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?
They say that seeing is believing. After what we saw, we’ve been filled with a rising understanding of how interdependent so many separate factors within ocean biology are to one another. We can wish and hope that the coral we planted and the fish we identified will live safe, happy lives and multiply themselves to the limits of their ecosystems, but we realize it’s not that simple. The coral we planted with CRF was located in Pickle Reef and the fish we had identified with REEF were in Davis Reef. Each of these are within what is called the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS ). This sanctuary is part of a larger ecosystem which contains parks we love to visit, some of which are on our DEEP Bucket List: Biscayne Bay National Park, the Everglades National Park, and the Dry Tortugas National Park! The health of FNKMS is essential to the health of all that those parks contain as well, and vice versa. The magic that we saw and love as a group, the biodiversity and incredible symbiosis we long to explore and witness, the connections that were strengthened within DEEP and our community through this experience, all are reliant upon the conservation of our national parks and sanctuaries. And we’re talking about just one area! There are 88 coastal parks in the National Park System covering more than 11,000 miles of shoreline and 2.5 million acres of ocean and Great Lake’s waters. Within that, only 10 percent of this country’s diverse aquatic shoreline habitat are represented. This includes glaciers, kelp forests, wetlands, beaches, estuaries, and coral reef systems. That is a lot of territory to cover, but we aren’t afraid. Millions of people visit these parks each year and their enjoyment of the parks generates 8 billion dollars to local economies annually. Those are a lot of people just like us who care and can transfer that passion to others who don’t yet know what there is down there to care about: some of our nation’s most precious aquatic treasures and resources, our history, and recreational and economic opportunities for our present and future generations!
Our group of citizen scientists has realized this weekend that we are small, and the work we have done is a literal drop in the ocean. There is so much to see and so much worth protecting. We have been inspired to ask more questions, dig a little deeper, think a little bigger, and take agency. We have been sparked to life by something so incredible that we want to protect it so it can be shared. Few things inspire men like the bounty of nature. With that inspiration comes a purpose, drive, and hunger that precipitates incredible things. Things that, to us, mean truly living life; things that define us: finding our purpose; protecting what we love. We need to protect these places, these parks and sanctuaries, because they are what define us as people. They are so much of who we are. Everyone deserves to live that, experience that, and preserve it for one another.
We are a community of people. That’s all we are - everywhere. We don’t have to limit change to scientists and politicians to protect the magic we enjoy. If you want to become involved, ask around. You’ll find someone who has been “bitten” by the bug. We can share our skills, knowledge, and experience. We can pool our resources and ideas; we can find the right people to help get the wheels rolling; we can collaborate with the right organizations that want to share with us. We can transfer this to others. We can be our own heroes! Our group of citizen scientists may not be the heroes the ocean deserves, but we learned that, together, we can get the job done. We know now that anyone can do it, and it’s going to take everyone to do it!
This belongs to us and it’s in trouble. Nothing stands in our way, save for a connection waiting to be made, information and hope to be transferred.
Thank you to the National Parks Conservation Association, Rainbow Reef Dive Center, Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures and PADI SCUBA Instructor Shayna Cohen for your incredible support and guidance, as well as the Coral Restoration Foundation and Reef Environmental Education Foundation, for transferring knowledge, access, and passion from your organizations to ours.