Endangered coral species returning to life in the Florida Keys

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Efforts to revive the struggling Elkhorn coral populations in the Florida Keys are showing positive results. During the DEMA Show that starts Wednesday in Orlando, members of the scuba diving industry will see a variety of marine livestock and propagated corals that are part of the initiative.

The nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation based in Key Largo is scheduled unveil a 120-galloon aquarium on display to showcase native sponges, gorgonians and nursery-raised staghorn corals that are thriving in the Keys as part of the conservation efforts.

Elkhorn and staghorn are two of the reef-building species with the best chance of creating new habitats within a year or two, according to Ken Nedimyer, president of the Coral Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to repopulate Keys reefs with these corals.

The aquarium’s corals, many of which started from a clipping about the length of a knuckle and have grown to 30 or 40 centimeters, demonstrate how corals can be cultivated. The display also is a message that recreational divers can participate in “voluntourism” when diving in the Keys by joining marine scientists to help save the only living contiguous coral barrier reef in the continental United States, which lies just a few kicks from the surface.

Led by Nedimyer, volunteers can go on educational working dives to coral nurseries to clean and prepare corals for planting, as well as an orientation dive at a restoration site to see firsthand the evolution of corals over time.

After a year on the reef, the corals grow several inches tall with multiple branches. In five years, they are strong, independent structures serving as habitat for numerous species of tropical fish and sea animals.

“We’re inviting divers to become citizen scientists,” said Amy Slate, owner of Amoray Dive Resort, a Key Largo dive operator that hosts annual coral restoration workshops that include seminars and working dives.

Representatives from nearly every region of the Keys are slated to participate in the DEMA Show. These include Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, Key Largo Dive Center, Tavernier’s Florida Keys Dive Center, Island Ventures and Dive Key West as well as the Florida Keys tourism council — to communicate the island chain’s drive-to-dive value.

Show attendees can also receive a 2012 Florida Keys pictorial calendar, showcasing acclaimed underwater photographer Stephen Frink’s stunning imagery. Frink is to be on hand to autograph the calendars, produced by the Keys tourism council, and a schedule of signing sessions is to be available at the booth.

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