Cindy Lewis, director of Keys Marine Laboratory on Long Key, is a woman of diverse talents.
Cindy first became a diver in her late 40s and maintains active status as an American Academy of Underwater Science diver, and as a National Association of Underwater Instructors dive master.
Cindy is focused on reducing her carbon footprint and setting an example of environmental stewardship.
She also serves as a city councilwoman, plays the French horn with the Keys Community Concert Band and is the band’s treasurer. Plus she’s the mother of three grown children and grandmother of three.
Cindy oversees the eight-acre Keys Marine Laboratory — operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium under Florida’s State University System — with 60 temperature-controlled seawater tanks, serving as a refuge or “halfway house” for stressed corals.
Florida Keys coral practitioners are bringing in wild corals from overheated Keys waters to the lab to acclimate before transferring the acclimated coral to other land-based nursery facilities across the country.
Among other responsibilities, Cindy manages the facility’s three seawater systems that pump seawater to eight aerated reservoirs, providing reef-quality water to tables and tanks averaging 240 gallons each. To save Keys coral’s genetic diversity, collected corals are placed in flowing seawater tables maintained at 84 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keys Marine Laboratory provides infrastructure for scientific research and education relating to Florida’s coastal and ocean environment through marine field studies and marine fisheries courses.
Cindy earned a Ph.D. studying Florida’s endangered pillar coral, is known for her research on coral bleaching and stony coral tissue loss disease, and holds degrees from Florida International University, University of Buffalo and Cornell University.
An American Academy of Underwater Science diver, Cindy enjoys recreational diving to outplant coral and do reef cleanups. (Photo by K. Neely)
Keys Voices: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?
Cindy Lewis: In 1998 on vacation with my family for fishing, snorkeling and diving fun. I was “hooked” after that experience!
KV: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?
CL: Keys natural elements and feeling in tune with Mother Nature: the moon cycles, ebb and flow of the tides and the ocean’s many moods. My passion is coral reefs and the mosaic and wonder of life they hold.
KV: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
CL: My parents first taught me to respect and protect the environment, encouraging exploration of all things wild. We often canoed and camped throughout the Adirondacks. In 2001, I came to Keys Marine Laboratory doing my master’s research on coral symbiosis and bleaching.
KV: How does that passion influence your work or profession?
CL: As a scientific research diver, I have fully immersed myself in the Keys’ marine environment over the last two decades. Our work during the mass bleaching event in 2014 and 2015 led to the creation of a living genetic bank for pillar corals before they were completely lost in the wild.
KV: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
Cindy has three grown children and three grandchildren including Amelia, pictured with her here.
CL: By reducing my carbon footprint. I power my house with solar panels and drive a fully electric car, charged by my panels; collect rainwater in 500-gallon cisterns for washing my car and watering plants to help reduce the use of fresh water from our dwindling aquafer; and reduce my use of single-use plastics, using cloth shopping and produce bags. Every little bit makes a difference.
KV: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?
CL: Working with young kids and the next generations of marine and conservation biologists. Their energy and passion is contagious and keeps me motivated and hopeful.
KV: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
CL: By setting an example for those around me, others will sense the importance of being good stewards of our environment.
KV: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
CL: Each one of us can help make a difference. The oceans and reef ecosystems are vital to this planet and our way of life. Once it is gone, it is gone.
KV: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
CL: Sharing a swim with Labrador retriever Burke, my latest senior rescue and fabulous companion. I enjoy diving when I can on weekends to outplant coral or do reef cleanups, at least with a camera in hand. I can’t just dive without something to do! Also, a quiet kayak exploring the mangroves or watching a Keys sunset.