ORLANDO, Fla. – Less than 5 miles from the front gates of SeaWorld Orlando sits a new state-of-the-art facility with a huge mission of saving Florida’s beautiful coral reefs.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. that provides a safe, stable environment for coral colonies to receive world-class care and reproduce with the help of a team of coral experts.
Coordinated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the facility has been made possible through the collaboration of several groups, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), NOAA Fisheries, Disney Conservation Fund, Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, and SeaWorld. Additional funding organizations include Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, and the Edith and the Curtis Munson Foundation.
Florida’s coral reefs are under attack right now with species being affected by stony coral tissue loss disease, which has put 22 coral species at risk of extinction.
”This coral disease is such a serious issue and it’s moving so fast, and one analogy I kind of use loosely is like a forest fire, and it’s just burning through the Florida Reef tract. So timing was critical,” said Jim Kinsler, SeaWorld curator and facility manager at FCRC.
With time against them, officials from all the organizations teamed up to restore corals from across the country, advancing coral science and developing new techniques to save reefs in one facility.
Officials said in 2019 they began their search for a local coral housing facility.
During the search, Orlando-based coral retailer, World Wide Corals, Inc. reached out to help with the overall mission.
“They heard we were looking for equipment, we were looking for tubs and pumps and all these great things to be able to keep the corals going, and they reached back out to us and said ‘Hey, ironically, we happen to have our old coral farm facility that’s available for sale if you guys want to buy the equipment,’” Kinsler described. “So that was the genesis of it. Obviously, there was this critical need to get the corals, out of the natural environment, at least for the short term, so that you know the disease can be managed or resolved or what have you and at least save the species.”
SeaWorld leaders said the corals were moved into the new facility in March 2020, just days before the theme parks were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As you walk into the Florida Coral Rescue Center, you will find a number of giant salt water tanks, filtration systems and some of the most advanced aquarium lighting.
“We’re currently holding about 753 corals. These are big corals, which are larger pieces from the Keys, and these are all collected from the wild before the disease got to them,” said Justin Zimmerman, a SeaWorld aquarium supervisor. “We hold about 18 different species of coral, and these are more of the reef-building corals and corals that protect the Florida Keys from hurricanes and flooding.”
Zimmerman went on to explain that at this time, the facility was nearing capacity, and no new corals were being added.
Since many of the rescue coral species have never been held in human care before, aquarists have had to take time to learn about feeding, correct lighting and proper water flow.
Each day, the facilities biologists are evaluating the coral’s growth progress, and each month every coral is measured.
“Each month we’re required to take the coral and look at it and make measurements to make sure that it’s growing healthy, and then do an inspection to make sure that there’s no tissue that’s receding and make sure it’s growing happy, healthy and colorful,” Zimmerman pointed out.
The same team of biologists also feeds the corals small bits of planktonic foods or smaller dusted foods called reef roids.
After rescuing the coral, officials observe and provide conditions perfect for reproducing offspring, which leaders say is already showing signs of positive results.
Disney Conservation, a global community inspired to protect the magic of nature, is just one of the leaders in the coral rescue efforts. Disney said it has been working to restore coral reefs since 2007 near Disney’s Castaway Cay, a stop for the Disney Cruise Line.
“We were actually the first to put nurseries into the waters to help rebuild coral reefs out of that area,” said Dr. Andy Stamper, Conservation Science Manager for Disney animals, science, and environment. “Since that, we’ve been working with lots of different organizations in the Bahamas and monitoring the reefs health and trying to instill conservation ethic, so that they can save reefs out there. What we’re excited about is that we can take all that experience there, and then we can bring it to this project, and AZA.”
Stamper explained that through research and modeling, Disney scientists have been able to identify ocean currents that help transport coral reproductive cells to other areas of the ocean that could potentially thrive.
“We know where to put the nurseries and where to build the reefs. We know how to mix them together so that they’ll breed,” Stamper explained.
Disney began rebuilding five coral reefs near South Abaco and since then, the reefs have been flourishing compared to others nearby.
“The effort to reverse the collapse of an entire ecosystem isn’t something that can be done without the herculean efforts of many people with a diversity of talents and resources. I consider it a privilege to play even a small part in this huge effort,” Dr. Stamper said.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center’s goal is to one day return these rescued corals back to the ocean so they can help restore underwater ecosystems, which are essential to hundreds of marine life who rely on them for their well-being.
“There are so many people, so many organizations involved in this project and I’ll tell you - we have all worked so well together, and it’s so unique,” Kinsler concluded.
Click here to learn more about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums mission to save Florida’s coral reefs and ways to donate.