Rescuing A Florida Reef
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
It took a team of patient, devoted volunteer divers with buckets of cement and careful fingers to restore a badly damaged coral reef off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida.
Last fall, scuba divers discovered a large swath of destruction to the coral reef, the length of two football fields, 60 feet below the surface. More than 130 corals had been snapped off, and now they've been reattached.
Bill Fay is project manager for the Breakers Reef Restoration Project. And why don't you describe when you first saw the damage to this reef what it looked like?
Mr. BILL FAY (Breakers Reef Restoration Project): Well, in some areas the top of the reef had been scraped clean and it was littered with broken sponges and corals. The sponges, where they were cut off, were normally brown color, and they were bright-white color. Some of the corals were upside down, sea whips and sea fans laying on the bottom instead of standing upright.
BLOCK: That's got to be like a punch to the gut when you see that, if you're a diver.
Mr. FAY: Absolutely. The Breakers is one of the most frequently dove sites off of Palm Beach and it's a nice reef.
BLOCK: What caused the damage? Do you know?
Mr. FAY: The speculation, which is probably correct, is that during a period in November there was some rough weather, and they think that a barge was under tow from a tugboat with a large steel cable, and some slack went into the cable and the cable was dragged across the reef.
BLOCK: Well, you went down there and figured that you could reattach these corals. How did you do it? What did you do?
Mr. FAY: We had a surface platform boat, which we anchored over the site, and we mixed a Portland cement mixture and lowered it down to the divers, which took the cement and formed it into the right size and shape. The coral and the substrate below were both then cleaned with a wire brush to promote adhesion and were cemented to the bottom.
BLOCK: Just cemented right back together? That doesn't hurt the coral?
Mr. FAY: The top surface of the coral is live tissue. The rest of it is layer upon layer of basically what you would call rock that's been deposited, and so the underside of the coral is not alive, but it is made of a limestone secretion which bonds very well to the calcium-based cement. And also the top of the reef is a limestone. So you get a good chemical bond with the cement, as well as a mechanical bond.
BLOCK: What kinds of coral were you able to reattach?
Mr. FAY: Well, we did some soft corals in terms of sea fans and sea whips, but primarily we were concerned with the hard corals, brain and star corals, anywhere from probably six or eight inches across up to the biggest one was probably four feet across, and that required a few divers to handle that one.
BLOCK: When you guys were working down there, did the fish, did the animals down there pay you much attention? I bet they stayed out of your way.
Mr. FAY: Well, normally when you go down, the fish will tend to swim away, but when you're in one place working on the bottom, they tend to begin to ignore you after a while, and they come around and check you out and you sometimes have quite a few fish around you, and they're a little curious sometimes. They come in to see what you're doing.
BLOCK: So over time - this took a few months, I think; you were able to see this reef sort of coming back to life, I guess.
Mr. FAY: Yeah, the corals that we had attached at the beginning of February, by the time we were done in the middle of March, it was hard to tell which ones had been down there naturally and which ones we had reattached. At the same time, the sponges, which had been sheared off, began to grow back, and you could see which ones were going to do well and which ones were still struggling.
BLOCK: Well, Bill Fay, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. FAY: Thank you.
BLOCK: Bill Fay is the project manager for the Breakers Reef Restoration Project in Palm Beach, Florida.
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