Don’t baby your babies—after two weeks of life, just toss them in the water and see what happens. The results will be 10 times more effective and 25 times cheaper.

These are new claims behind an experimental approach to create an orphanage for coral reefs. Instead of raising young corals for years in a pricey laboratory, remove them soon after reproduction and hurl them onto a natural reef, where they will face menacing microbes and strange sponges. The toughest babies will survive and eventually reach emancipation.

The harsh beginning is like thrusting an infant onto a brutal, muddy obstacle course with thousands of steroid-driven adult competitors. Coral experiments on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao are proving that two-week old infants survive better in the wild than the typical two-year old from the laboratory. But there must be some element of shock.

 

skip to 15:40 to see Valerie Chamberland discuss the “only specimen in the world in artificial conditions.”

“Oh my God, what is this new world!” says the youthful marine scientist Valerie Chamberland, imagining the reaction of a baby coral moving from the laboratory to the ocean only two weeks after fertilization. She says babies left in the laboratory too long become spoiled and unable to transition into the real, cruel world.

“When you raise baby corals in an aquarium, they get used to it,” she says. “We give them a reality check right away.”

Valerie Chamberland

Valerie Chamberland works with the world’s smallest corals.

At a recent meeting of specialists in Caribbean marine environments, Chamberland reported positive and cost-saving results from a few years of piloting the technique. A true internationalist, the native of Quebec works in Curacao and is finishing a doctorate for the University of Amsterdam, with funding from the German SECORE Foundation.

Taking risks with young corals is paying off.

“We didn’t know if it would work at all,” she says, sitting at a table just a few feet from the beach at the Carmabi Research Station in Curacao. The center celebrated its 60th anniversary last week when it hosted the meeting of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean, where Chamberland and nearly 200 other scientists shared their findings.

Coral reefs worldwide have suffered huge declines in the past few decades, and climate change threatens to eliminate them from the planet this century. Researchers are scrambling to create new restoration techniques that might help them recover—or at least buy some time. Similar to reforestation on land, the field of coral gardening is so new that no one really knows what methods will stick.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Plenty of people can raise corals for aquariums, but few know how to release them successfully into the wild. With a new tetrapod mold designed to fit into natural reefs, Chamberland and her team go scuba diving and deploy the baby corals in ten seconds flat.

“We just wedge them into the reef. It’s super fast,” she says with a smile. The new concrete tiles came from a contest held by the SECORE Foundation, which specializes in the sexual reproduction of corals. Chamberland works with SECORE’s president, Dirk Petersen, and board member Mark Vermeij, who organized the meeting in Curacao.

The initial process of creating coral babies in the laboratory is nearly as involved as humans seeking in-vitro. Divers must wait for the full moon and other cues to predict coral spawning.

“In the field, spawning is dictated by temperature and the lunar cycle,” says Chamberland. “We use a big spawning net and we tent the colonies. On the top is an inverted funnel.”

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

After they catch the buoyant eggs and sperm, divers haul them back to the lab, and mix. Coral larvae must attach themselves onto the palm-sized concrete tiles, which are much larger than previous models. It’s similar to a snail clinging to the Empire State building.

Soon to be published in a scientific journal, the technique has been proven with common brain corals. Now the team is expanding its use for endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.

The hopeful findings were a trend at the week’s meeting of marine scientists, even though they recognize that threats are severe and growing. “Not everything is dead yet,”said Mark Vermeij, one of Chamberland’s co-experimenters, when introducing a plenary speaker. That speaker’s talk ended with a hashtag: #OceanOptimism.

The smallest of coral creatures are bringing optimism to beleaguered Caribbean reefs, because their harsh childhood could result in a new breed of survivors.

It can’t, but swimmers can.

And swimmers know non-swimmers, who can do even more.

This week I’ve been blogging about Biscayne National Park in preparation for a fundraising and awareness-raising effort that centers around a marathon swim as the hook. Hooked yet? It worked last June when I swam the 12.5 miles around Key West solo: I dedicated it to the climate change activism of 350 South Florida, which I serve as president, and people pulled out their wallets. I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was (the fundraising, not the swim!).

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Blog posts review some of the reasons why Biscayne National Park needs help:
Jan Brady syndrome
Big and shallow
Nuclear expansion
Disappearing ecosystems

Another reason is to celebrate what the park has and has accomplished. Next year, 2016, is the centennial of the national park system, and Biscayne National Park turns 50 in a couple years. So creating a swim event now and repeating it annually would hit several landmarks and help make “sea”-marks.

Swimmers Too Dry

As a lifelong swimmer and more recent environmentalist, I have been disappointed with the lack of engagement by competitive swimmers with conservation. Can you name one swimmer, or one swimming event, that champions the environment?

