High ocean temperatures are harming the Florida coral reef. Rescue crews are racing to help

LAYTON, Fla. (AP) — Steps away from the warming waters of Florida Bay, marine biologist Emily Becker removed covers from the dozens of water-filled tanks under her watchful eye. Nestled in seawater carefully maintained at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) lay hundreds of pieces of coral — some a sickly white from the bleaching that threatens to kill them, others recovered to a healthy bright iodine in color.

As Becker looked over the coral, crews of reef rescue groups arrived in trucks carrying more — brought up by divers in a massive effort aimed at saving the coral from an ocean that is cooking it alive.

“People jumped into action really quickly, as best as they could,” Becker said, wiping sweat from her brow.

University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science senior research associate Dalton Hesley swims out with supplies, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, on Paradise Reef near Key Biscayne, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Students and volunteers cement coral fragments from a coral nursery into cement “cookies” to be affixed to the reef, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, near Key Biscayne, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Grad student Berfin Sagir, left, and Research associate Catherine Lachnit sort numbered bags that will be used to collect coral fragments, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, in Key Biscayne, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Fish gather in a coral nursery, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, near Tavernier, Fla., in the Florida Keys. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Up and down the chain of islands that form the Florida Keys, coral rescue groups and government and academic institutions have mobilized to save the coral from a historic bleaching event that experts say threatens the viability of the third-largest reef tract in the world. They’ve been working long days and weekends in blistering heat for weeks to get as many specimens as they can onto land amid reports of some reef tracts experiencing near total mortality.

In mid-July, water surface temperatures averaged about 91 degrees (33 Celsius) off the lower Florida Keys, well above the average of 85 degrees (29.5 Celsius), according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.