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The men work quickly in the cool emerald light. The thin one wields a hammer and chisel, deftly removing one prized piece after another. He passes them to his stockier accomplice, who stuffs them into a bag slung over his shoulder. Between the two of them, they look like Santa Claus and his elfish helper — only clad in scuba gear.
The operation is as expert as any jewelry store heist, but it's being conducted 40 feet underwater. The men are marine biologists, not cat burglars. And their target isn't a vault but rather a coral reef 2.5 miles off Miami Beach. Yet their loot — small clumps of fluorescent coral — is more precious than any gem.
It's also about to be destroyed. On June 7, this reef will be dynamited as part of the Deep Dredge, a $220 million project to deepen PortMiami. Whatever coral the divers can't save by then will be blown to smithereens.
For Colin Foord, the skinny biologist clutching the hammer and chisel, it's a race against time. The tourists tanning a stone's throw away on South Beach have no idea of the scientific treasures just offshore, but Foord does. He's spent his life obsessing over coral — mysterious, minuscule marine invertebrates that hold clues to momentous riddles such as cancer and climate change.
Now he's embarking on a "rescue mission" to save the creatures, a race against the clock that just got even tighter thanks to an Army Corps of Engineers snafu that's left him with only days to navigate an operation with plenty of risks. Huge ships hover overhead, their propellers eager to suck up everything in their path. Powerful currents threaten to drag the divers out to open sea. And not all the animals on the reef want to be saved.
As Foord swims toward an outcropping of coral, a six-foot green moray eel shoots out of a hole, its gaping mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth. The scientist swerves out of the way. "This is not a simple Saturday fun dive," he says afterward. "We were supposed to have six weeks to do this. Instead, they told us last week that we'd only have six days. They've known about the Deep Dredge for years. So why are we only being allowed to collect these coral now, at the very last moment?"
Foord is not the first to question the dredge. In Miami, the plan calls for the deepening of Government Cut from 42 feet to 52 feet to accommodate the giant "Post-Panamax" cargo ships that will soon stream through the Panama Canal, whose upgrade is nearly complete. As the closest American port to Panama, Miami hopes to see a major boost in business that will more than pay for the roughly $2 billion in improvements.
But Miami is just one of many American cities scraping its sea bottom in an attempt to lure the supersize ships. Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville are both dredging their ports. The Post-Panamax ships will only make so many stops, however, and often lost in the argument over the possible economic impact has been the certainty of environmental damage.
In Florida, that means mangled seagrass, silty water, and wrecked coral reefs. In Jacksonville, activists have complained that dredging 13 miles of the St. Johns River could cripple the habitats of everything from dolphins to cypress, while Fort Lauderdale's $321 million plan has been criticized for its potential to harm coral. The giant ships themselves could chop up endangered right whales, according to some scientists.
Here in Miami, environmentalists sued to stop the Deep Dredge, and the county eventually agreed to spend $2.3 million on restoration and mitigation. A company called Tetra Tech has been commissioned to remove all large corals from the dredge's warpath and build nine acres of artificial reef nearby to house the creatures.
But that's not enough for Foord. Upset that smaller corals were being sacrificed on the altar of economic progress, he applied for a permit to save them last December. The Army Corps of Engineers initially told him he could begin collecting them in January but then pushed the date back to February, then March, then May. By the time he finally received the go-ahead, Foord had less than ten days to save thousands of specimens before blasting begins June 7.
"The corps and its contractor never committed to a commencement in January of 2014, nor a six-month window," says Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Laurel Reichold. "However, [we] did commit to providing as much advance notice and duration as possible, which we believe we have done."
But Foord says he's already found large corals that were missed by Tetra Tech and would have otherwise been blown up. Smaller corals, meanwhile, are actually better for scientific study because they are easier to ship overseas. "Miami is a giant, living laboratory," he says. "Some of the most exciting and important corals on Earth are growing right here."
His enthusiasm is infectious. He talks about coral the way a master sommelier describes wine. It doesn't hurt his cred that he looks like a modern-day mad scientist — mischievous eyes, a thin frame, and thick, dark hair sticking straight up as if electrified.