and made a declaration.
"This is actually a really good reef," Liston, a 17-year-old senior at Palm Harbor University High School, said from behind a diving mask. "It has nine different species of coral."
Among those species is one that has piqued the interest of Liston and her fellow SCUBAnauts: Cladocora arbuscula, an orange, macaroni-shaped coral that sprouts in tennis ball-sized clumps along the rock ledges 12 miles off the Hernando County coast.
On Sunday, the amateur dive group for students ages 12 to 18 led a marine scientist and a graduate student from the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg to the spot so they could collect some Cladocora for research.
The SCUBAnauts' help is "a godsend," said Jose Torres, a biological oceanography professor at the college. "They're really helping us out. They're smart, capable, and they're good little divers."
Torres is working with doctoral candidate Lara Henry to learn more about the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae. Cladocora is unusual among coral because it doesn't need algae to survive, much like deep sea coral that live in colder, darker environs.
"We're hoping it could be a good lab rat, as it were, to be able to answer different kinds of coral questions," he said.
But first they had to find some.
Enter the SCUBAnauts. Think the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, but instead of brown or green uniforms and badges, the 'Nauts sport wet suits and regulators, earning rank in the group by accumulating dive time and completing special tasks such as open water and night dives.
The original Tampa Bay chapter draws members from throughout the bay area. The Tarpon Springs chapter has 30 members, mostly from Pasco and northern Pinellas but from as far south as St. Petersburg. The students undergo extensive training on diving techniques and safety before they're allowed to participate in a dive.
Just as the Scouts are about more than enjoying the wilderness, the 'Nauts are about more than fun days spent below the surface, said Mike Waugh, president of the Tarpon Springs chapter. Waugh's son, Connor, a sophomore at East Lake High, joined two years ago.
"They're getting the leadership experience, the research experience and the dive skills," Waugh said.
The Tarpon Springs chapter has been surveying and photographing 25 reefs and the various coral in the waters off Hernando and Pasco counties for the past several months.
Earlier this year, Liston was preparing a presentation of the findings when she came across a photo of a coral she couldn't identify. She called USF for help.
Torres figured it was Cladocora. It's common in these waters, but there has never been an extensive survey, and a researcher has to know where to look. Torres dove with the SCUBAnauts to see for himself.
On Sunday, Torres and Henry went back with the 'Nauts to collect samples. One by one, the divers jumped off the edge of a yellow, 29-foot Prokat dubbed Sunshine, owned and piloted by 'Nauts president Ben Hayes. With a collective hiss of regulators and a burst of bubbles, they were gone.
Fighting a swift current at depths of 15 feet, one team member snapped photos while another jotted notes on waterproof paper.
Madison Hayes, a 15-year-old St. Petersburg High student, travels from St. Petersburg to support the newer Tarpon Springs chapter.
"Someone once said that there were two types of people in SCUBAnauts, those who came for the diving and learned to deal with the science and those that came for the science and learned to deal with the diving," said Hayes, who has been diving for three years. "I definitely relate more to the diving aspect, but I still think it's neat that the data we collect is actually used in the real world. It's great that we're making a difference."
Stress tends to dissolve in the gulf's briny tranquility, Hayes said.
"I love the freedom and that as soon as I'm underwater, nothing else matters," she said. "It's completely peaceful."
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.