With coral bleaching prevalent worldwide — and recently breaking records off Australia — U.S. scientists are eager to learn how their home reefs will weather the summer heat. Now, Mote Marine Laboratory is seeking volunteers to monitor for heat-driven bleaching in the Florida Keys, home to the largest coral reef system along the continental U.S.

Mote scientists will host three Keys-based training sessions during June to help interested divers and snorkelers volunteer for the Florida Keys BleachWatch program, which provides early warnings of potential coral bleaching events in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Details are below.)

“BleachWatch invites people to be our eyes on the water,” said Cory Walter, staff biologist at Mote and coordinator of BleachWatch. “It is fairly simple to volunteer, and you’ll be helping us detect bleaching rapidly and document its severity in a standardized, quantitative way. We will provide the findings to resource managers with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our partner in BleachWatch. We also work with The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resilience Program, which uses BleachWatch as an alert to direct more rigorous scientific surveys of coral bleaching, and ultimately, survival or death.”

Bleaching occurs when heat or other stressors cause corals to lose their zooxanthellae — the algae that give corals color and necessary nourishment. Corals that don’t recover their zooxanthellae will ultimately die.

Bleaching is a growing, global concern, as human-driven climate change continues to warm the oceans. April 2016 brought dire international news: 93 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been affected by bleaching, according to the Australian National Coral Bleaching Task Force.

Florida’s reefs also suffered significant bleaching in summer months of 2014 and 2015.

“I think the past two years have been the worst, in terms of coral bleaching, since I joined Mote in the late 1990s,” said Erich Bartels, manager of the Coral Reef Monitoring and Assessment Program at Mote. “It remains to be seen whether 2016 will be a third year of significant impacts, which would be an anomaly for the Florida Keys.”

With BleachWatch providing early warnings, Mote scientists and others help elucidate bleaching patterns and ultimately coral death by contributing data to Keys-wide reports by the Florida Reef Resilience Program. The report for Aug. 17-Oct. 16, 2015, showed moderate to severe bleaching in the majority of Florida Keys sampling sites, which ranged from the Dry Tortugas to Martin County. At some sites, more than 70 percent of hard coral colonies were bleached or paling (starting to bleach).

“Staghorn coral — a threatened species that Mote works with — was among the hardest hit during the past two years,” Bartels said. “However, one good thing has come out of this: We’ve been identifying which genotypes of wild staghorn coral are the ‘winners’ that survived bleaching events. We have proactively selected material from those corals to start new genetic lines in our coral nursery, with the goal of raising the most resilient corals for reef restoration efforts.” Mote’s research facility on Summerland Key maintains an underwater nursery that grows thousands of staghorn coral fragments and plants them onto depleted reefs in the wild. Selecting corals that can tolerate environmental stress will continue to be critically important in the Lab’s restoration efforts.

Mote’s BleachWatch program has operated for more than a decade in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). BleachWatch results are synthesized with NOAA’s monitoring data to provide scientists, resource managers and the public summaries of current conditions on Florida reefs during summer. Data are also available to support better predictions of bleaching and reef management planning.

BleachWatch receives funding from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and from the Protect Our Reefs grants program, which distributes funds from sales of Florida’s Protect Our Reefs specialty license plate.

How to participate in Florida Keys BleachWatch:

Recreational and professional divers and snorkelers can get involved by attending one of three training sessions led by Mote in June 2016. Sessions last 45-60 minutes. No scientific background is needed.

  • June 7: 6:30 p.m. at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 East Quay Road, Key West, FL 33040
  • June 18: 10 a.m. at Mote Marine Laboratory’s Summerland Key facility, 24244 Overseas Highway, FL 33042
  • June 21: 6:30 p.m. at Islamorada Library, 81830 Overseas Highway, Islamorada, FL 33036

Please RSVP to Cory Walter at: cwalter@mote.org or 305-395-8730

“We instruct participants on how to identify and report paling, partially bleached and fully bleached coral — which each represent a different degree of stress — and just as important, we also ask for reports of no bleaching,” Walter said. “We discuss identifying corals and differentiating them from other living things that resemble corals. We also talk about why volunteer reports make a difference. Volunteers usually find BleachWatch rewarding because they have an opportunity to learn, to get feedback from Mote scientists and to help take care of the reefs.”

Visit the BleachWatch page on Mote’s website.

Keep in touch through the BleachWatch Facebook page.