Attempts have been feeble. The Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol, a spokesperson for Oceana, tried to use the open water Race for the Oceans as a platform, but it fizzled.

When I competed in 2013 in the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim, which claims to support reef conservation, I saw no efforts to educate swimmers about the highly degraded reef system we swam over.

Water rules.

Water rules.

In the 2014 Swim Around Key West, I scored a small victory by getting samples of reef-safe sunscreen included in the goodie bags. But I couldn’t convince the island’s Reef Relief organization to get invovled.

The connection of swimmers to water is so obvious that it makes me wonder: are we afraid to know what we’re swimming in? Or does swimming in chlorinated pools make us numb to natural aquatic ecosystems?

I think the problem with swimmers is that nobody has asked them to get more involved. So I’m asking. I want to try, where I live, to defend an amazing national treasure. Swim it to save it.

Who’s ready to join me?

With all the world’s problems, who cares about a safe and secure national park?

Plenty of people do, and in this age of political divisiveness, we could all use something that everyone agrees on. National parks, like Everglades and Biscayne, make Floridians and Americans proud, and the possibility of losing them would certainly rally people around a worthy cause.

To do something now, contribute to my campaign to Swim for Biscayne National Park, at http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne.

In fact, we are losing these two parks. Almost all of the land in both parks will be underwater within a few decades, due to rising seas, and strong hurricanes could be devastating in the shorter term. Then there’s ocean acidification.

Reef Rot

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don't, because they arrive by boat.

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don’t, because they arrive by boat.

The coral reefs within Biscayne National Park, part of the extensive Florida Reef system, face 15 rounds of punches from all angles. The changing chemistry of the sea, cause by the absorption of too much carbon dioxide from pollution, puts a slow chokehold on animals such as corals. It will take decades to determine, but acidification could prove to be the strongest force of extinction ever seen by humans.

This year, if predictions about El Nino come true, all coral reefs could be dealing with a devastating warming event. These events only need a few abnormally warm weeks to turn living corals into skeletons. The last major bleaching event in Florida was nearly a decade ago, and the likelihood of the next one keeps rising. If not this year, definitely plan on next year for more coral bleaching and disease. And it will keep getting worse, with no relief from climate change in sight.

Boating in Mud

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, from boats hitting the shallows.

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, caused by boats hitting the shallows.

Clueless boaters are a daily threat to Biscayne National Park. Propellers rip through the shallow seagrass and leave scars that are common sights throughout the park.

Fishers leave behind plenty of hooks and line, the most common type of marine debris in the park. When I was snorkeling there in 2013, I came across a large net lodged in a reef. It was too difficult to dislodge, but the authorities were notified.

Just this month, an enormous 6,000 pound plastic pipe washed up on Elliott Key. What a nightmare.

Just as litter accumulates, natural things decrease. Intensive fishing creates ecosystem imbalances by removing large numbers of creatures. For years, Biscayne National Park has been fighting to create zones closed to fishing, but local politicians and their fishing buddies won’t have it.

Money is Tight

You would be wrong to assume that a national park prevents hunting (such as fishing) and that is has plenty of money to operate. The budget for Biscayne National Park is around $4 million annually to fund all its programs and upkeep, about 40 employees, and more than 500,000 visitors. Although it has no entrance fee, Biscayne National Park would only need to charge $8 per visitor to cover its entire budget. Without such fees, it relies on taxes and other sources of income that may prove unreliable.

The park isn’t going anywhere today, but at the same time, its future and its prosperity are not guaranteed. Little Orphan Biscayne needs people to care for it as much as they care about the Everglades. Where are the billions of dollars for restoration of the Florida Reef? Where are the laws to prevent boaters and fishers from hacking the ecosystem to pieces?

Swimmers, stand up and take stock of Biscayne National Park. Maybe our strokes could bring new life and needed attention to this underwater treasure.

Last week, President Obama stood in Everglades National Park

and stated that the region’s water supply and the entire wetland ecosystem are threatened by climate change, and especially sea level rise. If he stood a mere 10 miles away in Biscayne National Park, his warnings would need to be equally if not more dramatic.

Of the many threats facing the area, here are a few on the hot plate:
• the nuclear plant
• reef rot
• boat traffic

The Nuclear Turkey

Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station plant is the most visible eyesore near Biscayne National Park, and news broke last week of Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings to build two new reactors in the same, waterfront

The dock near Biscayne National Park's visitor center offers clear views of the nuclear plant.

The dock near Biscayne National Park’s visitor center offers clear views of the nuclear plant.

location. The state of Florida approved the project last year, and the NRC will issue the final ruling at some point after the comment period closes on May 22.

