Sharks, Forts and a Broken Heart

So you think it’s a hassle to get to your work site? Meaghan Johnson has to dive, not drive. First comes a long boat ride. Then she climbs into a wetsuit and scuba gear to work on one of many underwater coral nurseries off the Florida Keys.

Staghorn and elkhorn corals, currently listed as threatened on the Federal Endangered species list, are damaged by even slight shifts in water temperature or acidity. In places like the Keys, these species have declined by more than 97 percent. The Conservancy is working with a multitude of partners to re-establish these coral species in key areas, and Meaghan helps coordinate this project – the largest coral restoration project in the world.

Conservancy Marine Scientist Meaghan Johnson coordinates the multi-partner Florida Reef Resilience Program.

Where is your favorite site to work?

Meaghan Johnson:

Our coral reef nursery in the Dry Tortugas is beautiful – the reefs there are the most healthy and remote in all the Keys. It’s 70 miles west of Key West, and takes between two and a half and six hours by boat. We sleep in an old civil war fort that has a full kitchen and even A/C! The entire island, a national park, is spectacular.

We decided to move the nursery closer to the fort because our first location was too choppy during the winter months. A platform of cement blocks secured with rebar is being built now for our tiny young coral fragments to grow on before they are “outplanted” on to damaged reefs. Divers lower the blocks and set them in rows along the seafloor. We then take turns pounding in the rebar. It keeps me physically fit – my abs hurt after a day of pounding!

Have you ever feared for your life at work?

Meaghan Johnson:

Yes, in the Tortugas. I was about 15 feet down in 60-feet of water. On a deep dive, we stop for three minutes every 15 feet to release nitrogen out of our systems. It’s boring, so we sometimes do a “safety dance” to pass the time. My dive partner started freaking out and pointing behind me. I go, “Oooh, yeah, I’m really scared.” Then I turned and saw this huge shark! I made a point to swim behind her for a while. The shark was a little too close.

That same week we went to our coral nursery, last seen on a flat, calm day. Now we had an 8-foot chop on the shallow reefs surrounding it. We fought to anchor in, but couldn’t find the nursery with just coordinates. So we went down. The water was so murky we could barely see each other at the end of the anchor line. A strong current had us hanging horizontally; my heart was racing. I knew if I lost hold of the line, I may have been swept far away from the boat.

When was the last time something on the job brought you to tears?

Meaghan Johnson:

Young staghorn corals had just been moved from the nursery to a beautiful reef site. We were so optimistic! Then the weather turned unusually cold – this was winter of 2010 – so we dove to check on them. Almost all were dead; it was devastating. Marine life had died as well, including a parrot fish and moray eel. One week before, this reef teemed with life. Now the corals had bleached stark white.

Coral reefs suffer if the water gets too warm or too cool, and this was an extreme event. But here’s the upside: We needed to immediately document its extent and severity. I placed an emergency call to the Florida Reef Resilience Program and within two days, 13 different agencies responded. More than fifty surveyors worked for two weeks in cold, rough water. The Conservancy created this wonderful partnership in 2005; we’re thrilled it’s working so well.

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