ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
To Florida now where on Saturday an underwater excavation is set to begin at the Port of Miami. The shipping channel will be dredged and deepened to accommodate larger cargo ships expected with the expansion of the Panama Canal. Now this shipping channel also happens to be a home of thriving coral reef. NPR's Greg Allen, recently joined a group of scientists on an urgent mission to save as many corals as they can before the excavation begins.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: A lab just off the Miami River has become the base for an unusual lifesaving operation.
COLIN FOORD: So this is a cactus coral, this is a Mycetophyllia. It's about 10 inches in diameter. It's a pretty unusual coral, one that is definitely - should not be destroyed.
ALLEN: Throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean, coral reefs are protected. Even scientists aren't allowed to take coral from the wild without special permits. But in Biscayne Bay with underwater exhibition just days away, 32-year-old Colin Foord and a small group of marine researchers are racing the clock.
FOORD: They're calling these corals of opportunity. Essentially corals that are living in a place that is slated to be, you know, destroyed for an infrastructure, government infrastructure project. They've basically allowed us to go in at the last minute and try to rescue all of the smaller corals that have been left behind.
ALLEN: Foord's company, Coral Morphologic, researches Florida's coral reef and documents them through film and multimedia. Working under a state permit, he and other divers are transplanting the corals they save to an artificial reef a few miles away. On a small boat, Foord and three other researchers motored down the Miami River into Biscayne Bay. Slowing at one point to make way for a manatee. This is a working port, with massive freighters and cruise ships coming and going. Foord says it also turns out to be good habitat for coral.
FOORD: We're finding brain coral, we're finding boulder coral, the mountainous star coral. we are finding about four or five species of corals that just this past year were proposed to be listed on the endangered species list, and they're all growing out there.
ALLEN: The boat speeds past huge gantry cranes unloading container ships at the port, pass condos and sunbathers on Miami Beach, another two miles out into the bay.
FOORD: We're about to come up on the edge, south side of the third reef tract.
ALLEN: In the middle of the channel here on the previous day divers spotted some large corals. They've come back to rescue them.
FOORD: Do you want me to first kind of put you over the spot.
ALLEN: As Foord maneuvers the boat, port officials pull up in another boat to warn the crew that a freighter is coming, headed right through the spot where their diving. They are told they have 20 minutes.
FOORD: OK, that's all we need. I have coral from yesterday that they had to abandon. We're just going to get the corals and we're going to get out.
ALLEN: As the boat bobs in a choppy 3-foot sea, Sam May, a junior at the University of Miami, pulls on his wet suit and diving gear.
SAM MAY: The depth is not what's exceptionally challenging about here, it's the fact that it's such a busy waterway. And we have to time it correctly around the currents or otherwise we have this huge 5 to 6 knot current that flows through.
ALLEN: May and another diver go into the water with big baskets attached to buoys. Within a few minutes, Foord and another crew member haul in the baskets. Inside are 30-pound corals nearly two feet in diameter.
FOORD: We should not be destroying corals that are that huge.
ALLEN: With a freighter bearing down, Foord begins motoring the boat back to the lab. Diver Sam May says these are some of the largest corals he's handled and there are still more to be rescued.
MAY: We got to the end of the dive and there's still some of the biggest ones that are still down there, which is a huge shame.
ALLEN: Rough weather this week has hampered the crews' work. Weather permitting, Foord says they'll be out every day saving as much coral as possible until Saturday, when excavation is set to begin. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.