Beneath the skin of the sea, coral reefs glow with kaleidoscopic color and magical beauty. Their habitats also provide life support for our planet. Reefs are under siege from many sources.

By Susan Haynes
December 10, 2002
MacGillivray Freeman Films

On two recent Saturday mornings, a type of bucket brigadeoutside Hawaii's Waikiki Aquarium would give any beach joggerpause. Seventy-five islanders showed up one weekend, 85 the next,to remove an alien algae choking a nearby coral reef. "Those fewpeople, in that little time, took out 13,000 pounds of algae," saysCindy Hunter, a marine biologist and the aquarium's interimdirector.

"Divers removed the algae, put it into burlap bags, and handedthem to snorkelers," she explains. "Snorkelers bungee corded thebags onto boogie boards and floated them in. Volunteers on shoreschlepped them to the scales." University scientists andstüdents identified the plunder and returned native algae tothe water. "It was amazing to see how much people can accomplish byworking together," Cindy adds.

What gets people out of bed and into water work on a Saturday isan urge to tackle the global coral crisis. Overfishing, pollution,and curio-shop collection bode disaster for entire systems ofreefs, from Hawaii to the Florida Keys, from the Philippines to theRed Sea. As part of nature's planned communities, every animal,plant, organism, and mineral is vital to the whole in this tropicalunderwater world. And in many ways, their fragile symbiosis impactshuman populations from landlocked Des Moines to seasideDubrovnik.

Within reef systems, myriad species provide food andfishing-related jobs for millions of people. Reef compounds yieldlifesaving medicines. Their formations cushion storm damage. Reefshold important data about climate and ocean chemistry. They enticesnorkelers and divers, whose tourist dollars fuel local economies.They even curl waves into thrilling, "cowabunga" spirals. Knowingall this leads an increasing number of people, like the aquariumbrigade, to stewardship.

In 2000, Matt Zimmerman earned his doctorate in biomedicalsciences. "But I wasn't ready for the bench," he says, referring tolab work. Instead, he opened Island Divers on Waikiki Beach. Hewas, however, anxious to pursue some serious ocean conservation."Not only am I a scientist, but I'm also a diving-businessoperator," he says. "If I don't do something, who will?"

Matt found his niche with an international network called ReefCheck: Divers, fishermen, and other volunteers team with marinescientists, and they follow specific steps to monitor coral reefs'state of health. The concept sprouted at a 1993 Miami meeting ofscientists. Now more than 150 scientists and 1,000-plus volunteersin 60 countries are Reef Checkers. Matt became a Hawaiicoordinator.

Thousands of miles from there, in the Florida Keys, a disturbingone-third of the reefs have died or are declining. "Reefs are likethe classic canary in the coal mine," says marine biologist BillyCausey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National MarineSanctuary. "They're indicators that we are facing global, regional,and local threats to our oceans."

Sometimes a remedy is as grand as Florida's $7.8-billionComprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, "with, ultimately,"Billy says, "positive benefits for coral reefs in the South Floridaecosystem." Other times, it's as simple as one used in the Keyssanctuary: In reef areas, boaters tie onto buoys instead ofdropping anchor.

Another outside-the-box effort is Coral Reef Adventure, an IMAXfilm slated for a February release. Producer/director GregMacGillivray has to his credit 26 IMAX titles, including Dolphinsand The Living Sea. When El Nino delivered a blow to reefs aroundthe world, Greg took it personally. He called underwatercinematographers Howard and Michele Hall, and they, with othercollaborators, hatched a plan.

They filmed among still-exquisite reefs rather than indevastated areas. "It's more powerful to awaken the audience tocoral that could die in beautiful places,"Greg says.

Though privy to many unforgettable deep-sea experiences during27 years of diving, Michele remains practical. "The ocean is goingto go on," she says. "But if we want it to go on as a facsimile ofwhat we know today, we have to be selfish enough to want tomaintain it."

Being selfish works. Millions of visitors head for the FloridaKeys every year, "and 60 percent of them go snorkeling or scubadiving," Billy says. "So whether you believe in protecting reefsfor economic or ecological reasons, there's something in it for allof us."