Scientists and enthusiastic volunteers planted 200 live coral fragments June 13 in the waters off Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park — launching an effort to restore coral reef tracts and establish a public snorkel park that’s easily accessible.

The fascinating project is being spearheaded by scientists at Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory, located on Summerland Key in the Lower Keys, and it aims to restore large areas of major reef-building corals.

Its most intriguing aspect is the revolutionary coral-growing technique that Mote scientists are using. They call it “re-skinning,” and it enables fragments of brain, star and boulder corals to fuse together very quickly to form new coral heads. And that radically reduces the time required for reef restoration.

“We start the corals at a very small size — we break them into pieces about the size of a pencil eraser or a small pea — but that stimulates them to grow to about the size of a golf ball in about just three or four months,” explained Dr. Dave Vaughan, the executive director of Mote’s Florida Keys lab and manager of the reef restoration program.

“We then take those and we plant them as singles and in groups of five. The array of five, in just one or two years, should grow together and form a coral head about the size of a dinner plate or a Frisbee,” he continued. “That would have taken 15 to 25 or more years in the wild — and we should see that here in the next couple of years.”

During the recent project launch, scientists and volunteers carefully “outplanted” corals in 10 to 15 feet of water about 20 feet beyond a near-shore breakwater in the park Keys locals call “Fort Zach.” (Those corals, by the way, had been rescued from the general area and propagated at Mote’s Summerland Key coral nursery.)

Coral Planting Key West

Dr. Dave Vaughan speaks to volunteers preparing to plant corals off Key West’s “Fort Zach.” (Photo by Conor Goulding, Mote Marine Laboratory)

Mote’s partners in this very worthy project include the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Keys tourism council and Florida State Parks. And high on the list of their goals is creating a publicly accessible coral restoration area and snorkel park at Fort Zach.

“We’re putting this together so that we can outreach hundreds of people that can just walk in from the beach and have a beautiful snorkel trail, and learn what the need is for coral reefs in this world,” enthused Dr. Dave.

He and his team are looking for recreational snorkelers and “voluntourists” to help with upcoming planting sessions in June and July. Mote scientists hope they can plant as many as 5,500 corals by the end of July. To get involved, email

“We also invite the public to just observe or snorkel along with us and watch how this is done,” added Dr. Dave, “letting the people know from the rest of the state and the rest of the world what a great thing is happening here in the Florida Keys.”