Combat veterans fight coral extinction off Florida coast

Diver: ‘We are really, really close to a tipping point’

LAUDERDALE- BY-THE-SEA, Fla. – A grassroots effort involving veterans in dive gear has its sights set on saving Florida’s coral from the brink of extinction.

Force Blue was created in 2016 with the goal of helping the planet’s endangered marine life using the skill and passion of combat veterans.

On a warm morning in August, more than 100 people arrived near the pier in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea to watch as divers took to the ocean to check on the coral that live about 300 yards off the coast.

Divers with Force Blue prepare to monitor a coral reef off the shore of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“It impacts you,” Steve Gonzalez, a retired Navy Seal Master Chief, said .

Gonzalez — or Gonzo as his friends call him — helped spearhead Force Blue’s involvement in the Florida Coral Rescue Project.

The project is a collaboration of agencies working with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to not only stop coral from dying but to find ways to bring their population back.

Gonzalez said he has been on more than 100 dives to monitor coral for signs of illness, life and death.

“Nine out of 10 times, this is caused by fellow humans,” he said. “Sometimes it’s on purpose and usually unknowingly. Plastics play such a big part — waste. (These are) things that we just don’t think about until you’re underwater and you see the impact of what it has on the coral reef, and then, of course, on the marine life that feeds at the coral reef.”

Veteran divers from across the state — and Central Florida — participated in the monitoring dive, which was co-sponsored by the Pepsi Stronger Together Campaign.

Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Mack Hollins suited up with them as they formed four teams to search for two large threats facing Florida’s coral.

Bleaching is caused when the water temperature gets too warm. Researchers said it’s one of the results of climate change.

Stony Coral Tissue Disease is a water-borne bacteria, which can be deadly if it’s not treated.

Researchers are still trying to determine where the bacteria come from.

This map from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows where coral have been found with stony coral tissue disease. (Courtesy: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Copyright WKMG,

The divers used a waterproof checklist underwater to track what they found.

Patti Kirk-Gross, with Force Blue, combined the divers’ findings and uploaded it all to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s SEAFAN website.

SEAFAN allows divers anywhere in Florida to report marine incidents directly to the government.

“We are really, really close to a tipping point,” Kirk-Gross said. “Tragically, I’ve been diving enough years where I saw it was good. I’ve seen what we’ve done with it. What a lot of land lovers don’t recognize is about one breath out of every five comes from our oceans. “So, if we allow our oceans to collapse, we are going to be competing for the air that we breathe, and we just can’t allow that.”

Divers with Force Blue monitor coral along a reef off the shore of Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

She said she has faith that efforts like Force Blue’s dives and the efforts of the Florida Coral Rescue Project may help turn things around and save coral from extinction.

“I don’t think that we will ever in my life restore it to where it looks the same. It’s always going to look different,” she said. “But, if we could just bring — especially the corals — back to where they would spawn and have a place to land and grow, that would make me happy.”

“There’s always hope,” Gonzalez said. “The more we do this, the more we can increase the chances of getting past this and moving forward and returning our marine environment to what it should be.”

About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.