Not surprisingly, the park’s superintendent Brian Carlstrom has condemned the project, but he’s up against Florida Power & Light and its extensive lobby. A collection of mayors in Miami-Dade County raise important concerns in this video:

“Who in their right mind would put two new nuclear plants at sea level, with storm surge?” asked Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest and a strong environmental advocate. Fair question. Yet while storm surge happens infrequently, daily water extraction makes the current twin reactors the largest consumer of water in the county. Turkey Point is so expansive that it ranks as the nation’s sixth largest power plant.

The plant remained mostly intact after a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, so wind is not the issue. It’s the water. Turkey Point uses 6,800 acres (about 10.5 square miles) of cooling canals that had previously been pristine wetlands. The winding canals are 168 miles in length. Miami-Dade County has complained about a recent reduction oversight, because Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) removed some of the water management district’s authority.

The accusation of secrecy and consolidation of power within FDEP echoes recent reports of FDEP’s implicit censorship of climate science.

Although the environmental questions around the new nuclear reactors are mighty, the state’s biggest concern is purely economic, because new reactors are extremely expensive to build. If predicted rates of sea level rise prove correct, the plant would not have time to recover its costs. The question now is if the state and FP&L will listen to science and to citizens, or only to their own wishes.

Tomorrow I’ll address some of Biscayne National Park’s other looming threats.

Where should we go?

Even if you don’t swim, you can help me figure out the best place to hold an official marathon swim in Biscayne National Park, the underwater jewel just south of Miami. For a couple of years I’ve been ruminating about The Swim for Biscayne National Park, and now it’s morphed into a crowdfunding idea (http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne). The swim’s main intention is to enlighten locals about the park’s existence, because no one will care if they don’t know it’s there.

I would love a large grant from one of the donors to the South Florida National Parks Trust, but I haven’t approached most of them, because I haven’t succeeded in drumming up much enthusiasm within my circle of influence. I’m even reluctant to talk about it, because I can’t afford to do much on my own, and I don’t have a boat to explore the park. Obviously, I could use a little boost, whether in word in in dollar.

Biscayne National Park is the large blue outline, just east of Miami (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

Biscayne National Park is outlined as a large block attached to Miami-Dade County. (Map from Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

 

 

Swimming in Circles

As for the swim’s course, considering that you can fish nearly anywhere, and take your boat nearly anywhere, it’s safe to assume that you can swim nearly anywhere in Biscayne National Park.

Almost. A triangle in the Atlantic, directly east of Elliott Key, is off-limits to everything expect drift fishing and trolling. The Legare Anchorage holds an ancient British shipwreck, the HMS Foley, that sank in 1748.

Never mind, as there are plenty of other wrecks in the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, and plenty of space to float around.

BISCmap1

The border of Biscayne National Park is less than a mile from Miami. (credit: “BISCmap1″ by Mgreason, Public Domain, Wikipedia)

From the island of Key Biscayne near Miami, the park border lies less than half a mile from Bill Baggs State Park. Less than two miles away is historic Stiltsville, one of the most arresting sights in Florida. A group of wrecks surround the houses on stilts, and that loop would makes for a very cool, four-mile round trip swim. It is unknown if anyone has attempted this swim, and logistically it’s the easiest one to attempt. We could pull that crew together (kayaks and swimmers) in no time and at minimal cost.

Despite its huge size, most of Biscayne National Park is less than 12 feet deep, especially within Biscayne Bay. A deeper strip runs on the Atlantic side, further out to sea, but it becomes shallow again within sight of Elliot Key. Here are dozens of beautiful, shallow coral reefs.

That’s where I would love to stage a swim, and it’s where I went snorkeling in 2013 with classmates from Florida International University studying marine protected areas. Read more about that experience in an article I wrote for National Parks Traveler. We saw endangered elkhorn corals thriving here, which essentially represents their northernmost limit. That sight alone is worth the trip.

For a self-propelled visit from an island, the closest reef to Elliott Key requires more than one mile of swimming. Most reefs are more than three miles offshore, so swimming to them and back would require quite an effort. Not impossible, but challenging, and the exact course would require some consultations with experts.

Getting to the reefs by boat is not difficult, so another option involves hopping off a boat, like the snorkelers do, and finding a pathway between the patch reefs. With the right launching point, you could hit several reefs within a one-mile trek.

On the Other Paddle

Perhaps the most media-friendly challenge would be the “escape to Miami” swim from Boca Chita Key, a popular haunt for boaters with a scenic lighthouse. Either west to the mainland or north to Key Biscayne would involve about nine miles through shallow water. Definitely do-able, and it’s unlikely that anyone has tried it.

Depending on the currents, we may want to go one direction or another. Help! The Gulf Stream is nearby and pushes north, but there must be many other currents driven by the tides, especially around the sandy, grassy area known as the Safety Valve. Viewed rom above, the tidal stripes clearly run east to west.

