Pitching in, in the Keys and elsewhere

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A class gathers coral fragments at a Coral Reef Restoration Foundation nursery. Photo Credit: Tim Grollimund Photography

Warm water and relatively calm conditions make late summer and early fall a prime time for scuba diving and snorkeling the reefs off the southeast Florida coast, especially the Keys. 

But these days, divers and snorkelers aren't seeing nearly as much sealife on their excursions as they once did. 

Coral cover in the 3,840-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which contains many of the state's most renown and popular reefs, has declined by nearly half since 1995. Water pollution, more extreme water temperatures due to climate change and the direct damage caused by people visiting the reefs are just some of the reasons why.

An innovative nonprofit called the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation has been working since 2001 to reverse this disturbing trend. Now, on select dates this September and October, tourists who are certified divers can work with the foundation to put corals back on the reefs.

“A lot of people come specifically for [the reef programs], and then they do other dives, as well,” said Amanda Laraia, assistant manager of Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, which partners with the restoration foundation on the volunteer programs.

Founded in 2001, the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation uses techniques it has pioneered to grow coral fragments in nurseries and then plant them on the reefs. Their work focuses on staghorn corals and to a lesser extent elkhorn corals, both of which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Thus far, the foundation has planted a combined total of more than 20,000 corals on upwards of 200 Keys reefs.

Divers who participate in one of the daylong “voluntourism” programs, which are tailored to visitors, will get an up-close look at that process while likely seeing plenty of exciting sealife along the way. It's not a relaxing day on the water, however, says Lon Von Lintel, an officer of the Miami-Dade County-based Active Divers Association, which, like Amoray Dive Resort, organizes some of the volunteer programs.

“Satisfaction. That's the key word,” Von Lintel said of the experience.

The program consists of three parts. In the morning, divers go to the restoration foundation's Key Largo office for a talk and tutorial on the decline of the South Florida reefs and the techniques the foundation is using to stem the tide.

In the afternoon, the volunteers head offshore to one of the foundation's underwater nurseries. There, they cut coral fragments from an apparatus called a coral tree. The “trees” are made from PVC pipe, and the coral fragments are hung off their “branches” on monofilament line. After six to nine months of growing, the fragments are ready to be planted on the reef.

The day concludes at a reef, where the volunteers use hammers in combination with epoxy to plant the young corals.

The program is priced at $135 when taken through the Amoray Dive Resort and $130 when taken through the Active Divers Association. Both prices include a $50 donation to the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation. Amoray is offering the programs on Sept. 11 and Oct. 16. Participants in the Amoray program get a 10% discount on rooms at the small bayfront lodge.

The Active Divers Association program takes place on Sept. 19.

Visit http://www.coralrestoration.org/dive-programs/public-programs/ for more information.

Other voluntourism opportunities are available around Florida. Universal Orlando Resort, for example, offers a four-hour volunteer experience at Give Kids the World, its nonprofit program for children with life-threatening illnesses. Volunteers do things such as serve breakfast and assist with makeovers at the La-Ti-Da spa.

Visit Pensacola also promotes various visitor volunteer opportunities, including cleanups along beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a barrier island that is the largest protected seashore in the national park system.

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