I stared at Jade from across the coral heads, watching her slump over her clipboard as she scribbled the names of the fish around her on her ID chart, suspended in the water column
with her legs crossed tight, displaying buoyancy control that a seasoned SCUBA diver would envy. Her bubbles rose serenely up the water column to the surface. She moved along the reef to identify a different species of reef creature.
If I weren’t trying to keep a reg in my mouth, I would have been slack-jawed in awe. Jade is only 10 years old and I had learned on the boat that this was only her second open water dive - ever. The first was a coral planting event with the Coral Restoration Foundation the day before that our group, the Divers for Education and Environmental Protection Foundation (DEEP Foundation, Inc.), had participated in. Jade, along with her mom, had been certified with DEEP only a few weeks prior.
The organization itself was officially formed just under a month ago. Seriously. DEEP’s inception was sparked by the belief that anyone: adult, child, diver, non-diver, any person of any background and experience, can take action in enjoying and preserving the cascading wonder of Florida’s marine riches. They need only possess one thing: the capacity to care. With care comes passion. The transference of that passion to others precedes a power capable of remarkable feats. Why did there have to be any red tape or boundaries? Who was standing in front of us saying we couldn’t ask questions, ask for help, do some research, find the right people, and participate ourselves?
That’s the tricky part about seeing something magical. You see it once, get a taste of something you had no idea you would love so much, and your head becomes crowded with whys and hows and when can I do this again?! The questions never stop. They just get bigger and more complex and, ultimately, that’s why DEEP is here. We were brought together by a love for the ocean and a desire to be involved with diving, which isn’t exactly the most accessible activity one could involve themselves in. It can be expensive. It requires a lot of time, training, and education... and the goal is to hang out in an atmosphere not at all hospitable to your physiology whatsoever, which is slightly terrifying. But, there’s a reason why seeing something like a coral reef for the first time fills your stomach with the same butterflies who fluttered last when you were a kid, inspired by some kind of magical thing. The reason is, because it IS magical! It is inspiring. It is so magical you question if you are dreaming and you may even wonder if there is something wrong with the air you are breathing. It is so incredible, that it is almost disorienting.
So we, an inspired pack of strays, united, and armed with determination, connected to people and organizations who wanted to help us help each other. Three weeks later, there we were - hammering and scraping algae off of limestone, planting coral in the dang ocean. We were citizen scientists! Even underwater I could hear sounds of surprise, excitement, and delight from everyone in my group at the incredible sights in the sanctuary around us.
The next day, with the help of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s fish identification training, we cruised around giggling underwater as we successfully identified which brightly colored gems of fish belonged to which species and recorded our findings underwater to be uploaded to REEF’s online global database. These findings will later be used to help determine the health of populations within the Key Largo Marine Sanctuary as well as indicate any trends within the dynamics of the local ecosystem. A quick visit to the “publications” page associated with REEF’s fish identification program shows that the data collected by citizen scientists like us has gone on to contribute to significant research. Publications investigating invasive species risks, the link between biodiversity and ocean temperature, and the genetic patterns present in previously overfished populations are the first of many listed that have relied upon the work of people like us. We had just contributed to significant science and ultimately are helping to save the world, no big deal. We were having fun. We had previously never done something like this before. We could very easily do this again.
In a way, we felt like we had pulled off some Ocean’s 11 level operation. Was it really that
simple? We wanted to do this, so we just...made it happen? There was a lot of high-fiving and all of our faces are still sore from the amount of smiling we did, but it’s starting to set in that, yes, this past weekend was real and that is indeed us in the photos, working to help preserve the places that we so love to enjoy. In reality, it wasn’t that simple. All of us are novice divers and some of us, like Jade, are brand new. Some of us have some pretty obviously helpful backgrounds (Chris is a Marine Biology teacher), but most of us come with less conventional skills to lend. The success of our efforts was entirely due to the ingenuity of the entire group. Every member was integral to the success of the weekend and reaching our goal. And now that we had done it, we were flooded with more questions that needed answering. If we can help plant coral, what else can we do to help? What else do we need to know? Who should we reach out to and connect with?