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Reef Madness

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Knocking heads is starting to pay off.

As Ed Tichenor and three fellow members of Reef Rescue don their scuba gear one July morning, there's a sense of anticipation that belies the fact that they've explored this stretch of coral reef scores of times before. Perhaps the excitement ripples because the sea surface on this Saturday morning in early July is lake-like calm. Maybe it's because surprises often lurk around the ancient reef below.

The 34-foot dive boat is a mile southeast of the Boynton Beach Inlet, through which most of the tourist fishing and diving boats pass on their way to this almost three-mile-long coral formation called Gulf Stream Reef.

Strapping on a gladiator's amount of tubes, tanks, belts, and gizmos, Kurt Spaugh offers his opinion of why the Gulf Stream Reef is like no other. A worldwide diver, Spaugh is tall and bulky, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"The main thing is the shape of Florida," he says, grabbing a waterproof map of the Florida coast. Following the coast from Miami to Jupiter, he points out a coastal anomaly in the Boynton Beach area, where the shore juts sharply to the northeast. When the Gulf Stream current reaches this spot, it sweeps across and along the Gulf Stream Reef.

"You have this unique interaction between the pelagic [deep-sea] world and the reef world, and it's a goddamned festival down there, all the time," he says. "You just don't know what you're going to see. You'll be down there surrounded by a school of dolphin. We sat down on the bottom in October, then looked up and there were king mackerel going over — must have been 5,000. We lay there for five minutes. They blotted out the sun."

Such a spectacle is becoming rarer as the reefs continue to fade at an alarming rate.

About 27 percent of coral reefs once found along the mainland United States have disappeared, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and 75 percent of what remains will be gone in the next 30 years if nothing is done to protect them.

Human activity is responsible for most coral loss.

"I call it the Big Three Disturbances that people are visiting on the coral reefs," says John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and a professor of biology at the University of South Florida. "First is fishing. Second, land-based pollution sources, in particular sewer outfalls. Third is global warming. "

Communities in South Florida continue to dump partially treated sewage water into the ocean because of its enormous capacity to absorb, dilute, and metabolize this stuff, he says, but the outbreak of algae blooms proves that "you can go too far." The sewage water dumped by the Boynton plant goes through several treatment steps. It's first held in an aeration tank that promotes the growth of helpful microorganisms that eat harmful matter; a sedimentation tank allows those organisms and solid waste to settle out; then the water is treated with chlorine before it's sent to the ocean.

Tichenor suggests that, short of using all of the effluent to water plants on land, the best way to solve the wastewater problem is an additional step in treatment, making the water virtually drinkable.

At its most basic, a coral reef is a living organism. Coral polyps look like jellyfish, to which they are closely related. A newborn polyp floats in the water until it attaches to a hard surface, which is more often than not an existing coral reef. It then begins to build a hard shell by creating calcium carbonate, or limestone. The coral polyps feed mainly at night by sticking their tentacles out of their calcium casings and collecting plankton that floats by. As the polyps die, the shells remain, and new polyps attach to the empty shells.

Large reefs consist of millions of such living polyps, and the limestone remains of many millions more that lived as long as thousands of years ago.

Coral reefs are among the most fragile of ecosystems because they thrive only in shallow, salty water into which the sun can easily penetrate. The rainbow of colors that coral comes in is from the symbiotic relationship it has with various species of algae. The algae expel oxygen and nutrients needed by the polyps, which in turn provide the carbon dioxide that algae require.

For piscine deep-sea travelers, the palace built by coral polyps is a popular destination, kind of like gasoline stations, grocery stores, and hair salons are for humans.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson