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An Unlikely Coral Reef Becomes A Source Of Quarantine Entertainment

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Coral City Camera
A school of silver tomate grunts, as seen one recent afternoon.

County and municipal marinas are closed, popular sandbars are empty for the first time in recorded history, and there are no cruise ships packed with passengers sailing out of South Florida’s ports. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot going on when it comes to life on the water, due to the COVID-19 crisis.

That’s on the surface.

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Below the surface, an unlikely coral reef has recently transformed into a welcome distraction for those stuck at home during the pandemic.

On the east end of Port Miami, a live webcam is trained on the reef that popped up along dredging work that took place in 2010. The webcam broadcasts live 24-hours a day, capturing a dizzying variety of wildlife, with flurries of color that change as the sun rises and falls.

This is the Coral City Camera, a public art and scientific research led by Coral Morphologic, a Miami-based group that has been blending public art and science for over a decade. The goal of the group and by extension, the camera: to raise awareness about South Florida’s delicate coral reefs, and hopefully help the reefs in the process.

The camera went live on Feb. 6. Since then the group has been cataloguing all the different species its camera has spotted.

“We’ve documented over 70 different species of fish,” said Colin Foord, co-founder of Coral Morphologic. “We’ve seen a number of manatees that swim by, they’re smart enough to stay close to shore to avoid the ships. We’ve seen spotted eagle rays, green moray eels, nurse sharks, tarpon, snook, angelfish, butterfly fish.”

The list goes on.

On Instagram and Twitter, the group posts highlights of the day’s videos.

One day when he was driving to Port Miami to do maintenance on the camera, Foord was listening to Vibe 92.7 FM, the classic hip-hop station. That day a song from Rick Ross or Trick Daddy — he can’t remember but says it “was very Miami” — was playing, and it gave Foord an idea for the camera.

“It made me realize that it needs a soundtrack, and we really needed to offer something that people can listen to when they’re watching the camera,” he said.

Coinciding with the live launch of the camera, the Coral Morphologic team has been releasing a series of mixtapes on Soundcloud, meant to be consumed while watching marine life. A variety of DJs from South Florida — and also places like Detroit and Los Angeles — have pitched in for the mixes. Foord said the mixes tend to be inspired by the camera, carrying a kind of “underwater” aesthetic.

“What’s interesting about the coral reef and the underwater world is that it’s something that’s simultaneously relaxing, but also engaging,” he said. “There’s kind of like a meditative wavelength, but at the same time there’s splashes of color and some really vibrant things going on at the same time.”

The result is mixes that are ambient on some level, but with deep kicks and rhythms that pop from time to time. But every DJ’s mix carries its own character, with its own valleys and peaks.

The launch of the project took place before COVID-19 drove people into their homes unlike anything in living memory. The early days were slow, as is typical with any art project. But as the reality of COVID-19 set in, along with local and stay-at-home orders, that began to change.

“We’ve seen the number of people double or even triple over times,” said Foord. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that people are home. They’re looking for ways to kind of distract themselves to pass the time.”

Some research has shown that looking at an aquarium can help lower blood pressure and anxiety levels. Foord hopes watching fish swim around their natural habitat in high-definition can also provide some of the same soothing benefits.

Beyond that, the more people that catch on and watch the livecam, the better it is for the long-term mission of Coral Morphologic.

“We want the camera to be able to provide a sense of civic pride,” said Foord. “The fact that we live in a city that has so much biodiversity underwater, above the water. That’s something that we should all be really proud about.”

Watch the Coral City Camera here.