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Words Monica Uszerowicz
Photographs courtesy Coral Morphologic

The coral in Miami

When Charles Darwin recorded some of his first observations of living corals, clustered beneath the sea near the Abrolhos Islands, he’d only been on board the HMS Beagle for three months (it would be a five-year journey). “The bottom of the adjoining sea is thickly covered by enormous brain stones; many of them could not be less than a yard in diameter,” he wrote, referring to what we know now to be brain corals, the cerebrum- shaped, reef-building, stony corals that like to live in warm, shallow waters. It was 1831, and Darwin would eventually become obsessed with corals, publishing his first monograph, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt Fitzroy, RN during the years 1832 to 1836, eleven years later. His theory, that coral reefs were formed as islands and volcanoes subsided back into the sea, has later proven true.

For marine biologist Colin Foord, there’s poetic significance in the shape of brain coral and the fact it mirrors humans so closely. “A coral has elements that make it part animal, part plant, and part mineral,” he says. I am at the house he shares with musician Jared McKay—together, the two make up Coral Morphologic, which they formed a decade ago to document, study, and preserve Miami’s native corals. Their lab is located within their home, a glowing-blue portal opposite their living room, and their house is in Spring Gardens, a neighbourhood along the Miami River with lush overgrowth and an expansive community of stray cats. “When you look at a brain coral, it wraps all that up in a brain-shaped package,” says Foord, “which pushes the limits of literal-metaphorical description. This whole time, the brain coral has been [as cryptic as the] philosopher’s stone … but we haven’t had the technology to extract its secrets.”

Activists, artists and intrepid scientists, Coral Morphologic’s work has taken the form of film (Natural History Redux, a documentary comprised of their footage of various coral species), virtual reality (at Design Miami/2014, they debuted Coral Therapy, a 360-degree Oculus Rift film) and, most intriguingly, coral aquaculture, growth, and research, all conducted in their lab. Their research has led them to partnerships with groups including Mission Blue, a collective of ocean conservationists founded by Dr Sylvia Earle, and Coral Biome, a France-based research center cultivating corals for their medical value. Coral Morphologic has also generated income by supplying corals to universities, research facilities and personal aquariums.

When Foord was five, his family took a trip to Mexico, where he observed living rocks while snorkeling; he knew, immediately, that he wanted to become a tropical marine biologist. I imagine his relationship with the brain coral as something akin to Proust’s madeleine—each time he examines their fleshy curvature he is transported to the moment he first saw them, and their formative importance. Through this, he has developed a strange symbiosis with the corals.

“If the corals aren’t happy, I’m not happy,” he says. “When you attach your mental health and emotional well-being to the health and survival of an extremely delicate invertebrate organism, it impacts your life. The white, patriarchal approach of the 20th century is very [tempered]—it’s like, ‘I’m the external observer and I’m looking in.’ That’s the antithesis of our approach. We want to be a part of it.”

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There are over 1,000 species of stony corals in the world; of these, about 46 can be found in South Florida, Miami especially, along its seawalls and causeways and coastlines. In 1905, Government Cut, a manmade shipping channel between Fisher Island and Miami Beach, was established (via dredging, draining, and mangrove removal) to create easier access to the Port of Miami. Fresh water from the Miami River, which once drained into Biscayne Bay, was consequently blocked, giving the bay higher concentrations of salinity. This inadvertently created a coral-friendly ecosystem, one that eventually enabled coral reefs to stretch throughout Biscayne Bay.

Now, corals live happily along the sides of the MacArthur Causeway—a neon-lit highway stretching from downtown Miami to Miami Beach—and the mouth of Government Cut. “I believe Miami is one of the only places on the planet where corals are expanding their range and colonising, because the entire ecosystem of South Florida has been completely re-engineered by humans,” Foord explains. Miami’s coral population survives in an incredibly toxic environment—these urban areas are heavily polluted, collecting sunscreen, litter and sewage runoff. They’re what Foord describes as “evolutionary proving grounds.” In a 2011 TEDx talk, he coined the term “super corals” in reference to these highly resilient organisms.

Left: The Acropora prolifera, photographed in fluoro form at night. Right:  Acropora prolifera, photographed in the day

“If corals can live in water that we’re not even supposed to be swimming in, it changes the concept of who’s more sensitive and delicate. Anecdotally, it appears that the coral inside Miami survived with much less stress than the corals living offshore at [the cleaner] Biscayne National Park. After my TEDx talk, I think other researchers recognised this paradigm shift—that we need to be going to unhealthy, unexpected places to look for healthy corals, rather than pristine locations with unhealthy corals. I think it’s more valuable to understand how these corals are adapting in commercial, urban, industrial habitats.”

If Miami is a canary in the mine for sea-level rise—and it’s often cited as one—its corals might be testament to the adaptability of marine life under objectively terrible pressure. Together, Miami and its corals live cyclically: most of Florida sits on top of limestone, which itself consists of the skeletons of corals and other marine creatures; if Miami were to sink, it’s clear that the corals, ever-resilient, would colonise and live atop our bones instead.

