Pat’s Wildways: The Reef is Dead

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
September 2, 2021

Alligator Reef at the Lighthouse has virtually no living coral.

It’s been ages since I’ve snorkeled on a coral reef, way too long, and I was eager to see one again. Once Bucko and I had our second vaccine dose I quickly made reservations to go someplace with a reef, someplace this side of the world, since our usual haunts in Southeast Asia were closed to travelers. So, I picked Belize, near enough, and made reservations. But alas, Covid got worse, and any airplane travel became problematic for us, so, sadly we regrouped instead for a road trip to the Florida Keys. There are still reefs there, right?

Well, not exactly. Four or so decades ago Bucko and I both worked at Miami Seaquarium and sometimes were involved in collecting tropical fish for the aquarium displays. We accompanied the collecting boat crew to a few reef areas in the Keys and happily netted butterfly fish, tangs, angelfish, etc., with beautiful colorful reef fish, invertebrates and other creatures all around us in the water. But that was then. Now is a totally different story.

I was more than eager to get in the water and had borrowed snorkel gear and even a weight belt to help me get my floating bulk a bit deeper down in the water, with plans to free-dive the reef from a snorkel tour boat. But these plans did not pan out. Our first scheduled day on the snorkel boat was cancelled due to waves in a band emanating from passing Hurricane Ida. Finally, our last day in the Keys the snorkel boat was back in action, and we were, finally, on board.

Snorkelers on the Blue catamaran relaxing after their “sporty” time in the rough water.

We were warned about the still-rough seas, two foot high waves, a “sporty day” they told us but we were still game. After all this effort to get there, we at least had to try. We joined about twenty five other snorkelers onboard the Blue catamaran operated by Sundance Water Sports, and noticed that we were by far the oldest passengers on board. When the time came to jump in the water, we were about the first in. But the captain wisely insisted on no weight belt for me—he didn’t want to be responsible for a senior lady jumping into the water and sinking like a rock, as if any weight I carried could compensate for the belly fat that kept me floating.

Bucko and I stuck close together and explored as much of the reef as we could while being jostled by waves. But, the coral reef was dead!!!! The coral itself was only a dead white skeleton of calcium, like a bunch of white rocks. All the diversity of fish that are nurtured in a living reef system were gone. No butterfly fish, tangs, angelfish, and only a lonely parrot fish cruising around. The rest of the fish were common ones, found under any dock on shore—grunts, sergeant majors, snappers, nothing exciting. To new snorkelers it may have been exciting to see these fish, and the one sea turtle that some lucky people spotted. After all these people never had seen the reef before, and I doubt even the young captain had ever seen a healthy reef himself.

At our age it was a problem trying to get back on board with the waves smashing us against the ladder and only one hand rail to haul ourselves up with but the crew helped load us back on board. I’m sure glad I wasn’t trying to lift up a weight belt too. On the boat again, in the rocky waves, I entertained the crew with the story about when Bucko and I went snorkeling from a boat in Zanzibar long ago, and the skipper dropped the two of us off in water by an unclimbable buoy without any floatation devices, just the two of us bobbing in deep water. The boat left us there and headed off with other passengers to look for whales. We feared for our lives, but we are still here.

Tarpon group near a dock waiting to be fed at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada.

Back at the dock at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada we watched people feeding the huge tarpon fish that gathered there in clear water, a better fish viewing from shore than anything we accomplished out on the dead reef.

Of course I’ve heard all the reports about coral dying but to see if for myself was a sobering experience. Climate-change related warming water, hurricanes and other human disturbances have taken their toll on the reef, but now a new threat has erupted. First noticed in Florida in 2014, the stony coral tissue loss disease has now decimated much of the remaining live corals. Alligator Reef by the lighthouse, the spot we visited, was totally devoid of living coral, a massive change since various YouTube videos posted just a couple of year ago. A consortium of public aquariums, federal and state agencies and conservation groups have joined in the Florida Keys Coral Reef Restoration project in a last ditch effort to save Florida’s coral. Some remaining live corals have been collected and are being maintained in aquariums in the hopes that someday these survivors can restock the reefs. But for now, the best chance to see live coral these days is in a tank.

I’m so glad I snorkeled the reefs before they were gone.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Sharon Quarterman
Sharon Quarterman (@guest_62371)
2 years ago

Pat, last time we snorkeled near a dying reef off Key West the captain told us the die off was due to all the sunscreen from tourists in the water. I felt so guilty. Do you agree that sunscreen could have contributed to this sad condition?

Pat F-T
Pat F-T(@pat-f-t)
2 years ago

Sunscreen may be a factor albeit a limited one. More to the point is warming seawater stressing the corals, then an influx of the deadly disease now ravaging the coral and killing much of it.

Bill Owen
Bill Owen (@guest_62379)
2 years ago
Reply to  Pat F-T

The invasive, non-native lionfish is also a contributing factor. They are voracious predators, feeding on many fish that help keep the reef free of algae, and with no natural predators coupled with a high reproductive rate they are destroying reefs all over the Caribbean as well as the Atlantic.

Pat f-T
Pat f-T(@pat-f-t)
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill Owen

Yes non native lion fish are a problem elsewhere in Florida. But I didn’t see any on the dead reef.

