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    Veterans embark on new mission restoring reefs in Puerto Rico

    Veterans embark on new mission restoring reefs in Puerto Rico

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Evan Lane | SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Nathan Quinn, a former Army medic and now Force Blue diver,...... read more read more



    Story by Spc. Samuel Keenan 

    65th Theater Public Affairs Support Element

    In the Caribbean, coastal communities rely on the natural barrier of coral reefs to protect themselves from the ever-growing threat of rising sea levels and fiercer storms. However, the living underwater citadels of coral are waning. The microscopic creatures that make up the reefs are dying faster than they can reproduce, leaving gaps in the coastal defenses.
    To fight against this relentless assault, a new veteran’s organization has emerged.

    Force Blue, a group of military-trained combat divers, has been working non-stop since Hurricane Irma and Maria to plug the hole in coral populations.

    “We take guys who are already trained divers, the best divers in the world. We give them a mission again,” said Jim Ritterhoff, the executive director of Force Blue.

    Force Blue’s executive team kicked off their efforts during a two-week training exercise in the Cayman Islands in May earlier this year. The purpose was to introduce military divers to the world of marine conservation.

    “We began with the premise that these are trained combat divers. We don’t have to teach them how to dive, but they may have never seen a fish or coral reef before,” said Ritterhoff.

    “Before I started this, I only knew two types of fish, flappazoids and moseyoids,” joked Angelo Fiore, a former Navy diver who is now with Force Blue. “On the scientific side, that’s where it gets really cool. You start to learn behavior and where species thrive.”

    “We assembled this very military-style schoolhouse program with the best people we could get from the world of conservation and marine science,” said Rithoff.

    Over the course of two weeks, experts educated the veteran divers on subjects ranging from fish and coral identification to invasive species culling.

    “We wanted to see how the two worlds combined,” said Ritterhoff.

    The collaboration exceeded everyone’s expectations.

    “It was a quasi-religious experience getting the [scientific and veteran] communities together,” said Ritterhoff. “All the scientists and environmentalists who served as our instructors just immediately fell in love with the guys and their willingness to work.”

    The divers from Force Blue did not have to wait long for their first conservation mission.

    In September, hurricanes devastated coral reefs across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

    Within weeks, Force Blue deployed to the Florida Keys.

    In the Keys, the Force Blue divers quickly proved their worth to the conservation community.

    Off the coast of one of the archipelagos, a piece of pillar coral, estimated to be over 350 years old, had been knocked from its foundation into deeper water. The colder temperatures and lack of sufficient sunlight would have resulted in death.

    “NOAA was about to write it off,” said Fiore.

    The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency had no plan or protocol to move the nearly half-ton piece of coral. In their minds it was impossible to save.

    However, for the special operations divers of Force Blue it was just another day on the job. As military divers, some had lifted military aircraft from the seafloor.

    “Being a former military diver, we have a lot of experience in dealing with heavy objects under water,” said Fiore. “Whether you’re recovering a torpedo or moving an F-18 or recovering the space shuttle, we get after it every single day.”

    After submerging, the divers found the pillar coral was not only in great depths, but was also wedged between two rocks. Skillfully, they managed to maneuver the centuries-old piece, which had turned a ghastly gray, from its resting place. They muscled it back up the embankment and gingerly reset it in the proper thermocline.

    “The colors started coming back immediately,” said Fiore as he showed off a picture of the restored coral.

    As the vivid hues of pink and red started returning to the coral, the rescuers swam back to the dive barge. Once onboard, they found a sight they were not expecting.

    “We got back on the boat and people were crying. We thought we had done something wrong,” said Fiore. “I asked one of the guys there what was going on, and he said, ‘man, you just saved a T-Rex.’”

    Force Blue had no time to rest on their laurels.

    As others started to hear what they had accomplished, Force Blue was asked to join recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, said Nate Quinn, a former Army medic and Force Blue team member.

    Fiore and Quinn are now working off the coast of Puerto Rico alongside Mike Nemeth, a scientist specializing in coral restoration from NOAA, to rebuild the barrier reefs that protect the island territory and provide a habitat to a large variety of creatures.

    Force Blue and Nemeth are working to bring back nine species of coral including the Elkhorn coral population.

    “Elkhorn coral is the primary reef builder around the island,” said Nemeth. “The skeletons of elkhorn coral build up over thousands of years and form the substrate that composes our barrier reefs.”

    The constant battering of large, powerful waves that were brought to shore by Hurricanes Irma and Maria severely damaged the local population of Elkhorn coral in Puerto Rico.

    “We haven’t been able to conduct a full survey yet, but based on our dives I’d say roughly 5% to 10% of the Elkhorn coral has been damaged,” said Nemeth.

    Day in and day out, Fiore and Quinn are in the water fighting to help the coral thrive once again.

    The work can be arduous, but is rewarding to them.

    “You have a long hard day, you’re beat up, you’re hit with jellyfish, but you comeback and you see the reef springing back to life right before your eyes,” said Quinn.

    It is that sense of accomplishment that Ritterhoff wanted the divers to experience again when he started Force Blue.

    “Rather than just take a bunch of vets diving… we take them and give them a mission again,” said Ritterhoff.

    “We get to hang out with the guys; surround ourselves with likeminded people,” said Fiore. We’re combat divers. We’re special operations guys. We look for that next purpose…the next mission. That’s what is really cool about being with Force Blue. It’s the camaraderie.”

    “That’s a huge part of their transition: giving them something to do, something that is bigger than themselves,” said Ritterhoff.

    As they see the reefs return to their glory, the parallel of helping an endangered ecosystem survive is not on lost on Force Blue teammates.

    “Coral is a species that takes a community to thrive,” said Fiore. “It’s the same thing for special operations veterans.”



    Date Taken: 11.30.2017
    Date Posted: 11.30.2017 15:23
    Story ID: 256957
    Location: FAJARDO, PR 

    Web Views: 249
    Downloads: 0