In mid-September, Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida keys with wind speeds as high as 130 miles per hour. The hurricane had severe implications for Florida residents, resulting in evacuations and causing significant structural damage. The Category 4 storm also had a detrimental effect offshore, damaging Florida’s barrier reef.
The coral reef not only provides for a diverse underwater ecosystem, but it also plays a vital role in protecting the Florida coast from storm surges and serious flooding.
Over fall break, 11 members of the GW Scuba Diving Club traveled to Key Largo to assist with the repair of coral trees. Coral trees are frameworks made of PVC pipe and tethered underwater. Pieces of coral are fastened to the trees and allowed to grow until they are large enough to be attached directly to the reef. On the trip, students volunteered with the Coral Restoration Foundation, which works to reestablish healthy coral reefs and educate the public about marine issues.
The club raised money for the trip for over a year, raising over $3,500 through Colonial Crowdfunding. Chloe King, president of the GW Scuba Diving Club, said that traveling to Key Largo was the club’s first major trip. However, the group plans to continue fundraising in order to travel more in the future.
King explained, “It was a super valuable experience for our members to see how coral is restored and how critical it was to that region following the destruction of Hurricane Irma.”
Club members Emily Mobbs and Amber Herrle work to repair a coral tree. Photos courtesy of GDUB Scuba Diving Club.
King founded the club during her freshman year, hoping to provide an outlet for students to learn firsthand about the ocean, its environmental importance, and the challenges it faces. She emphasized, “When people see the beauty of the ocean, as well as the ways in which people are destroying it, they become immediate conservationists—whether they know it or not.”
She also noted that the coral grows at a rate of around 10 mm per year and that Hurricane Irma was extremely disruptive to that process. She emphasized, “it was really striking to see how damaged these reefs were, both in the coral nurseries and in the reefs we dived on during previous days.”
Based on the role that coral reefs play in protecting coastal regions, their development is crucial to the viability of Florida’s tourism industry into the future. This is especially true for the Florida Keys, where tourism is a $2.7 billion industry and accounts for more than half of all jobs.
Members of the GW Scuba Diving Club experienced the tourism industry’s impact firsthand. King noted, “it was amazing to see how quickly the areas with more tourism exposure rebounded from the hurricane, whereas the areas further south were still almost completely destroyed.”
In addition to firsthand experience repairing damaged coral, the Key Largo trip provided members with an opportunity to expand their underwater abilities. Amber Herrle, a student in the Elliott School, said, “the trip was really amazing for me because I got to learn new dive skills from fellow GW students.” She also noted that she was surprised by the amount of buoyancy that coral restoration requires.
Chloe King emphasized that she believes the experience will inspire and motivate members of the GW Scuba Diving Club to continue their support of conservation efforts. She explained, “everyone came away from it very impacted by the experience and looking forward to making a difference with our club in the future.”