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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