It’s difficult to imagine why we might need rogue scientists (though perhaps not so much in Trump’s America), but that’s exactly Coral Morphologic’s function.

Coral Morphologic do much of the work on their own—collecting local corals, nurturing and replicating them, sharing their findings with institutionally-supported organisations—and have found, amongst the super corals, a rare hybrid staghorn (the impetus for “super coral” as a descriptor) and three undescribed species of zoanthid soft corals, at the time unknown to scientists. After the identification of these Zoantharian soft corals, Coral Biome confirmed that one of them, a Palythoa collected off the PortMiami seawall, contains palytoxin, a non-protein compound with powerful cancer-fighting qualities. “It has a thousand times the chemical concentration of this palytoxin than any other known species,” says Foord. “Whether it’s producing an abundance of these chemicals because it’s living in a disturbed habitat—well, that’s definitely a possibility.” They named another Zoanthid the Miami Vice Coral, for its sky-blue and neon-pink hues.

In the summer of 2014, Foord, McKay, and a team of University of Miami students and professors worked quickly to rescue about 1800 stony corals from a reef roughly four kilometres off the shore of South Beach. These corals were left behind by a legally-required relocation effort prior to the Army Corps of Engineers ‘Deep Dredge’ of Government Cut. Deep Dredge was a $220 million project to deepen the depth of PortMiami in order to accommodate larger cargo ships traveling through the Panama Canal. When environmentalists sued to stop the project—which required the literal explosion of coral reef and other precious marine habitats— Tetra Tech, an engineering services company, was commissioned to remove all large corals in the dynamite’s path and build nine acres of artificial reef nearby for their relocation. Coral Morphologic applied for a permit earlier that year to save the smaller corals—and it’s lucky they did. Many large corals were missed and, furthermore, the date for what’s now dubbed the Miami Coral Rescue Mission was pushed back until May, leaving Coral Morphologic and their team just over ten days to save the corals before the Deep Dredge began.

It’s difficult to imagine why we might need rogue scientists (though perhaps not so much in Trump’s America), but that’s exactly Coral Morphologic’s function. The Miami Coral Rescue Mission was, in equal strides, an act of resistance against the government, a scientific expedition and a loving testament to the significance of these creatures. As the pair wrote in a blog post detailing the mission, “We see Miami as an inadvertent and unique coral laboratory. And we hypothesise that its corals may hold the secrets to understanding how corals worldwide will be able to adapt to changing climate and water chemistry in the decades to come.”

In total, UM removed nearly 1200 corals; Coral Morphologic rescued 600, half of which were transplanted to an artificial reef offshore, which Foord and McKay call Cosmic Reef, located about 1.6 kilometres south of the corals’ origins. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration survey determined that 23% of the relocated staghorn coral in the area had died (the stress of dredging and the resulting silt is intense). Other corals were sent to the Smithsonian

Institution and Boston University for further research. The last of them, McKay says, “were brought back to the lab and filmed in the studio.” The footage of surviving corals made appearances in Coral City, a VICE/Creators-produced documentary about Coral Morphologic and their work, about the pure aesthetic lure of the stuff. It’s less than two minutes into the film when Foord excitedly explains: “The coral, as an organism, as a symbol, is the perfect hybrid between art and science.”

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I’ve only been to Coral Morphologic’s lab a handful of times, once when it was still housed in a rented warehouse on the Miami River. The entire group of warehouses was eventually purchased by a new owner, and Foord and McKay brought the corals back to their home. Like many houses in Miami, their two-story space feels at once overtaken by flora and snugly nestled into it, a hideaway subject to the whims of its hiding spot. During our interview a ladybug crawls across my arm and my leg. The wooden floors are creaky with humidity, and a giant vine pokes its way through a window. “It’s Jumanji,” the men tell me, in unison.

A century ago, corals were not described as fluorescent.

Their tropical fairy tale cottage is scattered with freshwater and saltwater aquariums and resonates with the distinct pop of their pet pistol shrimp. The lab radiates electric-turquoise from its blue actinic lights, under which the various corals—sitting in big, gurgling tanks— fluoresce (fluorescence is defined as the simultaneous absorption of a short wavelength of light and the emission of a longer wavelength of light). Perhaps this is their most special quality: corals are beautiful. They glow in a rainbow of neon shades, some curvy, some spiky; many looking like they’d be soft to the touch.

A century ago, corals were not described as fluorescent. A lack of technology rendered the human eye unable to see their glow—they glow brightest at the depths of the sea, where only blue, indigo and violet wavelengths haven’t been filtered out. Even if early 20th century researchers were granted the ability to glimpse the luminosity of corals, the English language was limited in its descriptors. “Before scuba diving,” says Foord, “someone would throw a hook down and drag stuff up off the bottom. By the time it arrived for research, it was just a skeleton. When you think about the white, western mind, fluorescent colours didn’t even exist in the imagination until after World War II, when people started taking LSD and inventing artificial colours. Our perception has expanded to see more colour, to see more corals.”

