Where we’re at: I’m recapping my summer of 2018, which included this trip to Florida in July. Want to explore Florida with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Key Largo: A Sustainability Dive + Yoga Retreat rescheduled for July 15-18, 2021.
Want to get sustainable on your next trip to the Sunshine State? When I went on my big diving adventure from Key West to Miami, I didn’t have conservation in mind, specifically. But going green is always one of my passions, and so naturally I stumbled upon several exciting projects that became some of the highlights of my trip.
The best thing about the activities highlighted here is that they give back to the community you’re visiting — but they’re also a blast. Here are my recommendations for eco-travel ideas in the Florida Keys!
Visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon
I had long heard raves about The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, a popular stop breaking up road trips up and down the Keys. You will need to time your visit here to the ninety minute guided tours — they run every hour on the hour from 9am to 4pm — as there’s no strolling through unguided allowed.
Your $25 fee goes directly to supporting the turtles you’ll meet, from the itty bitty baby hatchlings ready to be rereleased right up to the rare long term residents, who have been so debilitated by injury or disease that they now call the hospital their home. They also support the hospital’s rescue missions for wild marine animals throughout the Keys, its educational programs for the next generation of future conservationists, and its lobbying efforts to preserve marine habitats.
We were lucky enough to meet with the manager Bette Zirkelbach, who heads the non-profit dedicated completely to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles with passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to color outside the lines to get things done.
After giving us a detailed rundown of a turtle oncology study being conducted at the hospital in partnership with a prominent university, one that she sparked with her off-book experiments at the hospital, I asked her what her scientific background was. She shrugged and laughed, and confessed that beyond majoring in biology in college, she didn’t really have one. Yet Bette’s decades of experience in animal conservation and her intuition led her to begin experiments that the veterinarians and researchers they partner with told her were a waste of time — until they started working.
Can I tell you how inspired I was by this story? My travel buddy Heather and I discussed it for days — how often do we, as women in particular, tell ourselves we aren’t qualified to do something we feel strongly about? They Keys are full of stories like this one, of go-getters who refuse to play by the rules. And in this case, there are some dang lucky turtles who benefit. Go see them when you’re passing through The Keys.
Plant Coral with The Coral Research Foundation
The plight of the world’s coral has become a hotter and hotter topic of conversation — a warming not unlike that of the world’s oceans, sadly. And the buzz can’t come soon enough. Bad news, friends — shallow water coral reefs are projected to disappear in the next eighty years if we don’t step in and step up soon.
Now, just in case anyone is reading this like, who cares? There are a lot of reasons to care about coral that go far beyond, “we like to look at it when we scuba dive.” (But that is also true.) Coral regulates carbon dioxide levels, provide food for reef dependent fish (reefs cover 1% of the ocean, but support 25% of marine life) supports a human food source (more than one billion people rely on fish for at lest 20% of their protein intake, often in vulnerable communities around the world), protect coastlines by preventing erosion and taking the brunt of storm damage, and support the economically important tourism industry (recreational diving alone contributed $11 billion to US gross domestic products in 2014!)
CRF sells reef safe sunscreen Stream2Sea — I can’t recommend it more highly!
Luckily, groups like The Coral Restoration Foundation are producing groundbreaking work in ocean conservation. I’ve been following their work for some time and have been wowed by what a huge voice they are in guiding scientific research and finding long term, large scale solutions for coral restoration. They work using a three-pronged approach: globally, climate change needs to be reversed. Regionally, reef networks need protection. Locally, target reefs need to be repopulated with viable corals. They’re working on all three.
The CRF, as its known locally, is aptly based in Key Largo, also famous for the John Pennekamp Marine Sanctuary, named for a journalist who wrote championed preservations of the Key Largo reefs, which eventually became the nation’s first underwater park.
One of the many ways CRF educates, enlists volunteers and fundraises all at once is through their one day Discover Coral Restoration workshop, which Heather and I enthusiastically signed up for. Our day began with an eye-opening — even for us — presentation at their education center in Key Largo. We learned loads about the CRF method, and got a detailed rundown on our tasks for the day.
First up? After a lunch break, we all hopped on a local dive boat and set off for one of the foundation’s seven robust offshore coral nurseries, which consist of hundreds of “trees,” made of PVC, in which coral fragments — mainly staghorn and elkhorn — are hung from monofilament to grow freely in the nutrient-and-sunlight-rich water column. Six to nine months later, the corals are ready to be outplanted to the reef!
The largest CRF nursery is an acre-and-a-half — and wow, are they absolutely surreal to dive through. Heather and I spent the dive on the unglamorous but crucial role of cleaning the trees and monofilament of algae, a job that takes endless volunteer manpower hours. More experienced volunteers recorded data and carefully selected and collected appropriate corals to be tagged and taken to the outplanting site.
