Important environmental work is underway in the turquoise waters off Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Since mid-June, scientists and volunteers have planted several hundred live coral fragments in an effort to restore depleted reef tracts.

Dr. David Vaughan with the Mote Marine Laboratory on Summerland Key tells that their goal is to restore large areas of major reef-building corals through a revolutionary technique called “re-skinning.” This allows fragments of brain, star and boulder corals to fuse together rapidly to form new coral heads.

“We start the corals at a very small size, but that stimulates them to grow to about the size of a golf ball in about just three or four months,” Dr. Vaughn says.

Those are then taken and planted as singles and in groups of five. Within a couple of years, Dr. Vaughn says they should grow together and form a coral head about the size of a dinner plate or frisbee.

“That would have taken 15 to 25 or more years in the wild,” he adds.

The effort has been utilizing recreational snorkelers dubbed “citizen scientists” to help with the planting sessions. Dr. Vaughn also encourages the public to come out and observe the transformation.

Organizers hope to create a publicly accessible coral restoration area and snorkel park. More than 5,000 corals are expected to be planted by the end of July.

The coral restoration project is a joint effort by Mote Marine Laboratory, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Keys Tourism Council and Florida State Parks.