Coral reefs – and astronauts greet divers in Key Largo
After an evening featuring five members of the Cousteau family appearing together at the Society of Environmental Journalists opening banquet, one would be hard-pressed to think that could be topped. But for attendees of the dive trip tour Thursday, the epic night lead to an epic day full of opportunities.
At 6:30 a.m., members of the dive trip lined up in front of the bus to head to Key Largo, an hour and a half south of conference headquarters at the Intercontinental Miami. They were joined by two people from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration: Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator, and Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for its National Marine Sanctuary Program. Both spoke to the journalists and answered questions along the way.
After arriving at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, the group was joined by several marine scientists and conservationists with expertise in coral reefs.
The team began with a shallow dive to the Wellwood ship grounding site of Molasses Reef. The corals are a part of the noprofit Coral Restoration Foundation’s initiative to develop effective strategies for protecting and restoring coral reefs.
In 2001 Ken Nedimyer, president of Coral Restoration Foundation, began to cut and mount nursery-raised corals at the second dive site, which is a series of these coral cuttings attached to wire trees or discs on the sea floor. When the corals get large enough, they are transplanted to other reefs, such as the Molasses Reef.
After hearing about the coral conservation efforts in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the divers headed to the third dive spot and learned about another project in the Keys – one that involves astronauts.
The astronauts, part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations program, were gearing up to conduct tests of asteroid exploration concepts at National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s undersea laboratory, Aquarius. Aquarius offers astronauts similar circumstances as space missions – tight living conditions for extended hours and in a challenging environment.
The Society of Environmental Journalists dive team faced a strong current. Visibility was only 10 feet, further complicating the trip, so divers had to grasp a bowline while descending 60 feet, where the platform that houses Aquarius is located. The divers were able to peer into the windows of Aquarius and see the tight quarters, where one member of the 10-day astronaut mission was working.
The last divers surfacing from Aquarius brought with them two lionfish – an invasive species. The lionfish were brought aboard by Lad Akins, director of operations for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and coauthor of The Lionfish Cookbook. As the boat returned to shore, Akins explained how lionfish are threatening the native fish with their voracious appetites.
Nedimyer’s efforts are at the heart of the point driven home by Alexandra Cousteau Wednesday night and echoed by Lubchenco on the bus Thursday morning: sharing negative stories is not enough to help the environment. A sense of urgency needs to be coupled with a message of hope.