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The 'Coral Whisperer' Aims At Repopulating Florida's Coral Reef

A bayside laboratory in Apollo Beach is ground zero for an attempt to preserve Florida's coral reefs, which are dying at an alarming rate.

The "Coral Ark" hums with water pumps and creatures that look like small brains. There, I meet Keri O'Neil, senior coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium.

She's part scientist, part matchmaker.

"I've been called the Coral Whisperer, the Coral Queen, various different names," she laughs.

What O'Neil does is try to get coral to create little baby coral. It might not be as easy as it sounds. After all, coral spawns only once a year.

And just how do you get coral in the mood?

You just play a little Barry White.

"We do actually play Barry White during the spawn time," O'Neil said. "But I think that actually gets the humans in the mood a little bit more while we're staying up all night, waiting for these corals to spawn."

One of their tricks is mood lighting, which gets redder later in the "day," simulating a Florida sunset. As it dims, a glowing ping pong ball high above the tanks mimics the light of the silvery moon.

All this matchmaking is needed because Florida's once-colorful coral reefs are under siege. Warming seas, ocean acidification and diseases like Stony Coral Tissue Loss are leaving parts of the world's third-largest reef a ghost of their former selves.

So enter the Florida Aquarium's groundbreaking coral cupid connection.

"The Florida Aquarium is the first in the world to use this Project Coral land-based spawning technology to spawn Atlantic corals for restoration," she said.

"The Florida Aquarium is the first in the world to use this Project Coral land-based spawning technology to spawn Atlantic corals for restoration." - Keri O'Neil

Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann says this is the best way to diversity the genetics of coral, giving it a better long-term chance at survival.

"So what we are doing is "arking" - in essence, like Noah. trying to ark the coral, just to protect it and save it," he said. "

Florida's coastal waters are beset by local runoff and pollution, and global issues like too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that make the oceans more acidic. So corals - like many species across the planet - aren't able to evolve fast enough.

So what's to prevent what has happened with stony coral disease from happening to these little guys once they're back out on the reef?

"If we can produce 10,000 coral babies, let's say, of this grooved brain coral, and we put those back out into the ocean," O'Neil said, "now this is 10,000 new genetic individuals that maybe some of those now are expressing the right type of characteristics that may be more resistant to warm water, may be more resistant to nutrients in the water."

She shows me a tank of Grooved Brain Coral.  These healthy specimens were transported to the aquarium as part of a larger effort to preserve their genetic diversity.

"This species is one of many species that is dying in the state of Florida to a disease called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease," she said. "And these corals were brought here to the Florida Aquarium because we are part of a larger coral loss project with many different partners, trying to preserve the genetic diversity of these corals that are being lost."

Some coral are hemaphrodites - they produce both sperm and eggs. Both are bundeled into their gut, and about an hour before sunset, that ball of gametes will come into the "mouth" of the coral.

All this takes a lot of patience.

Brain coral
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Brain coral

"And you're sitting there, and you're waiting, and you're staring at it, and your eyes are playing tricks on you," O'Neil said, "and all of a sudden you start to see these bundles migrate up into the mouth, and all of a sudden they all start releasing, and it's like a snow globe in the water and we're like, 'it's happening'."

What happens then is they collect the bundles, which break down into eggs and sperm.

"So the eggs will actually start to cleave, and that's how you know that that egg has been fertilized. So we'll wait a few hours 'til after we mix them together, then we'll pull a sample, check it under the microscope and we hope to get 90% of those or more actually fertilized," she said.

They take the larvae that develop and then they bring it to the coral greenhouse next door, where the little guys select a home. O'Neil says they're really picky - they're looking for just the right algae that won't overgrow it.

"They like this pink, crusty algae that you see on some of these rocks in front of you in this tank," she said, over the whir of fans and water pumps in the greenhouse. "That's what they really like to settle on. Because it stays nice and clean. So they'll find that, maybe a little crevice or a surface that's underneath of something. They're super picky for such a little organism. So a lot of our work focuses on how to give them exactly what they want."

This year, they're doing spawning for three coral species: Grooved brain coral; a coral called meandrina - which no one really knows how they spawn;  and pillar coral - of which O'Neil says there are only about 50 left off Florida's coasts. And in the reef off the Florida Keys, they'll collect spawn from staghorn and elkhorn coral.

"So these all started as corals that were literally about a 1/16th of an inch or even 1/32nd of an inch in size," O'Neil said. "And they continue to grow out here in our greenhouse, until they reach a size where we can take them back out in the ocean and they'll have good survival. So we're still trying to figure out what that size is for different species."

Some of the funding for the Coral Restoration Project comes from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and NOAA. Many aquariums are participating as well.

She says they've only figured out the reproductive cycles of five species so far. That's only about 10% of the number of coral species found in Florida. So they've got a lot of lot of mood lighting - and maybe a little Barry White - in their future.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
One of the corals in the spawning tank

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.