Why do corals glow? A recent study by Jörg Wiedenmann, a coral reef scientist at the University of Southampton, indicates that coral might convert blue light into orange-red light, a colour that more deeply penetrates its tissue, where zooxanthellae, the photosynthetic and single-celled organisms that live inside and feed coral, reside. Wiedenmann and his team spent two years growing two species of coral, some fluorescent, others not. The fluorescent coral survived better than the ones that didn’t glow.

This is just a hypothesis. But Foord feels the corals’ fluorescence has, unwittingly, contributed to their survival: “It adds to their ornamental value, which makes our job a whole lot easier—getting people to care about the corals. The more fluorescent the coral is, the more time and money a human is willing to put into keeping that coral alive. Corals can grow by cloning; they have the potential for infinite lifespan and the ability to colonise aquariums all around the planet, and still be traced back to a wild lineage that came from the ocean.” Corals don’t deliberately fluoresce to become prettier, and they need not in order for anyone to care about them, but maybe it helps.

That Foord and McKay like to demonstrate the similarity between the glow of the corals and the vibrant neon of Miami is fundamental to their practice. Imagine Miami, Miami Beach, and the ocean below, sliced in half like a diagram—signs and entrances and under-lit cars glowing above; marine organisms glowing below. It’s not unusual but rather appropriate that corals live happily beneath this urban metropolis, growing robust in its toxic runoff and mirroring its nightlife colours. Corals miraculously survive the pollution precisely because, symbolically, they’re meant to be here.

It’s tempting to romanticise that which remains mysterious, but the magic of corals has its roots in reality.

Coral Morphologic imagine one day creating an underwater habitat that doubles as a lab—a place for growing and researching these creatures, for tracking slow but dramatic changes occurring as the climate undergoes a shift. But getting the city of Miami Beach to agree to it feels near impossible. “You’d think the idea of implementing an underwater camera, getting kids involved, creating a collection of data on the temperature and the pH and the fluidity of the water and how high the tide is rising, so that we can actually see how quickly sea level rise is happening—you’d think that all of these ideas would be something you can get behind if you worked for Miami Beach, a city that’s constantly being written about, forecasted to drown due to sea level rise,” Foord laments.

Corals, however, are an inconvenient truth. “Every time someone establishes a project that’s going to replace a seawall, they have to deal with these species, so they don’t really want to draw too much attention to them.” And, he says, many coral biologists are warning the public that corals are dying, a side effect of trash and toxicity in the ocean and man-made climate change. These fears are real and warranted, but corals actually offer hope of survival, even in the most dire of circumstances.

“Hope doesn’t make for a good story.” It’s tempting to romanticise that which remains mysterious, but the magic of corals has its roots in reality—though there’s nothing truly mystical nor inexplicable about biology, corals are inherently cosmic, attuned to the cycles of the sun and moon. “Newton figured out our relationship with the moon,” Foord muses, “but the corals have always known that the earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the earth. Here in Florida, in the late summer time—usually it’s about three or four nights after a full moon—they all spawn at the exact same time. That’s probably the most cosmic event that happens in nature. There’s the possibility of genetic mixing and hybridisation. All kinds of strange gene combinations can happen which, from an evolutionary perspective, is really smart. There are different opportunities for new species to develop or for different colour morphs to arise.”

Undescribed Zoanthus species

 

In February this year, as part of Borscht Film Festival, Coral Morphologic created Coral Orgy, an audiovisual meditation. Across the walls and ceilings of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center on South Beach, a concert hall that’s home to the New World Symphony, they projected scenes of this lunar coral mating ritual, while Animal Collective performed a live soundtrack that felt improvised and dreamlike.

The pit that usually houses the New World Symphony was cleared of its chairs, a bluish carpet left in its wake. Much of the crowd stayed close to the stage at the beginning of Animal Collective’s set, but then something curious happened: everyone slowly dispersed, mostly to lay on pillows and beanbags on the floor and stare at the ceiling, entranced. The corals were green and red and yellow; the gametes, released floating into the sea, looked like very small stars. Laying on the floor, I felt encased and enveloped by the corals, gazing at them above me on the sloped walls, knowing they were beneath me in the ocean and rocky limestone below. I thought of them living on our remnants, someday, and how tenuous and fragile Miami feels—how the entire planet feels that way these days. And then I imagined the coral, cemented into the ocean floor, holding fast and glowing bright, unmoored.

Since this story first appeared in  Issue 7, some progress has been made. In October 2017 Coral Morphologic acquired the View into the Blue underwater camera and presented it, along with their plan to the Miami Beach Sustainability Committee to a unanimously enthusiastic response. Subsequently, the project got a letter of support from Miami Beach Commissioner—and candidate for Senate—Kristen Rosen Gonzalez. The plan is to have a live stream from the webcam displayed on a high definition screen at the Miami Botanical Garden.

This article appears in Issue 7 of Museum, themed Factory. Order your copy here.

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