The CWVC worked with Scubanauts to plant coral on the reef. The three ‘nauts here are zip-tying coral to nails in the reef.

Students and soldiers work together

Fifty divers bowed their heads in silence Monday morning to remember the soldiers lost this month before heading out to plant coral on Mote Marine’s living memorial reef located off Big Pine Key. The people included Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge (CWVC) like Marines and Army Rangers, Mote Marine staff, Scubanaut International student divers, and media. For four years, they have combined forces to help the reef plot. Out of the 7,500 corals planted through the program, CWVC and the Scubanauts are responsible for 1,000.

“I couldn’t think of a better combination of people,” said executive director Dr. David Vaughan of Mote Marine’s Summerland Key research lab while addressing the volunteer researchers and divers. A little less than half of the volunteers have been with the project for one year, some started four years ago when the partnership began.

The soldiers not only helped plant the corals, with the help of the students, but overcame many obstacles most divers don’t have to think about — like pumping all the air bubbles out of special underwater prosthetics in order to maintain the proper suction. One diver tangled with his prosthesis 30 feet underwater. He swam to the sandy area and laid face down while his dive buddy checked out the issue. A minute later, they each gave the OK sign and continued on their coral planting mission.

According to Mote’s Erich Bartels, 75 percent of the planted corals succeed. “It proves we are on the right track,” he said.

Bartels, who manages the coral planting programs, said the installations are pretty low-tech. Nails are embedded on the ocean floor and the newly grown coral fragments are tied in place with zip cables. Five pieces from the same genotype are grouped within a foot radius of each other, and within a year, the five pieces fuse together. Five sites, each with different genotypes, are in a common vicinity. “This is a critical part of the process,” he said. “It jump starts its viability, and within two years, the coral is spawning.”

President and CEO of Mote Marine’s Michael Crosby added that the partnership is very vital to the organization. “Volunteer citizen scientists gather data and conduct science,” he said adding that Mote is growing more coral than they can plant. “We need bodies and hands on the reef.”

This is a good problem to have, since they said that the coral has a lot working against it, like too hot and too cold spells, PH changes in the water, and natural predators, like the six-feet long nurse shark that swam around the planting site that can wreak havoc on newly planted corals if its eyes are set on a crab or conch that migrates through.

Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation representatives were on hand to help with the process and the “Today” show also filmed the process. It will air sometime this weekend according to the media reps at the event.

CWVC and the Scubanauts continued working throughout the week on underwater prosthetic research.

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