BAYPORT — 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 to the spot so they could collect some Cladocora for research.
"It's a godsend," Jose Torres, a biological oceanography professor at USF's College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg, said of the SCUBAnauts' invitation. "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 … 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 group, formerly known as SCUBA Scouts, 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.
The original Tampa Bay chapter draws members from throughout the bay area. The Tarpon Springs chapter has attracted students from as far south as St. Petersburg. There also is a chapter in Key West.
The students undergo extensive training on diving techniques and safety, including CPR certification, before they can 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 dived with the SCUBAnauts earlier this year to see for himself.
"They've learned the value of what the kids can do underwater," said Keith Kolasa, a senior environmental scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District and an avid diver who volunteers as the Tarpon Springs chapter's chief scientist.
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.
Connor Waugh gave his team the plan to attack the reef. "Let's go down and we'll follow it to the edge underwater," Waugh said. "Sound good?"
Fighting a swift current at depths of 15 feet, one team member snapped photos while another jotted notes on waterproof paper.
Parent volunteer Jim Alaniz of Palm Harbor waited on Sunshine. He and his son, 15-year-old Danny, got into diving for father-son bonding.
"I can't play basketball with him anymore, but I can dive with him," the elder Alaniz said. "As parent, I can't tell you how exciting it is to see these kids do this kind of work."
Back on board, the divers shed their serious research mode along with their scuba gear, reminiscing about a recent trip to Taco Bell and laughing when one of the boys tried to sing a Taylor Swift song.
The night before, Morgan Liston and her 15-year-old sister, Brooke, had donned dresses for homecoming and still sported purple nail polish Sunday morning. Morgan said she wasn't tempted to sleep in.
"I couldn't miss a dive. It's a chance to learn a lot of new things, and it's what I'm passionate about. It's my favorite place, my favorite thing to do, in the entire world."
Aaron Rusoff, a junior at East Lake High, enjoys the scientific part so much he's considering a career as a marine biologist.
But like most divers, it's the otherworldly experience beneath the surface that brings him back for more.
"It's just beautiful," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.