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
2 years ago

I scuba dived the Keys 45 years ago when there was live coral almost everywhere; not so anymore. As Pat mentioned, climate change is probably the biggest factor in the dying coral reefs. However we should do everything we can, including banning chemicals in our sunscreens that are known to kill off the algae that live in the coral. Alas, big government and corporate welfare, a.k.a. Ron DeSantis and Republicans, have passed laws that preempt local municipalities from taking such measures. Hawaii, which also relies a lot on tourism, has put almost a total ban on such sunscreens. As I’ve said before, it all comes down to who you vote for.

Richard Norman Kurpiers
Richard Norman Kurpiers (@guest_62378)
2 years ago

I know it can be akin to closing the barn door after the horses have left, or to use another euphemism, a drop in the bucket, but did the crew of the snorkeling tour encourage the use of reef-safe sunscreen among the passengers?

Pat F-T
Pat F-T(@pat-f-t)
2 years ago

No mention about sunscreen anywhere that I saw in the Keys. And yes, at the reef I went to any issues about bad sunscreen lotions were well past having any effect on what is already dead.

Richard Polk
Richard Polk(@rich-polk)
2 years ago

I lived in Key West for about a year back in 1996. There were still some live coral reefs back then. But, the die off was already under way. I recently visited the Keys last year in 2020 and did some diving. There’s a whole new thing going on down there now. I think we’ve passed the point of no return. It’s sad. If we don’t slow down and start taking care of things then, everything will be gone soon.

Timothy Birthisel
Timothy Birthisel (@guest_62417)
2 years ago

I agree and am likewise saddened by the deconstruction of the USA’s coral reef. I have been diving those waters for roughly 50 years now and as a zoologist myself undertook an aquaculture operation in the mid 90’s to create new habitat in the slightly deeper, somewhat cleaner, more temperature stable area of sand flats, just outside the main reef line off Key Largo. I invite interested divers to work with us as we create new habitat for reef life. Terra Sub Aqua,

Douglas R Bradbury
Douglas R Bradbury (@guest_62422)
2 years ago

You should go to the reef. Alligator light and other patches in Hawks Channel have do much fishing pressure that the fish are gone in those places but if you dive or snorkel any of the Sanctuary Protected Areas like Molasses, French, Carysfort and Key Largo North Dry Rocks (Christ Statue) then you’ll see those reefs have plenty of fish, even though there is significant coral bleaching from natural causes.

The dive operator you went with took you tourists to a lousy location becuase the weather was too rough to go out to the real reefs so they took your money for the boat ride and kept you in Hawk’s Channel which is at least 3 miles from the reef line.

Cindy Donofrio
Cindy Donofrio (@guest_62431)
2 years ago

Your publication is wrong. I dive her every week and see all forms of life.

Pat (@guest_62441)
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindy Donofrio

Thanks for this info. It’s good to know and much more encouraging than what I sadly saw. I’ll try to get to another reef someday, unless this new coral disease gets there before I do.

Pat F-T
Pat F-T(@pat-f-t)
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindy Donofrio

Lots of life yes but fewer species in areas where the coral is dead or dying. Here’s more info.

Dale Mattel
Dale Mattel (@guest_62515)
2 years ago
Reply to  Cindy Donofrio

Agreed. I have a home in Islamorada and dive 3 months out of each year. There are areas that have died off, yes but there are new areas that are exploding with new life. These ‘charters’ listen too much to inexperienced divers and snorkelers who only ask is they will see shark, whale and dolphin etc.

Find a real dive center and you will find they know how to locate the beautiful reefs that are thriving. I have been video documenting a few areas where I found rock formations with tiny ‘frags’ over the years. Some of these rock formations are now covered in many coral species.

This article is just another attempt to please the uninformed climate change group. I LIVE to dive and explore coral. I would be the first to worry. It’s nature, climate does change. It’s a fact of life on a 4 billion year old planet. Life always finds a way. In this case it’s just finding new areas to flourish. The fish and the coral will be here long after we are gone.

Pat F-T
Pat F-T (@guest_62442)
2 years ago

Here‘a more info on the new coral disease and it’s progress in attacking the reefs off the Keys.

Holden Blackwell
Holden Blackwell (@guest_62451)
2 years ago

Hi my father rebuilt the structure in the 60’s the reef was spectacular and full of fish and coral. It was beautiful

John Koots
John Koots (@guest_62453)
2 years ago

We went there 09/04 on the same bot and we’re super disappointed at the blank reef. We went to Sombrero reef for the remainder of our snorkeling trip. Sombrero was in much better shape, but also has spreading damage and death.

Pat F-T
Pat F-T(@pat-f-t)
2 years ago
Reply to  John Koots

Seems like some Keys reefs have not yet been impacted my this new disease but once it hits the affected coral species will be lost in weeks or months, not years. So sad. But unlike forest fires it’s happening underwater where most people can’t look.

Curtis McDaniel
Curtis McDaniel (@guest_62471)
2 years ago

Breaks my heart. We remember when.

Chuck Edgar
Chuck Edgar (@guest_62674)
2 years ago

Pat, I grew up in Islamorada from 1951 to 1988 when we moved to Ga. I was 5 when my family moved to the Keys. I am now 75. Alligator reef is shamefully gone. I fished it for years. I enjoyed your article very much and it saddens me for what has happened. Take care.