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'Johnny Appleseed Of Coral' Invites Tourists To Volunteer While Enjoying The Florida Keys

Jessica Palombo

For years, scientists have been sounding the alarm that the world’s coral reefs are dying and disappearing rapidly. One Key Largo man is using low-tech methods and an army of volunteers to help reverse that trend and restore coral reefs in what’s known as the dive capital of the world. 

At the headquarters of the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation, in Key Largo, founder Ken Nedimyer is leafing through photos of what coral reefs in the area used to look like when he would go diving as a young man.

“There was coral all over the place, great big stands of elkhorn coral that you couldn’t even see the end of, you know, acres and acres. A lot of fish, a lot of conchs. But you know, things have changed," he said.

Disease has been the corals’ biggest enemy since then. He says, for two types of coral, elkhorn and staghorn, the outbreak has reduced their numbers to just 2 percent of what it was 25 years ago. Nedimyer looked around and wondered, "Isn’t somebody going to fix it? Isn’t somebody going to do something? And I realized, No. People were studying it, but they weren’t doing anything.”

His solution was to start the Coral Restoration Foundation in 2007. He grows coral in underwater nurseries around the Florida Keys and then he glues them onto protected reefs, where they flourish. It started as an experiment with his daughter’s 4H Club, using just six pieces of coral.

“And now there’s about 5,000 of those corals from that original six in that area, and it’s 100 yards by 200 yards," he said. "You just swim and swim and swim, and it’s just coral all over the place.”

He and his staff have led hundreds of dive expeditions with volunteers from around the country to glue the coral he grows onto reefs. Nedimyer embraces the term “voluntourism” to describe what he offers to tourists.

“When they come down and they do a two- or three-day thing with us, they take back this hope that there’s something that can be done," he said. "They take back pictures, and slowly, it’s going viral.”

He’s recently started three more coral restoration programs in the Caribbean and South America, and he gets requests for help with others all the time. Funding for his five-year-old venture comes from a mix of grants from the government and companies like Disney, and from private donations.

Nedimyer says, he’s happy to be helping rebuild the reefs, but that wasn’t his intention when he started growing corals.

“Hit the market with thousands of corals and we’d make a ton of money, that’s what we were thinking," he said. "And, before got anywhere near 1,000 corals, we were starting to plant them on the reef, and my whole passion changed.”

Nedimyer, who’s been called the Johnny Appleseed of Coral, said, he’s learned that making a difference is a lot better than making money.

For more information on the Coral Restoration Foundation, visit its website.