Well, I guess I’ll keep studying the options. It would be fun to organize an inaugural, communal swim around Stiltsville by the end of May (the 31st?) as a way to kickstart this campaign.

Visit the Park, Any Way

Even if you don’t want to get wet, definitely plan to visit Biscayne National Park soon. When arriving by boat, consider using the existing mooring buoys instead of an anchor. Most buoys are in water of about 20 feet deep.

Arriving by car involves driving through Homestead to reach the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point, open until 5:00 p.m. You can’t easily swim in the shallows around here, although kayaking is encouraged. There’s a boardwalk and areas for a picnic near the bay.

Not far from shore, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles are living the dream in Biscayne National Park. Join them.

When it comes to the three national parks in South Florida, all you ever hear is “Everglades, Everglades, Everglades!”

This chant recalls the whines of the Brady Bunch’s TV character Jan Brady, the middle girl who couldn’t compete for attention with her popular older sister (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!“) or her cute little sister. The same dynamic is happening with these parks.

The attention lavished on Everglades National Park is well deserved, and President Obama chose to a visit it on Earth Day. But did he visit, or even mention, the other national park a mere 10 miles away?

With its double blessing, Miami-Dade County may be the only U.S. county to host two national parks: Everglades, and Biscayne National Park.

Say what? Most people near Miami don’t even know that Biscayne National Park exists. Another, third national park in southern Florida is much further away and accessible only by boat, west of Key West: Dry Tortugas National Park.

The three Brady Bunch girls.

The three Brady Bunch girls.

So “here’s a story of a lovely lady (South Florida), who is bringing up three very lovely girls:”
• Marcia: Everglades National Park
• Jan: Biscayne National Park
• Cindy: Dry Tortugas National Park

(Put those names together and you have an instant drag queen persona: Marcia Everglades, Jan Biscayne, and Cindy Dry.)

Biscayne National Park is the middle child in age, established formally in 1980 as a national park before the Dry Tortugas designation in 1992. It’s also second in size and popularity, with more than a half million visitors annually, as compared to Everglades’ annual visitorship of nearly 1 million. By this metric, both parks are moderately popular among the nation’s 59 national parks.

So why can’t Jan, I mean Biscayne National Park, get a presidential “Amen”? Is Jan Biscayne too “middle of the road,” too pedestrian to command the spotlight? Certainly not, but its status as an underwater park makes it invisible. Even many boaters floating in and out of the park have no idea where they are, because the ocean has no “Welcome to Biscayne” signs on the surface.

Perhaps getting people in the water can change that, and I am drumming up support for the Swim for Biscayne National Park (http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne). Still in its conceptual phase, the swim should start to become real, very soon, when an organized group of swimmers start visiting the park to swim around it.

Stay tuned, and let’s do this, for Jan!

"Totten Key"  by National Park Service South Florida / Caribbean Network - National Park Service website, Wikimedia Commons

“Totten Key” by National Park Service South Florida / Caribbean Network – National Park Service website, Wikimedia Commons

"Say hello to the corals." A cruise ship leaves Port Everglades.

“Say hello to the corals.” A cruise ship leaves Port Everglades.

IMG_4826

Staghorn corals grow below, perhaps even directly under this ship.

Having healthy corals growing underneath all the cruise and cargo ships entering Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades is bizarre, and now researchers have found even more of them. New maps and surveys show large patches of the endangered staghorn coral running the entire length of Broward County, as reported in the L.A. Times.

 "B Bischof/Marine Photobank."

Staghorn coral can be propagated by clippings, giving another source of hope to reefs (by B. Bischof/Marine Photobank).

It’s even more surprising when you consider that staghorn coral is rapidly disappearing from the Keys, which has a small population of about 80,000 people, yet it’s growing nearby a shoreline with several million people. How is this possible? That mystery deserves a full investigation. One theory is that a warming ocean makes temperature conditions more favorable at higher latitudes. Too bad corals can’t walk–or fly like the snowbirds.

I hope someone will offer to take me diving soon to see these splendid corals. For now, you can fly over them by visiting the map on this page from Nova Southeastern University (scroll down to “South Florida Coral Reef Mapping Flyby” on right side), and select Watch our Video! As the map moves north from Miami, notice the three almost parallel lines–those are the three reef ridges. So, so close to shore and those millions of people–yet somehow stayin’ alive.

If that map makes you dizzy, try this psychedelic view of the Strait of Florida from outer space. The warm-water corals of the Florida Reef grow inside (slightly west of) the shallow areas shaded white (click on dot for Florida Slope). Notice the red area for Florida’s lesser known, deep and cold-water reefs. Deep reefs have even more coral species diversity than shallow reefs!

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