A day spent planting nursery-grown coral in a Bahamian reef

Coral basket
© Melissa Breyer

JetBlue’s Check In For Good campaign treated a group of do-gooders to a volunteer vacation planting baby coral in The Bahamas ... and it was amazing.

Did you know that there is such a thing as a coral nursery? Even with all of my writing about nature and the environment, the workings of a coral nursery were new to me. But now that I've seen it with my own eyes – and actually helped plant baby coral in a beleaguered reef – I can tell you that it is very real, and exceedingly cool.

My adventures in coral tending came thanks to JetBlue who invited me to tag along with a group of winners from the airlines' Check In For Good contest. Entrants were given the chance to win one of three volunteer trips to help places in need. As part of the company's JetBlue For Good program, the volunteer trips were focused around the goals of supporting youth & education, community, and the environment.

One group of winners headed to Houston to create pop-up libraries and read to elementary students in low literacy communities that lost their libraries during Hurricane Harvey. Another group packed their bags for Jamaica to help paint, renovate and restore The Eltham Community Centre, a pillar of the community that offers everything from recreational activities and workshops to health care and services for animal clinics.

And then there were the coral nannies. Our group was sent to The Bahamas to help in the admirable work being done by marine ecologist Dr. Craig Dahlgren, of the Perry Institute for Marine Science, and the Atlantis Blue Project Foundation to restore one of the largest coral reefs in the world. Thanks to pollution, changing climate, and a host of other factors, the reefs are having a hard time of it – which is where the repopulation program has stepped in to help.

Three sisters reef© Melissa Breyer | The location of Three Sisters reef.

Coral© Melissa Breyer | Coral in a cooler on the boat.

We started our day bright and early with Dr. Dahlgren giving us an introduction to the restoration project and the work at hand, before heading out on a 30-minute boat ride to the Three Sisters reef. There we donned our snorkels, masks and flippers and plopped ourselves into the 78F degree water ... volunteer work is tough, but someone has to do it. Dr. Dahlgren and two other divers had scuba gear and did the actual planting (I'm using "plant" here as in "place or fix in a specific position," I know that coral is not a plant); the rest of us were in charge of swimming our baskets of baby coral from the boat to the reef and getting each precious piece to one of the divers working below.

Coral© Melissa Breyer | A volunteer delivers coral to a diver.

Coral© Melissa Breyer | A diver and snorkeler working on a section of reef.

The divers would scrub the attachment site with a wire brush, apply a non-toxic adhesive, and then glue the young coral to its new forever home. We planted around 100 pieces; each one mature enough to start producing new coral on its own.

Coral© Melissa Breyer | Dr. Craig Dahlgren preparing the surface for new coral.

It was exhilarating work (that we were snorkeling in a Caribbean coral reef didn't hurt) and poignant. Although it's disconcerting that this needs to be done in the first place, seeing people like Dr. Dahlgren so dedicated that they plant snippets of coral one-by-one was a heartening thing.

The corals we planted were grown in two nurseries – one in a lagoon and the other a protected area off the shore. They are started from cuttings from naturally occurring coral and suspended from ropes, like lovely necklaces hanging from a laundry line, where they are monitored and tended to. They grow much faster in the nurseries than in the reefs. Once the corals are determined to be healthy and large enough, back to the motherland they go. The coral we planted was about two years old.

Coral© Melissa Breyer | Checking the progress of a baby staghorn coral growing in the nursery.

We planted only finger coral, but the team works with staghorn coral as well. Dr. Dahlgren told me that in one area where staghorn had been completely wiped out, their replanting program has been so successful that the staghorn now comprises 10 percent of the reef's coral.

If you are wondering why all this effort is being expended toward coral, you can think of these reefs, as Dr. Dahlgren said, as the rain forests of the sea. Coral's presence and longevity is essential to the marine ecosystem as it provides food and shelter for other marine life. As the NOAA notes, "coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species." Reefs also add to local economies and help protect shorelines and preserve beaches, among many other benefits.

Handling the coral, seeing the fish that rely on it as they darted about with interest, being right there in the light-dappled water that the coral calls home ... it was a profound and humbling thing. I think we were all in a bit of a starstruck-by-nature reverie after that; which then went into overdrive when we got to visit a rescued hurricane-swept manatee who was being nursed back to health in order to return to the sea. (It is a wild story ... to be told soon.)

It was an incredible group of volunteers and I felt fortunate to be included. Even if there was a bit of an elephant in the room – which I know TreeHugger readers are likely wondering about: How does an airline company genuinely promote sustainability when they fly planes around the globe all day? I will say that meeting JetBlue's Head of Sustainability, Sophia Mendelsohn, on the trip was very eye-opening. If air travel is a genie that can't be put back into the bottle, the way forward is to at least make it as sustainable as possible. And Mendelsohn's authentic passion for and commitment to doing that is evident in everything from the company's recent signing of one of the biggest renewable jet fuel agreements in history, to having offset more than 1.7 billion pounds of CO2e emissions to date ... not to mention enabling a group of happy flippered swimmers help restore a reef, one hand-planted piece of baby coral at a time.

You can learn more about Dr. Dahlgren and his work here; more about coral and reef restoration here; and go here for more on JetBlue for Good.

(And to calculate and purchase your own carbon offsets for travel, this cool tool from JetBlue and Carbonfund.org is an easy way to do so: Flight calculator.)

A day spent planting nursery-grown coral in a Bahamian reef
JetBlue’s Check In For Good program treated a group of do-gooders to a volunteer vacation planting baby coral in The Bahamas ... it was amazing.

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