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This CNN Hero is recruiting recreational divers to help rebuild reefs in Florida one coral at a time

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Mike Goldberg spent his early career working in financial services, putting in long hours for 12 years, he said, before he decided it was time to call it quits.

“I was just chasing money,” he said. “But I realized that is not me. … It just wasn’t true to my core.”

In 1996, Goldberg left his job and his home in Los Angeles to follow his passion for underwater diving, spending time in Hawaii, the British Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands.

“When I got out of the water after my very first dive, I decided that this is what I really wanted to do … to take my life and somehow intertwine diving and making a living,” he said.

In 2004, Goldberg and his family settled in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, and opened a dive shop, Key Dives.

Today, he’s on a mission to help bring the area’s coral reefs back to life through his nonprofit, I.CARE.

As an avid diver, Goldberg developed a strong appreciation for the coral reefs and their essential role in the marine ecosystem. They not only support all kinds of species, but they protect coastal areas, and millions of people depend on them for food and jobs.

Over the last two decades, he saw coral reefs in the Florida Keys go from colorful and full of life to functionally extinct today. What he used to see were “brain coral the size of a VW Beetle, and fields of staghorn and elkhorn coral that went on forever,” he said.

Now, he says many of the reefs in the area cannot recover naturally on their own and require human intervention to survive. Goldberg knew he needed to do something to help and wanted to find a way to get other people involved.

“I know more about the history of and what’s happening now to the reef than most people,” he said. “I’m not a scientist, but that puts me in a unique position to communicate in layman’s terms about what’s going on.”

He realized that recreational divers could be a great workforce to help turn around the damage and restore the reefs. He also envisioned that other local dive shops, residents, and tourists could play a role.

Around the same time, he met Dr. Kylie Smith, who was completing her PhD to become a behavioral ecologist and a coral reef ecologist. They spent hours at Goldberg’s dive shop discussing the health of the reef.

In 2019, they teamed up to co-found I.CARE, which stands for Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education, with the goal of empowering divers to help restore the area’s reefs, ensuring their survival for future generations.

I.CARE organizes and offers special coral restoration dives for local and out-of-town participants. They spend the day learning about the importance of coral reefs and how to help rebuild them, then they go on dives to transplant coral grown in a local nursery run by Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.

So far, Goldberg says the organization has transplanted more than 10,000 corals and educated more than 2,000 people. The I.CARE team monitors and maintains all of the transplanted coral, making sure it’s thriving.

“There’s so much work to do. We’re just getting started,” Goldberg said.

Mike Goldberg: The Keys in general – the ocean, the coral reef, the marine life – used to be the best anywhere. When I moved here 20 years ago, (there were) massive elkhorn corals that I used to swim around that were 12 feet across in both directions. Fields of them and stalks like trees that you could swim underneath on your back and marvel looking up at. Back then, we could swim a quarter mile in one direction and see nothing more than a quarter inch between the live coral. The live coral would compete for that underwater territory. Today, I could swim 20 feet in one direction and not see any. We’ve lost so much coral. It’s hard to express it. It truly is a pretty devastating number.

The coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification, temperature, runoff. And then in 2014, there was something we called stony coral tissue loss disease. (It) was the sledgehammer that changed everything. It is incredibly virulent, and it started up near Miami and worked its way down. In 2016, it presented itself here, and we lost more coral in that one year than we did in all my prior years combined in diving. It was so dramatic watching this coral head die all in front of us. And we didn’t know what to do, how to stop it. It was very hard to watch, and feel helpless, wishing you could do something to stop it.

Goldberg: Without them, nothing is here simply put. They are what brings the ecosystem together. The majority of what we see out there at one point in their life is spending time on a coral reef. There’s small fish, not bigger than a grain of rice, all the way up to your large predatory fish, tiger sharks. The entire ecosystem’s right there out on the reef at any given point. Whether it’s a neon goby, whether it’s a cleaner shrimp, whether it’s a juvenile Spanish hogfish. Without that live coral as their home, that disappears. And when they’re gone, we have fewer snappers, grouper. It’s just a cascade effect because that goes all the way up the food chain. So, it’s imperative that we have a healthy coral reef for us to have a full ecosystem. Without a coral reef, there’s so many problems that will ensue.

Goldberg: I knew the only way that I could make it work is through the power of the recreational dive community. What I believed would work, and is, (is they’re) coming down and helping us rebuild the reef. There are a lot of them. And I truly believe at their core the vast majority want to be a part of this. And my experience so far has been just that. They want to keep doing it. They love being part of it.

What I can do is tell the world of divers that are out there, “Let’s band together. This is a plight not only for the Keys, but the Caribbean, for the Pacific, for the Red Sea. It’s all around the world. And if we, as a community of divers, don’t attempt to bring back or at least get it to a self-sustaining level, the dive community will disappear.”

This avenue gives those individuals another reason to come diving. They can be talking to their friends, to their families, getting them excited and spreading out those tendrils so we get more and more people down here helping us rebuild the reef.

I truly believe we’re going to be successful with this restoration work. I see things every time I go in the water that give me hope that we will have a sustaining coral reef.

Want to get involved? Check out the I.CARE website and see how to help.

To donate to I.CARE via GoFundMe, click here

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