Cole Kolasa climbed to the bow of the fishing boat, anchor in hand, while his father, Keith, throttled slowly forward, periodically glancing overboard until the faint image of a white limestone outcropping appeared beneath 15 feet of Army-green water.
"That's the ledge right there," Keith Kolasa said, the signal for Cole to drop anchor.
This underwater ridge, a dozen miles west of Bayport, supported one of the rarest life forms in this part of the Gulf of Mexico, one usually associated with crystal tropical water and schools of angelfish, one that Cole, who is set to graduate from Hernando High School on Saturday, has already built a national reputation for studying:
Marine biologists at the University of South Florida doubted its existence in these waters until Cole showed them the proof, Keith said. And Jim Cassick, a dive master, a boat captain and the president and chief executive officer of the organization with which Cole did much of his research, SCUBAnauts International, said that until he heard it from the Kolasas he was also unaware that coral grew so far north.
"Cole is one of our superstars," Cassick said. "He's talking about something that nobody knows about, and he's been studying it for close to a decade even though he's only 18."
Cole has twice appeared on panels of young scientists at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation's Capitol Hill Ocean Week, and has presented his research at a conference of the American Academy of Underwater Scientists.
He not only has a college reference letter from an assistant administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Craig N. McLean, but it's a glowing one:
"(Cole) has astounded the marine science community ... with his independent research and love for the ocean."
This came out of a general passion for the outdoors, Cole said last Friday as his father steered the boat through the channel markers off Bayport and into the open gulf.
In fact, he struck me as the perfect antidote to the stereotype of pasty, screen-addicted teenagers. He's trim and tan with sun-bleached hair. Along with packing in swim practice and enough studying to earn a 4.2 grade-point average, he found time in his high school years for backpacking, surfing and sea kayaking.
He has favorite mountain biking trails in the Withlacoochee State Forest and favorite redfish holes off Aripeka. And, of course, favorite growths of coral.
Cole was inspired to study the gulf by reports of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. "I always wanted to get in the water, but I really wanted to see how that had impacted things," he said.
He decided to focus on coral because his father, now Hernando County's aquatic services manager, had noticed the growths while researching sea grass beds in his former job with the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Robust ivory coral can grow off Hernando because, as its name suggests, it can survive in colder, cloudier water than most other varieties, and because of the toehold provided by the many limestone ridges on the gulf floor. The biggest of these growths, and the one Cole has spent the most time researching, is named after the intersection of two such ridges, Twin Shoals.
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I could expect to see a shin-high shrub of coral about 18 inches long, Cole said, as he and his father pulled on tanks, masks and fins, and gathered the tools of their research: ruler, waterproof note pad, camera fitted with a compass and GPS device to document location. And judging from his measurements of its slow growth — .3 inches per year — he estimated it was 120 years old.
"It's like a big oak tree," he said.
Swimming north from the boat, Cole and his father skimmed over sponges that even in the murky water looked vibrantly yellow, orange and purple, and grew in a mind-bending variety of shapes — bunched tubes, low-lying bulges, ripple-walled vases.
They passed isolated fingers of robust ivory, each one a colony of dime-sized invertebrates, and swam among lingering snapper and grouper that testified to the rich habitat provided by even this small shoal.
They did not, however, see the one growth of coral notable enough to deserve a name.
"We should have seen it," Keith said. "It's a big old piece of coral."
He and Cole descended again, swimming south over another sponge-covered ridge, then back north. Still, no Twin Shoals coral.
A carelessly dropped anchor could have destroyed it, Keith said, back at the boat. But more likely, because they didn't see any rubble, someone had chiseled it from its base to put in an aquarium.
"It's just not there," he said. "That's discouraging. That's really discouraging."
"It's sad," Cole agreed.
But he seemed to recover quickly from the loss, picking up a fishing rod and getting in a few quick casts before the trip home, and turning to subjects such as a recent hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Cole has already documented the spread of algae across coral closer to shore, possibly a result of fertilizer runoff into the gulf. He has spent summers in the Florida Keys, helping restore coral beds ravaged by vandalism, pollution and warming waters.
Cole, who plans to attend the University of Central Florida, isn't sure whether he will make a career as a marine biologist. But even at his age, he's spent enough time in the field to absorb one of its standard lessons.
Destruction of nature, though hopefully not inevitable, is hardly a shock.
Contact Dan DeWitt at email@example.com; follow @ddewitttimes.