Back on the boat, we headed out to the reef. Here, we got even deeper into the action. The first step? Identifying the perfect place to place the corals we’d been entrusted with, which a senior volunteer assisted us with. It’s kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle! Next — and this was so hard to wrap my head around — we hammered away the top crust of the substrate to create a fresh shelf for our fledgling coral. Finally, we grabbed the special marine epoxy that had been pre-mixed on the surface and used it to apply the coral to the reef, checking the connection with an aggressive hand waving test. Because the epoxy has a limited time before it hardens, you really have to work fast!
After we’d adhered all our allotted corals, one of the other volunteers waved us over to see how some previously plantings were flourishing — just a few of the 90,000 corals that CRF has successfully outplanted onto the Florida Reef Tract! After initially outplanting to 22 reef sites, they selected the eight most robust, and have been focusing their efforts there, where they have seen a 77% survival rate across all species in the last year. Wow! The best part? Those corals have done on to spawn naturally, kick-starting the reef’s natural road to recovery.
I have loved learning about coral from so many deeply invested organizations and individuals working to save it and have been lucky to participate now in more than one program like this to learn the hands on methods being used to do so. It’s been fascinating seeing the different schools of thought and methodologies. But what’s particularly exciting about working with Coral Restoration Foundation is it is the largest non-profit marine-conservation organization in the world! What an incredible opportunity to get to be a part of that.
Ready to get your fins wet? Find a list of upcoming one day Discover Coral Restoration experiences like we participated in here. These experiences are offered in conjunction with local dive schools and start at around $110-120 for adults. It’s a full day affair, starting at around 9am and going till about 6pm, but dang is it fun. I know next time I’m in the Keys, I’ll be upgrading to a two to three day PADI Coral Restoration Diver Distinctive Specialty! It’s also now on my bucket list to participate in Coralpalooza, an annual festival of reef restoration on World Oceans Day.
But that’s not all you can do. If you’re fun diving in the Keys, download the OkCoral app (ha!) to see if you can be a citizen scientist and assist in data collection. And regardless of where you’re enjoying the ocean, stick to a reef-safe sunscreen (the main culprit, oxybenzone, can kill coral in their larval state.) CRF recommends Stream2Sea, who we are proud to report just so happens to be a Wander Women Retreats partner as well. Check out this list from the Environmental Protection Agency on other ideas for how to be reef friendly, every day.
Participate in a Clean Up Dive in Miami
Actually, we weren’t quite planning anything conservation related in Miami — Heather and I were simply looking through one of the local dive center’s calendars, musing over whether we should join one of their wreck or reef trips, when we saw they had a clean up dive schedule while we were in town. Sold!
It was basically a party on a boat. PADI dive shop South Beach Divers partnered with local NGO Debris Free Oceans and worldwide non-profit Project Aware to clean up “Jose Cuervo Reef,” just a short ride from Miami Beach Marina.
As the name implies, there is an actual bar underwater (only in Miami, baby!) In 2000, it was sunk as part of the local “Sinko de Mayo” festivities, which included a “bartender” handed out mini Tequila bottles stuffed with a raffle ticket to win dive trips and tours to the first one hundred divers and snorkelers. Today, it has new life as an artificial reef — and, unfortunately, a trash dump for debris from South Beach.
While most onboard were experienced cleanup divers, we started with the usual briefing on clean-up dive procedures, safety, and recording practices, and then set off in our buddy teams to treasure hunt for trash. Everything we brought onboard was then carefully separated, recorded and responsibly disposed of. The data we collected would be just as important as the debris itself, and it both creates awareness about the lifespan of items like disposable plastics, some of the top objects collected during cleanup dives, and fuels impact studies that can change legislation on waste management in the local area.
We made our way back to Miami watching a colorful sunset over the South Beach skyline. Miami might not have the coral of the Keys, but they are known as the “Wreckreational Dive Capital of the World,” with seventy-five and counting boats, tanks, planes, and cars submerged beneath the surface. Miami dive shops plan out their dive sites and trips months in advance thanks to the stable conditions in the bay, making it easy to plan a trip that suits you. South Beach Divers offers a diverse lineup of reef dives, wreck dives, and special conservation events like clean ups and shark tagging trips. Considering the convenience of leaving straight from South Beach harbor, I’d love to check out more local diving on a future trip.
If you’re planning just a quick weekend away, don’t forget to consider the 24 hour no-fly rule, and as with any dive trip, even a quick one, don’t descend without scuba dive insurance. World Nomads offers both that and travel insurance, and I recommend you carry a policy for each.
There is such a disconnect between the trash we produce and the waste polluting our planet — literally diving through the ocean and picking up garbage someone threw “away” really does wake you up and make you think about how you can start reducing your consumption.
All these activities can bring up some heavy questions. Will the generations beyond ours dive alongside sea turtles, snorkel over functional coral reefs, swim in clean oceans? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that every little ripple of effort we put out into the world to ensure they do, makes a difference.
And that’s my final dispatch from Florida — for now! Till next time, Sunshine State!
Many thanks to PADI and to The Florida Keys for their hospitality. Read more about the top scuba sites in the Florida Keys, and dive and travel tips for the Florida Keys on their sites and follow their social media accounts for daily doses of scuba and sunshine. Want to book a dive trip to Florida? Check PADI Travel for more information!