Reef Madness

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"Deep-sea fish like to come in because they like to get cleaned," Spaugh explains while resting between dives. Tiny cleaner fish, such as wrasses and gobies, live among the reefs, waiting to pick bacteria and dead skin off the deep-sea visitors, such as grouper and stingrays. "Some fish come up and stop and change colors to indicate that they want to be cleaned," he says. "They open up their gills, and the little fish eat all the parasites off their skin. They need to do that or they'll die."

While Spaugh, Tichenor, and the other divers are underwater, the boat's captain, Richard Glover, keeps watch over the flagged buoys tethered to them. Glover, who looks like a less threatening version of Harvey Keitel, talks about what this reef means to him and others in business here.

"People come out to see the coral and fish and turtles," he says. "If the reef dies, that's all gone. I don't think people realize how much revenue this brings into cities. People from all over come down here to dive this reef because it's one of the last living reefs on the Florida coast. I mean, the Keys, they're dead. This here is the best diving — anywhere."

As one who makes his living from the reef, Glover, of course, can't help but show some bias toward it.

Ogden looks at it a bit more objectively. "It's true that there's been a terrible decline in the Keys and the Caribbean in general," he says. "But you can still find pieces of it in corners that are very nice. Nevertheless, [your preference] all has to do with what you want to do, and one of the features of the areas off of Palm Beach and Broward is that there is a high coral cover of one or two species. It's very dramatic."

Ed Tichenor figured he'd given up investigating environmental pollution when he left New Jersey in 1991 and moved to Palm Beach County, where he now lives in an apartment in the tiny burg of Hypoluxo. He opened a small business that manufactured and sold window blinds. His journey back into the field was as much happenstance as the way he'd stumbled into the line of work in the first place.

Tichenor is 56 years old, with a sandy-red mustache and a face like a plush toy. His speech is measured as he patiently explains scientific concepts to laymen. Diving is his all-consuming pastime, and he and his girlfriend, Terry Saint Jean, relish the Saturday-afternoon "dive naps" as much as the morning's workout underwater. An early riser, he operates his business out of a warehouse bay not far from the sewage treatment plant that's consumed so much of his time the past few years.

A New Jersey native with claims to ancestors who founded the city of Newark, Tichenor earned a degree in biology from Tulane University in New Orleans, but after graduating, he found there weren't any jobs in that field. He instead got a job with Drew Chemical in New Jersey. The company developed chemicals to prevent corrosion in industrial boilers, which were used to steam water — like home water radiators on a huge scale. "In conjunction with that," he recalls, "they had a little lab where they'd analyze what chemicals people would need in boiler water."

He and another Drew employee started using the company's equipment for side projects. "I needed his equipment, he needed mine, so we went out and sold some accounts and brought the stuff in and did analyses," he says. Tichenor developed a disease inhibitor for aquarium fish called CopperSafe that is still produced today. With the money they made, they bought their own equipment and opened a business together.

Their laboratory was modest, set up to do very basic analyses, such as testing drinking water for impurities and conducting bacterial analyses in lakes, ponds, and swimming pools. The company was certified by the state to do those tests.

It probably would have remained small time had it not been for the national headlines in 1978 made by Love Canal, a town near Niagara Falls that became so saturated with toxic industrial chemicals during the previous 40 years that it became virtually uninhabitable.

"What happened in the late '70s and late '80s, states started passing all these environmental regulations," Tichenor says. In New Jersey, the law was called the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act, or ECRA. "Which we called the 'Environmental Consultants Retirement Act,'" he says with a laugh. "ECRA basically said if there's an industrial real estate transaction, it would trigger an environmental investigation and cleanup. They had no idea of the repercussions." The law required that all analyses be done by a lab certified by the State of New Jersey, and Tichenor's was one of only a handful that had been. "Overnight, all this work fell in our lap."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson