12684878698?profile=RESIZE_710x12684879455?profile=RESIZE_710xReefs off Palm Beach County are in cooler water at greater depths and are washed by the passing Gulf Stream, giving them a better chance of survival than the shallow reefs in locations like the Keys. Photos provided

Palm Beach County’s coral reefs are faring much better than some farther south that are plagued by bleaching from warming waters

By John Christopher Fine

Chris Deen — licensed captain, veteran diver and ocean explorer based in Boynton Beach — has the Atlantic for his aquarium.

Despite threats facing Florida’s coral reefs from pollution and warming waters, Deen and other area dive boat captains say the reefs off southern Palm Beach County are holding up remarkably well.

“Coral growth here will be the last coral in Florida. We have the depth and the Gulf Stream and we protect it better,” says Deen, who operates Starfish — a 34-foot Crusader — out of Boynton Harbor Marina daily, weather permitting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in May that designates the northern portion of Florida’s barrier reef, known as the Kristin Jacobs Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Area, as a state aquatic preserve, which offers it the maximum amount of protection available from the state.

The 105-mile-long preserve stretches from the St. Lucie Inlet south to Key Biscayne. The new law took effect July 1.

The state is also investing $57 million in its new budget for coral reef restoration and coastal protection.

The threat from runoff
For Deen to get to the reef, he navigates Starfish out through the Boynton Inlet. Not originally meant as a passage to the ocean, the inlet was cut to allow sewage effluent from canals and local discharges to get out into the Atlantic Ocean at tide change. The cut prevented Lake Worth Lagoon — that part of the Intracoastal Waterway that passes through the area — from becoming a noisome, dangerously polluted sewer.

All manner of harmful and toxic discharges come out of canals that crisscross Florida, finding their way to the Intracoastal and ocean. Agricultural runoffs including fertilizer, insecticides, pesticides, urine, feces and other chemical wastes wash through the canals, as do lawn and yard treatments from more urban areas.

Discharges containing nitrogen act as nutrients. Fishermen realize fish congregate around sewer pipes, eating what is flushed out. Some of this has been curtailed by court order, but some municipalities still use large diameter sewer pipes that protrude a mile out into the ocean when heavy rains make holding stormwater impossible.

The nitrogen-heavy wastewater also promotes algae, which can cover and smother sensitive coral.

The threat from warming waters
Water temperature also plays a role in the health of coral.

Recent observations in the Florida Keys, as well as islands throughout the Caribbean, reveal large-scale deaths of stony corals. The diver’s paradise in Grand Cayman Island has dead hard corals with vast areas of bleached coral, attributed to high ocean temperatures.

12684880663?profile=RESIZE_180x180What Deen has observed diving is what researchers worldwide have reported. Warming seas, with sustained temperatures well over 90 degrees recorded in places such as the Florida Keys, have resulted in coral ejecting the symbiotic plant that lives inside its theca or calcium carbonate shell. Without Zooxanthellae or Symbiodinium, a dinoflagellate, coral bleaches white and eventually dies.

But that’s not the case offshore in South County. “Boynton Beach offers the best reef dives in Florida. There are ledges. The Gulf Stream sweeps in here,” Deen said.

Those findings are echoed by Palm Beach Zoo’s Scientific Dive Team, which is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Disturbance Response Monitoring program. Last year, during the spring and summer, the zoo’s dive team studied the conditions off Looe Key, where it observed “bleached, paling, unhappy coral everywhere,” dive team member John Towey said.

“When we returned to the reefs in Palm Beach County, we were happy to see the reefs were faring better than in the Keys,” Towey said. “Water temperatures were higher but not to the extremes being recorded by our friends and partners elsewhere.”

The Gulf Stream makes difference
While Towey said the local reef is far from perfect, it “may be the saving grace the rest of the reef relies on.” He described it as “a silver lining in an ocean of white.”

Palm Beach County’s offshore areas are affected by strong eddies of the predominantly northward flowing Gulf Stream. The current can be mild or at times run as fast as 4 knots.

The Gulf Stream flow serves as a natural broom, sweeping waters offshore clean. Algae that proliferated due to high nitrogen content of wastewater discharges are often pushed off reefs by storms and surges.

“The reefs here are deeper,” Deen said. Depth as well as the Gulf Stream keep Atlantic Ocean temperatures off southern Palm Beach County at acceptable levels for coral. All but very deep-water corals require sunlight penetration for plants inside them to live.

Temperatures from about 68 to 80 degrees are ideal, as long as there is no sedimentation to choke coral growth. Sedimentation can occur with beach renourishment projects that dredge sand from deeper ocean areas and pile it on beaches that have been eroded by storms.

A veteran dive instructor from the Kyalami Scuba Club, which runs dive boats out of West Palm Beach and Jupiter, also attests to the health of the local reefs. Meme Edwards said “it is surprising how healthy our reefs are. There was some stony coral disease that has subsided. A little bleaching that was monitored by divers and conservation officials, but our reefs stayed healthy.”

During the hot summer months that killed corals in the Florida Keys last year, local reefs remained largely unaffected. “Ocean temperatures at the bottom were 69 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit at 60 feet. Surface water at the top ranged into the 80s. That was consistent all summer,” Edwards said.

Shaun Gallant, owner-partner of the Kyalami Scuba Club, said the reef remained healthy due to lower temperatures at depth.

“We see some brain coral here, not the most obvious, yet my observations showed it was healthy,” Edwards said. “There was no bleaching. Generally, our divers are pleasantly surprised after coming here from diving in the Keys. This is way deeper, from 50 to 60 feet on the shore side of the reef and 80 feet on the outside reef areas. Healthy coral equals healthy marine life. We see a hundred groupers aggregating, sharks, turtles.”

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Divers play an important role

Gallant and Edwards described the importance of diver participation with dive operators in observing reef conditions.

“We are a small community. We monitor reef conditions. We notify government and reef conservation agencies if we see anything,” Edwards said. “We’ve helped with turtle entanglements and report any coral that we see dying. I bring people in that do research.”

Recent dives revealed healthy stony corals in the region’s ocean waters. Reef tops are about 50 feet deep. Depending on the area, local reefs are up to a quarter-mile wide.

Biodiversity abounds and a wide variety of corals thrive, enabling habitat and food for other species.

Deen and his wife, Julia, remain sentinels of the sea, as does Gallant, observers of an underwater realm that welcomes discovery. It is their passion as well as their means of livelihood.

“Kyalami is a Zulu word that means literally ‘My home,’” says Gallant, evoking the belief that when it comes to conservation, the ocean belongs to all people.
“Or symbolically: ‘my home, your home.’”

 

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John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist who lives in Boynton Beach.

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