A RAUCOUS RIDE TO A PEACEFUL PLACE
Cruising wide-open in an 18-foot skiff on the ruffled waters of the Florida Keys is not for the faint of heart. Leaps and bounds bruise your senses — and also your knees and lower back.
But once you arrive and drop anchor over a coral reef in the Florida Keys, you realize it’s most definitely worth it. The bluebird sky and the surface of the sea are both magically beautiful, but what lies 15 feet or so beneath the surface dwarfs all else. This is why Smith does what she does.
It is now June 2017. Smith and her team, already adorned in wetsuits, don scuba gear and prepare to plunge into the warm water. Their assignment today is to transplant coral. Three of the varieties will be put in place using a cement mixture. The fourth — the fragile staghorn — will be attached using concrete nails and tie-wraps.
Noonan has been assigned the unenviable task of mixing cement with silica powder in plastic bowls and then placing fist-sized globs of it into plastic ziplock bags. By the end of the day, she is so covered with powder, she looks more like a Greek statue than a scuba diver.
“There’s a reason they use trucks to make cement,” she says sardonically.
With Noonan remaining onboard, the other four members of the team go about the arduous process of transplanting dozens of fragments of coral. Whitaker and Rolfe take turns bringing the cement and coral fragments down to the first PVC marker. Smith then smooshes the cement onto the relatively flat surface of dead coral skeleton and presses the living coral fragment into the cement. Amazingly, the cement starts to harden even though it is underwater, and the fragment holds. One down, 191 to go.
“There’s nothing like being underwater,” Whitaker says. “You think it’s silent at first, but once you get used to it, you can hear all the snapping and all the crunching of the different fish. It’s just amazing to be able to see everything moving around you and how much life there is in the ocean.”
“I didn’t expect the work to be as exhausting as it is,” Rolfe adds. “But it’s wonderful work, and the things we see on a daily basis continue to amaze me.”
Meanwhile, Sims records what species of coral is transplanted where, making sure that everything is well-organized and properly documented. “I’ve done a lot of data collection and analysis with this project, both in the field and in the lab at Clemson,” Sims says. “And it’s been really cool to see the way the project has grown.”
At the end of the day, the team is exhausted. And this is just one day out of many before all the fragments are in place. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve grown a lot through the process and have even become a mentor,” Smith says. “I didn’t expect to love my ‘kids’ as much as I do. Each student has taught me a lesson and left me with a wonderful memory. It’s emotionally taxing to go out and see a new disease has popped up or one of the corals you transplanted just a week ago has already been taken out by something. But it’s worth it to know that I’ve had so many wonderful undergraduates who have been inspired by this work and now want to go out and help change the world.”
One day, Childress takes the team out to a reef that none of them have seen before — not for research but just for recreation. Unlike so many other coral reefs in the Florida Keys, this one is in pristine condition, and the water enveloping it is as clear as air. A forest of purple, yellow and teal sea plumes sways gently in the current. Magnificent boulders of star coral sprout from the sandy bottom. Parrotfish, damselfish and angelfish dart this way and that, though a few nestle motionless in the dense cover, as if asleep. What at first appears to be a long stick buried in the sand turns out to be the tail of a stingray, the rest of its body hidden from view. If you look closely enough, however, you can make out a pair of watchful eyes.
“We occasionally explore new locations to identify future reefs for coral restoration or other experiments,” Childress says. “This reef had one of the highest density of corals of any reef in the middle Florida Keys. It was exciting for me to see this reef but even more exciting to watch my students’ reactions. It was as if we had gone back in time, and they were seeing a reef the way they used to be.”
WEATHERING THE STORM
Even the most precise and best-laid plans can be derailed by unexpected circumstances. When Hurricane Irma slammed southern Florida on September 10, 2017, the monstrous storm devastated large swaths of the Florida Keys.
The Keys Marine Laboratory, a state-owned marine field station where Smith and her team are permitted to base much of their operations, experienced severe flooding. But at least the team’s boat, the R/V Argus, survived the storm intact.
In October 2017, the team visited six of its research reefs, and Smith discovered that more than 50 percent of her transplanted corals had been either killed, crushed, dislodged or buried in sand by the storm. As feared, the fragile staghorn corals had suffered the most damage — almost 80 percent lost — yet more than 50 percent of the hardier stony corals had survived.
Smith’s original experiment was to see if she could predict the coral fragments’ long-term resilience to climate change, but now her study will include how quickly and in what ways the reefs can rebound from hurricane disturbance. She will examine how this sudden change in community structure influences the settlement and growth of new corals, including her surviving transplants. To this point, her team’s overall conclusion is that despite the severe effects of thermal bleaching and hurricane disturbance, the reef communities of the Florida Keys are hanging in there by the tenacity of a few species of corals that show high resilience. However, continued monitoring of changes in reef community structure will be needed to understand the long-term resilience of the Florida Reef Track.
The good news is that reefs are well-adapted to recover from natural disasters. The bad news is that climate change doesn’t come and go as fast as a hurricane.
The starkness of this reality has caused some researchers to give up. But not Smith. When the silt from Hurricane Irma finally settles, she’ll be back at work, displaying the kind of resilience she hopes to find in her coral transplants.