Divers working to save Florida coral reefs during marine heat wave

Divers with Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education, or I.CARE, and volunteers are restoring corals in the Florida Keys. Sea surface temperatures in South Florida have reached highs of 95 degrees, putting corals at risk for a mass bleaching event.

ISLAMORADA, Fla. – Temperatures across the U.S. and Europe are soaring with millions under heat alerts. The heat is also on in the ocean and is putting one of the world’s largest barrier reef ecosystems at risk of coral bleaching.

Unprecedented water temperatures for June and July, coinciding with El Niño, have caused NOAA to put Florida’s reefs under the second-highest alert level, meaning significant bleaching could happen.

Sea surface temperatures are expected to continue to stay well above average, and some corals are beginning to expel the microalgae they rely on for food and energy. This causes the coral to lose their color. Florida coral reefs begin bleaching at 87 degrees when they start to expel the algae.

Restoration efforts by Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education, or I.CARE, has shifted to helping corals survive this latest marine heat wave. Normally, the organization plants corals grown by Mote Marine Laboratory.

When sea surface temperature went beyond the level corals can tolerate for any long duration, I.CARE decided not to plant new coral but instead work toward maintaining the coral that are already in place, according to Michael Goldberg, i.CARE co-founder and Key Dives owner.

"You can see where they are really thriving and where they're not," Florida Keys resident and diver Amy Walton said.

FOX Weather journalist Brandy Campbell went on a recent dive with tourists and local divers who are helping to clean corals in hopes of saving them.


Some are rooting for a hurricane because a storm could stir up deep water, helping to lower water temperatures by 3 or 4 degrees.

"I can only imagine, if we lose our coral reef ecosystem, what that would mean to local economies here and elsewhere," Goldberg said. "It's devastating. However, I don't want to give up hope … we're not throwing in the towel."