Life in the coral city

Right off the coast of Miami, there’s another city, waiting to be explored. As South Florida has built itself into a teeming megalopolis, another has been growing, from Key West to Jupiter, parallel to us, and yet far older. The underwater megalopolis that is the Florida Reef is the third largest in the world, and the only one in the continental United States.

Since 2007, Coral Morphologic has been dedicated not just to preserving Miami’s coral, but to transforming it into art, with stunning projections and gorgeous films that show people a side of coral they never imagined.

Founders Colin Foord, a marine biologist, and Jared McKay, a musician, have been best friends since childhood. Originally from New Hampshire, they’d always been fascinated by aquariums, and started growing coral while still in high school. Foord moved to Miami when he was 18 to study at the University of Miami, but his fascination with coral set him apart from his fellow marine biology classmates, who were more interested in sharks and dolphins. “The usual suspects,” he recalls. “I ended up becoming friends more with the artists and musicians. It was sort of a magical time to be in Miami, because there was a whole wave of artists creating a community. You had art walks and Art Basel starting in the 2000s. At that time, Wynwood was just developing, you had Borsch Gallery, Rocket Projects, there was Objects Art Space, just all these early DIY art galleries. It was a really seminal turning point in the creative community in Miami.”

Instead of heading to a job at a lab after graduating, Foord began managing Miami indie band Awesome New Republic. When they left for New York City, Foord eventually landed an internship in Bali, Indonesia, spending 8 months creating a handbook to help locals cultivate coral gardens for the ornamental aquarium trade as a sustainable alternative income source to more destructive fishing practices. He aimed to incentivize protecting the reef instead of destroying it through the common practice of dynamite fishing.

Once he returned to Miami, he recruited McKay down to join him in launching Coral Morphologic. Together, they began making films of the coral they were growing, with McKay creating all of the atmospheric music himself. “We’re trying to show coral in a very cool way. Typically if you see corals, they’re dead in a curio store. We’re really into finding new ways to show them while they’re alive,” McKay explains. “I think the point of Coral Morphologic is to engender empathy between humans and corals. And in order to have empathy you need to have an understanding of what life is like on the other side of the equation.”

It took them years to learn to grow Miami’s native species, which they provide to hobbyists, universities, and public aquariums. They’re one of the few aquaculturists specializing in South Florida corals. But they do more than just cultivate, they explore our urban coral environment.

The coral living right off of our shores, in one of the busiest waterways in the world, includes hybrids that can survive, even thrive, in incredibly harsh conditions, and that hardiness could prove key to restoring not just the Florida Reef, but damaged and diseased reefs the world over. Foord describes finding a rare hybrid staghorn/elkhorn coral as an “aha” moment for him. “I’d never seen a hybrid in all my diving throughout Florida. To find essentially the rarest coral in Florida in the shipping channel of a major American city? If this coral can live here, then what else am I going to find? I should really be looking harder in these environments where you shouldn’t expect to find coral.”

As Foord said in a TEDxMIA talk in 2011, “When I first started exploring our waterways several years ago, I really didn’t have high expectations. Once I started finding healthy brain corals encrusted over shopping carts and discarded bicycle frames, the idea that corals were somehow sensitive creatures gave way to [thinking] perhaps they may just be adaptable opportunists.”

And Miami corals have to be hardy strains, capable of growing right alongside one of the world’s busiest ports, in waters teeming with not just boats, but garbage and pollution. But they are in danger from recent the Deep Dredge project.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expanding the manmade shipping channel known as Government Cut to allow larger ships to enter the Port of Miami, deepening it by an extra 8 feet. All corals larger than 10 inches were collected and transplanted by the Army Corps, but that left thousands of smaller corals behind.

Corals are protected species, and Coral Morphologic were given special permits to rescue more than a thousand of these smaller corals for study and to transplant them to an artificial reef created more than 20 years ago, dubbed “Cosmic Reef” by Foord.

However, the silt and sediment from the dredging are incredibly stressful to the coral ecosystem, and the barriers supposedly put into place to protect Cosmic Reef against the silt from the dredging simply didn’t work.

The Deep Dredge project was supposed to make it a priority to protect and relocate critically endangered staghorn coral, along with minimizing environmental disturbances to Miami’s fragile coral ecosystem in general. But the Army Corps failed, and in a recent NOAA survey 23 percent of the relocated staghorn coral in the area was dead.

Dredging isn’t new. As early as 1905, Government Cut first sliced through what would become Miami Beach, creating Fisher Island on one side, and South Beach on the other. Created to allow ships easier access to the Port of Miami, Government Cut has been dredged and deepened many times, with material being used to create MacArthur Causeway and fill in Fisher Island and the islands around Venetian Causeway, among other uses.

It’s also created a unique ecosystem that, along with the draining of the Everglades and the resultant increase in salinity in Biscayne Bay, has allowed the coral reef to expand all the way up to mouth of the Miami River. Even in the polluted waters just a stone’s throw from the American Airlines Arena, Miami coral is growing, right on top of the refuse.

“Without Government Cut, we wouldn’t have the diversity of urban coral that we have now,” Foord admits. “It’s important for the people in Miami to understand the changes in time and space. … If you went back 150 years ago, Biscayne Bay would be a freshwater, brackish environment full of mangroves. The Miami River used to be freshwater, and there used to be freshwater springs coming right from the bay because of the pressure coming from the Everglades. But humans have drained the Everglades, which reduced the freshwater to Biscayne Bay, and Government Cut created a sluiceway. It cut through the reef, and now every incoming tide is funneling water from the reef into the bay. When they started to build the infrastructure, cement and rocks, the coral now had a substrate to grow.”

One of Coral Morphologic’s next projects is launching the South Pointe Coral Nursery in Miami Beach, providing an unprecedented chance to study urban corals and how they can adapt to human influences. According to Foord, “There’s tons of brain coral along MacArthur Causeway. The highway between Miami and Miami Beach that everybody takes, and they probably never think about the brain corals they drive by every single day. I find it almost a poetic irony that these corals are taking advantage of our tax-payer funded infrastructure.”

Right along the edge of the city, Foord has discovered four brand new coral species thriving, including a blue and pink strain he’s called Miami Vice.

“It’s difficult to find silver linings to Florida’s environmental story,” Foord says. “When you talk about the Everglades being drained and poisoned and sea level rise, the fact that we have corals pioneering into a major American city defies logic and expectation. These are the punk rock corals themselves. They’re the crust punk corals. This is the original neon nightlife of Miami. And they were here first.”

As Foord puts it, “The cement and the limestone that comprise the buildings of Miami are actually fossilized coral from eons past when Miami was underwater.”

Which means Miami itself is a coral city. And when the waters rise up and the oceans flood the skyscrapers, the coral will be waiting to flourish once again on the limestone coral skeletons we’ve used to build so much of Miami in the first place.

Jared McKay and Colin Foord