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Diving Back Into Work: Sanctuary Staff Get Go-Ahead To Go Back Underwater

a snorkeler works on a mooring buoy at the florida keys national marine sanctuary
Matt McIntosh
The sanctuary has been able to do some maintenance on mooring buoys by snorkeling, but some jobs require scuba diving.

Since the pandemic started, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staffers have not been allowed to scuba dive. They can't check on the coral reefs, fish and other habitats and animals the sanctuary is there to protect. That's about to change.

Staffers at national marine sanctuaries are now going through medical checks and dive training updates so they can get back to working underwater.

"Our first priority is to get our buoy team back in the water, replacing buoys that need diving to maintain them," said Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "As soon as we can get them medically cleared, get their checkout dives done, we'll get them back in the water, blowing bubbles.

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The sanctuary covers 3,800 square nautical miles from North Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas.

The sanctuary has more than 800 buoys that boats tie up to, or that mark different areas that have special rules.

Sanctuary staff has been able to maintain the buoys from the surface but not make any repairs when the buoy's anchor has a problem.

"We've been able to do snorkel operations so, for example, one of the other things we do on the water is when vessels run aground, we have to assess the damage. Fortunately, that typically happens in shallow water," Fangman said.

Courtesy Andy Bruckner
Researchers will now be able to get back underwater to survey corals and other marine life.

NOAA divers will now have to make sure that they only handle their own gear on dive trips, as well as wearing masks and maintaining social distance when they're on the boat.

The halt on diving has also curtailed some research, like fish population surveys and collecting and checking on corals to monitor stony coral tissue loss disease.

Fangman said some of the other agencies that work on those projects have been able to do some diving.

"But it's not what it would have been were it not for COVID," she said. "Everybody is taking a more cautious approach in terms of making sure that we can do these things safely."

While the sanctuary staff has a backlog to catch up on, they also have a new project on their plate: figuring out how the pandemic — and the changes in human activity — has affected the sanctuary.

"The sanctuary is huge," Fangman said. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to really measure significant changes, sanctuary-wide. So what we're going to have to try to do is find out if we can determine signals at a more local scale. So at a given reef, for example. And we're still working to try to figure out how we can measure that."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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