Welcome to the Florida Keys, where there's crystal-clear blue waters, peachy-pink skies, and a party atmosphere fit for Jimmy Buffett.
The drinks are flowing, the bands are playing, and if you had a good day, you probably have a fresh catch to filet and throw on the grill. But Captain Jerry Pope says if you dive a little deeper, you will see not everything is as perfect as it seems.
“You know, the reef holds bait and it holds a lot of snappers and groupers, ballyhoos, things like that. If our ballyhoo go away, our winter time fishing is going to go to nothing,” said Pope.
The keys are home to part of the Florida Reef system, the third largest reef in the world. But the reef is sick, and the tourists that bring this place to life might be part of the problem.
Reef coverage, which is the part covered by actual coral instead of other organisms, declined from 33 percent in 1984 to just 6 percent in 2008.
Now, the guidebook company Fodor’s included the Florida Keys Reef on its “No List” for 2020. It's an annual list of places Fodor’s recommends you avoid for a variety of reasons. It put the reef there to try to protect it.
Sarah Fangman is in charge of making sure the reef doesn’t die.
“We’re working really hard to make sure that visitors that do come here enjoy these resources can experience the unique marine ecosystem that we have here, but do so in a way that doesn’t harm it,” said Fangman.
Experts say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what's damaging the reef. Warming waters, sunscreen, chemical imbalance could all be to blame. Also, tourism.
“The concern is additional pressures like tourism, like water quality issues, like fishing issues can cause additional challenges,” said Fangman.
Divers from several organizations are working to plant new coral and applying a special solution to stop the spread of disease.
If the reef does die, it could kill Sam McCroskey’s way of life, too.
“We’re going to go out to the inner reef, part of the world's third-largest barrier reef system,” said McCroskey.
McCroskey guides scuba divers checking out the reef. He showed us what dying coral looks like.
“They talk about how fast the reef is getting destroyed,” said McCroskey.
The death of this reef could kill more than the scuba business as well.
“The services that these reefs provide, not only in providing habitat providing food, but providing protection are really important to those of us that live here in the Keys. And so, any threat to them, any threat at all is something that we all need to be concerned about,” said Fangman.
“If we don’t have the reef out there, that’s so beautiful and that people come to see and come to enjoy, then they’re not going to come. And so this place won’t exist really without our reef,” said Pope.