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 scrapping its sea bottom in an attempt to lure the supersize ships. Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville and 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 would 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 6-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.
Foord grew up in Freedom, New Hampshire, a Walden-like world of White Mountains, tall forests, and clear ponds. When he was 6, he and his family flew to Cancun, Mexico, for vacation. From the second he stuck his snorkel mask under the ocean's surface, he was hooked.
"I saw brain corals, and they captivated me," he says. "The idea that they looked like a human brain, to a 6-year-old's imagination that was like wow. It just struck me as a mystery." Thus began his coral addiction, an appetite that only accelerated when he learned how to scuba-dive at age 12.
It was around that time that Foord met Jared McKay, a long-haired, wild-eyed musician who lived one town over. They quickly became best friends. Jared indulged Colin's aquarium obsession, which was fueled by his job at a pet store in the local mall.
"We'd take road trips to go to aquariums in fucking Connecticut," McKay remembers. "Five hours away to get three fish." Once, during high school, Foord's coral infatuation reached a literal breaking point. He built a 250-gallon aquarium above his dad's office. Colin wanted to use thicker glass. His father didn't see the need. They came home one day to find 250 gallons of water soaking his dad's legal documents.
Foord flew down to the University of Miami for college. The city -- the only one in the contiguous United States to have its own coral reef -- was perfect for him. But not even The U could keep up with Colin's coral craze. He quickly realized that few of his professors -- let alone his fellow students -- were interested in the tiny corals and corallimorphs (similar to coral but without a stony skeleton) that bewitched him.
"They were like, 'Oh, I'm here because I like sharks. I'm here because I like sea turtles. Or I like dolphins' -- the standard, same old stuff," Foord remembers. "It became clear that the only way I could study the types of corals I wanted to study... was to do it on my own."
Well, almost on his own. Foord somehow persuaded McKay to move to Miami. Foord had begun collecting and cloning corals during college. Now he and McKay ramped up the operation. They called themselves Coral Morphologic and began making beautiful experimental films about corals, sea anemones, and any other creatures they found in the shadow of Brickell skyscrapers or quietly basking in the neon of South Beach.
"We had to come up with a creative way to do that kind of research while also funding ourselves," Foord says. The duo soon became darlings of the Miami art scene and even partnered with superstar indie band Animal Collective on one film. They also began to make money with "coral aquaculture," the careful cultivation of corals in a lab, along the Miami River. They sell the creatures to collectors and researchers around the world.
Coral Morphologic first made national headlines in 2011, when Foord gave a TED talk unveiling a rare, hybrid coral he had found growing along Government Cut. The Deep Dredge, he worried, might kill the creature.
But Foord isn't necessarily against the dredge. Part of the reason Miami is home to such an amazing array of corals is because Government Cut -- the manmade channel cutting through reefs and sand beds on its way to the port -- serves an unintended, positive purpose. Every day, the tide funnels fresh ocean water into the bay and then sucks sewer water out to sea.
The combination has spawned what Foord calls "urban corals" -- amazingly robust varieties that grow on concrete marinas, shopping carts, and even the turbid boat slip next to AmericanAirlines Arena where David Beckham wants to build a soccer stadium. "What other NBA team has brain coral, eels, and other tropical fish swimming under it?" Foord marvels.
Foord isn't opposed to the stadium, just as he isn't opposed to the dredge. In fact, in the long run, the Deep Dredge will improve water circulation in the bay and help more coral grow. But he believes both projects must be done more carefully. If the FEC boat slip is filled in, for example, he thinks Beckham should build a new artificial reef nearby.
As for the Deep Dredge, Foord wishes he had more time to rescue the coral in the path of destruction. "We were blindsided," he says. Foord has enlisted University of Miami students to help in the effort, but time -- along with bad weather -- is against them.
After escaping the eel on a dive last week, Foord and his dive partner, Allan Cox, take the day's haul of coral up to their 20-foot Mako boat. Then they chug about a mile south to the PortMiami mitigation reef, safely out of the line of the "Death Stars" -- the huge rigs that have already started scooping out sand and rock from Government Cut. Here, the pair performs the rescue in reverse: diving back down and carefully fixing the corals to an artificial reef using special epoxy putty.
They bring a few coral specimens back to their lab, a cavernous den of fluorescent lamps and constant bubbling. The corals are carefully cleaned and placed on scaffolding inside what look like giant bathtubs. Stripped of sea sludge, they glow green, orange, red, and blue like the iridescent eyes of space aliens. Next to them, a vat of sea anemones gently undulates in an artificial current. Tiny fish pop to the surface, begging for food.
Obsessed with their own bobbles and bling, few Miamians know their city hides such natural riches. Even fewer know that these creatures are being threatened by projects such as the Deep Dredge and Beckham's soccer stadium. And problems with the Panama Canal expansion mean Miami's Deep Dredge could ultimately all be for naught.
"This is a project that is basically going to destroy a whole lot more corals than probably any private company or contractor or individual has managed to [ever before]," he says. "It's a shame because there is so much research, so much public education than can come from these corals. We want to share [them] with the people of Miami and the public to show them that this isn't just a sterile shipping channel or an industrial zone. It's actually a thriving ecosystem."
Despite his frantic race to save as many corals as he can from certain destruction, however, Foord says he's less worried for them as a species than he is for us.
"If anything, I'd say that Miami is a heartwarming example," he says. "Miami suggests there is hope for the corals. If brain coral can live on Biscayne Boulevard, it gives me hope that they will be capable of adapting and that it's humans who are really the ones who have to start understanding that adaptation is the reality of the future.
"Corals have been around for millions of years," he says. "They've survived all of these major mass extinctions. They are still here. Humans have been building cities for 5,000 years... If sea levels continue to rise like they are, Miami is going to be a reef again soon. Then the coral will come out on top.
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"The people will have to leave before the coral does."