A Heartbreaking Dive in the Florida Keys

Discovering how disease is affecting corals in the Keys.

For most of my life, the Florida Keys has been one of those “safe” places for me. Like those old, holey, worn out jeans you always reach for because they’re so comfortable, so the Keys are for me. This paradise is just far enough away from home to be a true road trip. This is not a location I can reach in a quick couple of hours, but a real destination that takes thoughtful planning and creates lots of anticipation. And the longer the act of planning, the more vivid the dreams of the water become—the beautiful, clear, spectacular water as far as the eye can see and all those wonderfully intriguing things below the surface.

SCUBA diving in the Keys is simply amazing. I love to slip quietly in the water, find a spot, become invisible and just see what happens. The ocean has always been an enormous part of my life. When you’re a kid, your mind plays tricks on you. It lets you think that the world around you will remain the same. You think the ocean water will stay pristine, the fish will remain plentiful and the coral will always be stunning. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

But things do change and sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see. So when I jumped in the water last month to go visit my long-loved underwater paradise, disappointment was ready to greet me. Disease had affected many of the corals. The same corals I had visited countless times were now showing dreadful evidence of tissue loss from disease. I’d heard that diseases were spreading among corals, had even seen touches of them a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t prepared for the length to which they had spread across the reef.

The reef wasn’t always like this. One of my most cherished dive memories is from this very reef on a surreal, beautiful, hot summer day 20 years ago. I slipped into the water and quietly settled in one of my favorite spots: next to an enormous, magnificent brain coral. As life in the water around me came back to life, I just watched. There were schools of blue tang and sergeant major, and parrotfish and rock beauties. I vividly remember the trio of spotted eagle rays that glided into my view from the right, one slowly after the other. They always catch my breath, and these were particularly beautiful as they slowly circled the coral. They were close enough to touch, had I reached out. They slowly glided out of view, but seconds later reappeared for a second, and then a third, slow and graceful arc around the coral and me. Minutes later, a parrotfish positioned itself almost motionless next to the massive piece of coral, inviting neon blue gobies to clean its body.

The coral was alive with activity. It was stunning. And now we’re at risk of losing it to disease.


For example, stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) was first discovered in 2014 near Miami. It has since spread both north and south along the Florida Reef Tract, affecting the upper, middle and lower Keys, and has been reported in the Caribbean as well. The initial discovery occurred at the same time as a coral bleaching event, which scientists believe weaken the corals, leaving them more susceptible to the disease. It is believed that coral bleaching will increase, as our oceans continue to warm. Other contributing factors include pollution, run-off and overexposure to sunlight. Left unaddressed, SCTLD threatens to forever change our ocean’s landscape.

As I visited the reef at Looe Key last month, I witnessed the extent of SCTLD and other diseases first hand. Looe Key isn’t really a key, but a reef, and is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is home to dozens of different species of corals, both stony corals such as brain, elkhorn and staghorn, and octocorals, which are soft corals that also include sea fans. Every coral is beautiful in its own way, whether majestic and towering, or intricate and delicate. Pictures truly don’t do them justice. You must duck your head under and gawk at these yourself to fully appreciate the dazzling beauty of the world below the surface.

And dazzling it still remains—though the corals are suffering. I took picture after picture of varying degrees of distress. I took as many photos of the diseased coral as I did of the brightly colored tropical fish and the hundreds of other interesting creatures that live amongst these corals, in essence, their neighborhood. Why the pictures? I’m not really sure, other than, for my own edification, to informally gauge the advancement of the disease when I return in late summer, camera in hand. I am no scientist, not a researcher nor biologist—I am just someone who gratefully calls Florida home, and that home includes the waters that surround a large part of this beautiful state.

Thankfully, along with scientific restoration efforts to restore our corals, there are things we can do to help bring our reefs back to their original beauty. Actions such as reducing carbon dioxide emissions and improving water quality are just a couple of the things that will support the work already being done. You can learn more about ways the community can help Florida’s reefs by visiting NOAA’s website on coral disease. The corals thank you!

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