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'Noah's Ark' aims at keeping Florida's coral reef alive

Woman standing over coral tank
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Radio
Coral biologist Sarah Spangler explains how they persuade coral to spawn

With rising water temperatures threatening Florida’s coral reefs, scientists have worked to relocate the animals in order to save them. But one rescue operation run in part by Disney and Sea World in Orlando has been doing this for years - even before the latest bout of extreme heat.

This might be the most unlikely place you could imagine for a project that aims to restore Florida's threatened coral reefs.

It's hidden behind two car dealerships in a nondescript business park in the middle of Orlando's traffic-choked sprawl. To reach it, you walk inside an unmarked building with mirrored tinting preventing any wayward peeks from passersby.

Once inside, you're transported to a scene more reminiscent of the warm waters off the Florida Keys.

"So this is what it would look like in Key West. Because all these corals - that's where their original habitat is," said Nadia Vanderhoof, a communications manager with Walt Disney World. "So it mimics the exact simulation as the time in Key West."

Welcome to the Florida Coral Rescue Center. Eighteen pools of azure water are filled with more than 500 corals. They bask in 100 LED lights, tuned to mimic not only the light and dark of day, but the rhythms of the seasons.

It's part of a herculean effort to stave off the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

Corals in a tank
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Tropical fish are kept inside the coral tanks to help keep the natural balance of the water. Lights mimicking the natural sun cycle are reflected in the water.

This is the nation’s largest coral nursery participating in the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project. That's a collaboration between the state and federal governments and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It includes the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, which opened their own coral spawning centers, as well as the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida.

This is the oldest member of a network of breeding centers scattered throughout the country.

Funding for this comes from several federal and state agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Fisheries, the National Park Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Justin Zimmerman is the aquarium supervisor. He says this is like a coral Noah's Ark

"We can come in, we can collect their eggs and sperm, put them together, let them fertilize, and then potentially put the corals back onto the reef," he said.

Man standing over coral tank
Steve Newboprn
WUSF Public Media
Justin Zimmerman is the aquarium supervisor

"All the corals in here are currently acting as a gene bank," Zimmerman said. "So these corals are the parents for the next generation. They can make thousands, tens of thousands - even millions of babies - if there's enough genotypes in these tanks."

Making this all happen is not an easy task. Zimmerman said it takes a lot of chemistry and a lot of science - partnered with some luck - to make it all happen.

Corals release their eggs once a year. So there's got to be someone here all the time to be ready when they go into the family way.

"We'll shut the flow off in that aquarium. We have little headlights, because it's very dark," he said. "Our biologists will come in. We'll collect those egg bundles. You can tell within 24 hours if they're fertilized or not. If they become fertilized, the eggs will divide, they'll start to grow." 

The corals here were plucked from the depths around four years ago when scientists started to see the spread of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. So this genetic diversity gives researchers the tools to see which ones are more resistant to ocean warming and disease.

But they'll have to live the rest of their lives in this nondescript warehouse. They're being bred for their offspring, which will then be transplanted back on the reef.

And that may offer a glimmer of hope to repopulate the reef with species that are more resilient to climate change. Andy Stamper is Disney's Conservation Manager.

"The fact that we can breed so many and get so many babies that can be put out - one of them are going to survive the different conditions that are always changing at this point," Stamper said, "and then we can take those animals and breed them out and have it so that they can adapt over time."

So far, they've seen 13 of the 17 species here spawn. Two years ago, they were able to have rough cactus coral spawn for the first time in human care.

Part of that job falls to coral biologist Sarah Spangler. She helps to fine-tune the exact sunrise and sunsets and changes in the seasons.

Researcher in coral lab
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Coral biologist Sarah Spangler in the coral spawning center

"It feels good to work on a project that is so important to the ecosystem of Florida, but also for the world," she said.

Water flows into one of the tanks as she points out one of her favorite species, the great star coral. Some are pink and purple polys extending from their bodies. Some are lime green in the center of their mouths.

"It's interesting being able to come in every day and noticing really small changes within the corals, and getting to know each of them individually - even though there are hundreds of them," Spangler said.

Stamper said they have a few tricks they're working on get coral to release their eggs more than once a year.

"Not only can we spawn them in the natural year cycle, but we can increase their spawning, so we can get more and more offspring out on to the coral reefs," he said. "So they can do it many times a year."

Stamper says this warehouse may be too small to repopulate the world’s third largest reef. He says they are looking to expand to the Bahamas, closer to the reef. And the expertise they're developing here will help battered reefs throughout the Caribbean.

"At this point, without these types of interventions," he said, "the trend of the coral reefs is very dire at this point." 

The big question, he said, is how much time their efforts will buy coral reefs, before it's possibly too late.

Women standing over coral tank
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Coral biologists at work in the tanks

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