A coral within the Dry Tortugas is treated with an antibiotic paste to combat stony coral tissue loss disease. NATIONAL PARK SERVICE/Contributed

A lot of our diving these days revolves around conservation. And well it should. We are at a time where we need help to undo what humans have done to our planet. There are numerous organizations that have risen to this challenge right here in the Florida Keys. Organizations like I.CARE, Coral Restoration Foundation, Reef Renewal and Ocean Conservation Educators, not to mention numerous dive shops offering conservation programs to all the divers around the world that flock to the Keys for a diving vacation.  

Another program that has taken on this challenge to save our reefs is a project called “NOAA’s Ark” established by Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Coral Reef Rescue team. They set out to address the stony coral disease that started in Miami and rapidly spread south through the Keys by harvesting healthy corals before the disease arrived. That landed the scientists in the Dry Tortugas National Park. This is where they harvested healthy corals and disbursed them to numerous aquariums across the nation.  

Stony coral tissue loss disease started in 2014 near Miami. By 2021, the disease had spread as north as Palm Beach County and south to Dry Tortugas National Park. FLORIDA KEYS NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY/Via website

At the aquariums, the corals were cared for and nurtured in hopes of reproduction. The question was, is all this going to work? Well, it did. The corals that were harvested from the Keys reefs reproduced in captivity. Those babies then turned into toddlers and then into teens. The scientists took these healthy teenage corals and replanted them into our waters where the stony coral disease was wreaking havoc. In restoring reef structure using offspring from the reef’s natural corals, it was an unprecedented approach to coral restoration; nobody knew if it was to be successful or not. But something had to be done or these corals were going to die.  

There are so many programs aimed at safeguarding the planet, and so many right here in the Florida Keys. We can make a difference. It’s in our hands now. So get involved. Conservation volunteerism is an incredible thing to share with your family.

Eric Billips is is the owner, captain and instructor at Islamorada Dive Center and Floridia Keys Dive Center. He specializes in scuba, rebreather, spearfishing and captaining in the Florida Keys