On Friday, 29-year-old marine biologist Colin Foord took scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), and upstate St. Petersburg’s Pier Aquarium out in his 1969 Boston Whaler to a sea wall on the Fisher Island side of Government Cut, the lane through which, every day, enormous cruise ships and shipping vessels travel to and from the Port of Miami.
The scientists had all crowded into Foord’s boat to see with their own eyes what Foord could not believe he was seeing with his two years earlier during one of his regular excursions through Miami’s inner city waterways: a hybrid coral of the genus Acropora that is rarely seen in South Florida waters, let alone in the harsh H2O of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the country.
“I’ve never seen a hybrid anywhere off the coast of Florida, and I’ve done thousands of dives,” says Foord, who is half of the duo behind Coral Morphologic, a Miami-based “scientific art endeavor” that conducts research in its Overtown laboratory, creates gorgeous imagery of coral via HD videography and site-specific projection, and raises money for coral restoration through its record label, Discosoma Records, which releases limited-edition vinyl records from South Floridian musicians.
“These researchers have not seen them here in Florida,” Foord adds. “They’ve heard of people finding them … but here in Florida they’re virtually absent.”
The scarcity of the coral — a hybrid of the Elkhorn and Staghorn species, both critically endangered branching corals formerly common to the Caribbean Sea — helps to explain Foord’s response when he first spotted it.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my God’,” he says. “I thought it was a species from another ocean that someone had planted there.”
The coral hybrid is fluorescent, “highly unusual for a Caribbean Acropora species,” Foord says.
His astonishment only grew when he observed that the hybrid was actually thriving in Government Cut, which even a layman would presume an inhospitable environment for a coral or any other life form on account of its murky water and daily traffic of humungous ships.
But over the last two years, Foord has seen the hybrid withstand cold snaps while other coral died off in harrowing numbers, and he is seeing it manage this summer’s heat with aplomb.
“There is a variety of other corals growing in Government Cut,” Foord says. “It’s actually quite a beautiful marine habitat. But they’re starting to bleach now, because bleaching typically happens when the water temperature gets too warm, which is of course what everyone’s so concerned about with global warming. It doesn’t necessarily kill the coral, it’s just an indicator of stress. It means the coral is not getting nutrients it needs and, if conditions don’t get back down to normal, then the coral can die. But this coral is not showing any signs of stress. It’s not showing any signs of bleaching.”
Such vigor is attributed to hybrids of many species. Foord draws a comparison to mutts, which often display greater hardiness than purebred dogs. (Of course, the proud owner of a Bluetick Coonhound or a Bichon Frise might indignantly disagree.) But, under Foord’s observant eye, the Acropora hybrid has proven itself especially robust, not only in withstanding swings in temperature that would off weaker corals — including its parent species — but also in its fecundity. Whereas many hybrid creatures cannot reproduce, it is likely the coral hybrid in Government Cut can breed both sexually and asexually.
“A lot of times hybrids are presumed to be sterile,” Foord says. “For instance, a mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse, and a mule is sterile. So people are like, sure, a mule has traits that are better than a horse and better than a donkey, but what good is it because you can’t keep the genetic line going to create a new species. With the [coral hybrid], it seems quite the opposite.”
Foord believes its combination of preternatural adaptability, vigor, and fecundity make the coral hybrid a candidate for rehabilitating South Florida’s critically endangered coral reefs, which have been decimated over the last 30 years.
“If you’re going to go to the trouble of having a rehabilitation program and spend millions of dollars growing corals over years and years, you need to start with a coral that is like a super coral,” he says. “And this hybrid coral is like a super coral. It is the ultimate survivor. This is the coral that needs to be protected, it needs to be studied, it needs to be saved, and, most importantly, it needs to be aquacultured.”
That said, the hybrid’s potential in the fight to revive coral populations is not the only reason the Smithsonian’s Dr. Nicole Fogarty — the world’s foremost authority on staghorn-elkhorn hybrid corals, Foord says — and the rest of the experts boarded Foord’s Boston Whaler on Friday. Their excursion had a heightened sense of urgency because of the imminent Port of Miami Deep Dredge Project, which will deepen Government Cut from 42 feet to 50 feet in order to accommodate “megaships”. (The Port of Miami project is related to an expansion of the Panama Canal that will let so-called “Super Post Panamax Megaships” pass through the canal as soon as 2014.)
The dredging of the Port poses a grave threat to the hybrid coral Foord found along the sea wall of Fisher Island, its vigor notwithstanding.
“They need to widen and deepen [Government Cut], and the only way to do that is to get in there and dredge it, and remove rock and sand, and that inevitably makes the water very dirty, and could quite possibly kill this coral,” Foord says.
Calling the hybrid a “one-in-a-million” discovery, Foord believes its demise would be a huge loss to science, which is why he is hoping the researchers will be able to obtain permits to collect some of the colony for the RSMAS coral nursery in Biscayne National Park and the Coral Restoration Foundation’s nurseries in Key Largo. At the same time, he has a pragmatic take on its conservation.
“I’m not trying to turn this coral into the Spotted Owl of Miami to stop this [dredge] project,” he says. “Let’s just get these permits, let’s get the fragments, and let’s let [the Port of Miami] do their project. Because I would agree that this is a man-made, artificial habitat [whose intended function] needs to take precedent.”
The hybrid coral Foord found is growing in about one foot of water on the Fisher Island side of Government Cut.
Foord concedes that his discovery may not yield any scientific breakthroughs. It may turn out, for example, that the hybrid only likes living in Government Cut and the fact that it’s thriving there does not mean it will thrive in harsh conditions elsewhere. But he suspects otherwise.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he says. “If it’s happy where it is, I think it will be able to live just about anywhere else you put it in Florida.”
The implications of that prospective development is one of things Foord plans to explain when he speaks at the TEDxMIA “Between the Lines” Conference at the New World Symphony on September 13. His presentation will likely feature the exquisite projections that are the hallmark of Coral Morphologic, which, in partnership with the Miami Science Museum, is one of the finalists in the running for a 2011 Knight Arts Challenge grant.
During his TEDxMIA presentation, Foord will also strive to hammer home one of Coral Morphologic’s bedrock beliefs, that Miami, the only mainland U.S. city with a natural coral reef off of its shore, is, both figuratively and literally, a coral city.
“Miami is … a city that is built on an ancient fossilized coral reef,” Foord says. “From our perspective as artists, this is where we get a lot of our metaphors for the city and the coral reef being actually quite similar in a lot of respects. The coral reef is a habitat that’s very urban in nature. Miami is, of course, an urban city, and it’s also very colorful. So we make the argument through our work that Miami has had its fluorescent, colorful spirit imbued in it for eons, and this ultra-rare coral hybrid growing where it is … represents the idea that it is still a coral city, and it will continue to be in the future.”
Update: “A Tallahassee administrative law judge on Wednesday ordered a hearing for August that puts dredging and blasting on indefinite hold,” according to a Jan. 25, 2012, Miami Herald article.