Reef Renewal USA’s Gabrielle Rosenbacher, left, talks to the Hill family about the outplanting process.

Helping to rebuild the Keys’ vital coral reef ecosystem fits the bill for Earth Day, and that was the goal on April 20-22 as Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters once again partnered with Reef Renewal USA and Captain Hook’s for a coral fragmentation workshop and coral nursery maintenance dives.

In a continuation of the partnership’s first Marathon event in September 2022, Reef Renewal, Aquarium Encounters and Captain Hook’s staff spent Thursday and Friday afternoon helping members of the public use band saws to cut larger pieces of boulder corals into smaller pieces. Known as fragmenting, the process accelerates the growth of the corals, allowing each coral to grow, cover the cement plug to which it is affixed, and eventually spawn earlier than it would otherwise. The fragments are typically ready to outplant on areas of the reef after six to 12 months spent in a nursery.

On Saturday, teams of divers headed out to the reefs off Marathon and Big Pine Key to return the fragmented corals to nurseries where they can grow undisturbed under close supervision. Volunteers also spent time cleaning coral trees and touring restoration sites to showcase the progress of already-outplanted corals.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.