By Sherri Crilly, Save-A-Turtle Vice President, Marine Turtle Permit Holder
I am an avid snorkeler and I am in the water as much as possible here in Big Pine Key, Fl. We have an offshore reef called Looe Key and a small patch reef close to shore called Newfound Harbor (NFH). Both are protected marine sanctuaries and are fantastic reefs to dive or snorkel. On any given day you will see Goliath Grouper, reef and nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays. sting rays, tons of tropical fish and, of course, corals.
However, our corals are in trouble. Pollution is a huge culprit. Increased water temperatures over the past few years have caused more coral bleaching than usual. Hurricane Irma destroyed a lot of corals at both locations during her wrath back in 2017, and a deadly disease known as Stony Coral Tissue Disease (SCTD) has been destroying our hard corals such as brain, elk horn and stag horn corals. When this disease attacks a section of coral, the mortality rate is nearly 100%. SCTD had not reached the Florida Keys Reef Tract until 2017. Looe Key was still spared this disease until 2018. when it "jumped" the tract between the 7 Mile Bridge and the Lower Keys.
As you can imagine, many scientists and organizations are working to determine the cause and find a way to stop the decimation of not only our reef tract, but reefs world wide as this disease is spreading throughout the Caribbean. Many organizations are successfully growing and planting thousands of new corals each year in an effort to compensate for the loss from bleaching and SCTD as well. There is lots of help, but the situation is severe and requires and army of scientists and volunteers to save our reefs. If the reefs die, the oceans die. And so does the entire planet, including our sea turtles.
A few days ago, I decided to snorkel NFH as I hadn't been there in a few weeks, and I wanted to see if I could spot any sea turtles or hammerheads. While Hawksbill turtles are very rarely seen in the Keys, I have come across one every May in NFH for the past few years. I have also been told by friends that sometimes hammerhead sharks come into NFH in May as well. So, off I went in search of both species.
Now, NFH is a gem, in my opinion because you never know what you are going to see there. I have swam with goliath grouper, huge tarpon, the Jaws of nurse sharks (I didn't know they could get THAT big!), various sea turtles, DOLPHINS and certain tropical fish that normally wouldn't be found on that little patch reef. This day, however, I came across a very special species.....HUMANS.....and what they were doing brought me to tears.
There was an ARMY of divers in NFH that day called Force Blue, which is comprised of retired military personal who are diligently working to treat SCTD! Literally!! An ARMY! Scientists have discovered that by cutting a trench around the diseased tissue and treating it with chlorine and/or amoxicillon, the spread of the disease is STOPPED!!!! These men and women who have so bravely served to protect our country, are now on a mission to save our coral reefs and ultimately, our oceans. I was in awe as I watched them work. They stayed down for quite some time, and when their air tanks were empty, they returned to the boat, strapped on new tanks, and got back down there to continue treating the corals. By the way, I had seen them the day before at Looe Key as well, but didn't know who they were or what they were doing.
While many say there is no hope, and grant it, the situation is quite extreme, the efforts of not only Force Blue, but MOTE Marine, The Coral Restoration Foundation, REEF, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, and so SO many more, I personally have hope that the reef will survive. Seeing these men and women of Force Blue in action gave me even more hope, making it one of the happiest dives I have experienced. Bravo!
Click any of the tabs below to learn more about these organizations and their efforts.
Photos above taken by Sherri Crilly of Force Blue in action treating corals at NFH. May 2019