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Veterans plant coral off Florida as NFL pursues environmental projects around Super Bowl

From tree plantings to park cleanups, NFL Green aims to use the big game in Tampa as a way to promote sustainability.

Three miles off Miami, some of the special operations veterans got seasick.

Waves chopped at the surface. The water swelled to 5 feet.

Scientists had briefed the military divers and prepared to join them underwater. The mission?

Sea-floor gardening.

The divers lugged crates of coral — not plants, but animals made of polyps — and cement. Roughly 30 feet down, they affixed the corals, a bit bigger than a softball, in an area where disease has devastated Florida’s reefs. The plantings took the shape of a football field.

“The reef is basically barren,” said former Navy SEAL Lt. Commander Kaj Larsen. “The coral is pale, it’s sickly, if existent at all.”

Dubbed “100 Yards of Hope,” the restoration project is one of several environmental initiatives the National Football League has organized around the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 7 in Tampa.

Related: Super Bowl 55 likely to feature limited audience at Raymond James Stadium

The yearly bonanza — of seven-layer dips and $5 million commercials — is to many a celebration of excess. But NFL Green, the league’s environmental wing, tries to use the Super Bowl’s platform to encourage sustainability.

“Sports tend to attract more attention than science,” said Susan Groh, associate director of the program.

That has meant building up a sand dune, planting trees and cleaning out parks around Tampa Bay. The coral project is a continuation of work started for the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami. Some of the corals come from the Florida Aquarium.

A sand dune is seen at Picnic Island, where NFL Green has worked as part of the league's effort to focus on sustainability around the Super Bowl.
A sand dune is seen at Picnic Island, where NFL Green has worked as part of the league's effort to focus on sustainability around the Super Bowl. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Florida Reef Tract is the third-largest barrier reef in the world, but it has been ravaged by disease and is threatened by the effects of warming seas and ocean acidification. The Tampa aquarium grows what scientists hope are more resilient corals. The goal is to restore the reef tract, which forms a key habitat for marine life and a natural bulwark to tropical storms.

“If we don’t have that nursery, basically you’re affecting all the ecosystems,” said Debborah Luke, senior vice president of conservation at the Florida Aquarium. Some of the first corals set in the project have already spawned, she said. It could take up to a year to see babies grow.

Related: Another coral species gives birth at Florida Aquarium, this time on video

For the veteran divers, the satisfaction of the work was immediate. Larsen compared it to “shooting steel,” or the gratification of a sharp ping when his bullet struck a target on the range.

“Within seconds of that coral being cemented, actual little fish would start to come,” he said. Larsen is a journalist who has served active duty or in the reserves for much of the past two decades.

The divers come from a group called FORCE BLUE, which brings together special operations veterans to work on marine conservation, instilling a sense of purpose and collaboration after their service ends.

Angelo Fiore, a former Navy diver from 1986 to 1995, said he saw a parallel between coral ecosystems, which thrive in a lively web among fish and microorganisms, and the “community of interaction” FORCE BLUE tries to maintain for veterans looking to heal after war.

“When we isolate ourselves, it becomes tragic,” Fiore said.

The divers planted about a thousand corals over a few days this fall, many of them staghorns, which look like twiggy bushes with no leaves.

“We got in the end zones and the middle of the field,” said Groh, of NFL Green.

The league’s sustainability effort started nearly three decades ago, she said, originally centered on recycling. NFL Green donates leftover food and materials from Super Bowl events to nonprofits. After the Miami Super Bowl, she said, that encompassed 47,500 meals along with carpet, turf, furniture, clothing and other equipment.

A pollinator garden was planted at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa as part of NFL Green, the league's effort to focus on sustainability around the Super Bowl.
A pollinator garden was planted at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa as part of NFL Green, the league's effort to focus on sustainability around the Super Bowl. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Under the NFL Green umbrella this year, people have loaded sand into a dune at Picnic Island Park and planted a small pollinator garden for bees and butterflies at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa. The league works with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, a local environmental group. It helped remove about five tons of invasive plants, mostly Brazilian pepper trees, from McKay Bay Nature Park, said Laura Riiska, education coordinator for Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful. Next month, the organization is supposed to plant mangroves at Picnic Island.

Groh said funding comes from corporate donors as well as the NFL. Over the years, she said, new businesses have gained an interest in sustainability.

“More people are becoming aware of this and the need to do these projects,” she said.

Much of the effort in Florida, she said, focuses on the coast — a trend she expects to continue as the climate changes.

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