Diving

Mission: Possible, as wounded veterans, youths and scientists plant new Keys corals

Justin Lansford, 27, a retired staff sergeant from Tampa, takes a giant stride off the boat as he heads out to help plant corals near Looe Key off Big Pine Key. Lansford was a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division when he lost his leg in a roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan in 2012.
Justin Lansford, 27, a retired staff sergeant from Tampa, takes a giant stride off the boat as he heads out to help plant corals near Looe Key off Big Pine Key. Lansford was a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division when he lost his leg in a roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan in 2012. Mote Marine Laboratory

Scientists, military veterans and student citizen scientists took a dive Tuesday to increase the number of corals in the Lower Keys.

Some 36 members of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge out of St. Petersburg and SCUBAnauts International out of Denedin joined forces with half a dozen scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory for the one-day mission on the Looe Key reef to plant 500 corals.

That number marked the most ever the groups have planted in a single day since they began working together in 2012. All told, the groups have planted more than 1,600 corals in an area unofficially named Hero’s Reef in honor of current and former members of the U.S. armed forces.

The Veteran Challenge seeks to improve the lives of wounded and injured veterans through rehabilitative, high-adventure and therapeutic outdoor challenges while furthering the physiological, biomedical and pathological sciences associated with their injuries. The veterans who participate in the outdoor challenges have suffered from traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder r have lost limbs.

SCUBAnauts International involves teens in the marine sciences with intensive dive and science training. Through its partnerships with universities and research organizations, youths participating in SCUBAnauts learn to take charge as they work on innovative projects that positively impact our oceans.

Ten years ago, Mote, based in Sarasota established an underwater coral nursery at its Summerland Key satellite lab where scientists grow colonies of threatened staghorn coral for replanting on decimated or damaged sections of reef within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. When the colonies reach a suitable size, fragments nearly 2 inches long are snipped off and used to create a new colony similar to the way new plants are grown from cuttings of existing plants. Then the cuttings are mounted on the reef so they can grow and develop into new colonies.

For retired Staff Sgt. Justin Lansford, 27, of Tampa, the event is restorative and not just for the reefs. He was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division when he lost his leg in a roadside bomb explosion in Afghanistan in 2012.

‘Something bigger’

“After an injury like that, the way you look at life drastically changes,” he said. “Physical therapy can help with the physical changes but your perspective changes as well. I decided that I was going to do what I always wanted to do and that I wanted to put my focus and energy and efforts on doing things that feel good to do — like this dive. To spend this time each year, well, it’s cool to see these guys coming from the battlefield and have a different purpose and to see them working with the kids. It does feel special to get out here and take part in something bigger.”

The dive gives SCUBAnauts a chance to learn about more than just ecosystem restoration, said retired U.S. Navy Capt. Dominic Gorie, the Veterans Challenge president. Gorie, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, was an aviator who piloted two NASA shuttle missions and commanded two more NASA shuttle missions before his retirement.

“It was amazing to see all the divers planting coral on the reef and to see them so focused on this concentrated effort,” he said. “But this is also a wonderful opportunity for the SCUBAnauts to learn from the combat-wounded veterans and gain a wider perspective on life.”

That idea wasn’t lost on Zack Morris, 16, of Parrish, Fla.

“This is a really cool experience as a young person — you get to meet some of the most influential people — scientists and veterans — you’re ever going to meet. They just have all these amazing stories and lessons about life. No matter what happens, they’re always pushing through; they’re always going forward. It’s awesome to see that stuff when you’re a kid.”

Said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, Mote president and CEO: “I don’t know of any other partnership like this involving really innovative science, young citizen scientists and veterans who are sharing their leadership skills. But this event has broader impacts beyond just doing great science. Every human being is connected to the ocean.”

Mote has more than 10,000 colonies of staghorn coral in its underwater nursery, which includes more than 85 genotypes, allowing researchers to determine which corals have the heartiest genetic makeup and the best chances of survival. To date, Mote has planted more than 40,000 reef-building coral fragments to help restore Florida’s reef. Mote’s goal is to plant more than a million corals working in partnership with these and other groups.

“It’s amazing to think that we planted 500 new corals in a matter of just a few hours,” said Dr. Dave Vaughan, executive director of Mote’s Summerland Key Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration. “Working with the kids and the veterans really is a memorable occasion for us every year. It’s really heartwarming to be involved in this event and know that we’re working together with these inspiring groups to restore Florida’s reef for future generations.”

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