MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Scuba certified by junior year of high school? Check. Becoming a marine biologist by the age of 25? Easy. Getting featured in a Vice and Refinery 29 feature story in partnership with Aveda for saving South Florida’s endangered coral reefs? Done.
We’re talking about Miami resident Maddie Kaufman, and by the age of 25, she accomplished all of this and more.
“I was very fortunate to try scuba diving when I was in high school and I was absolutely blown away,” says Kaufman, who grew up by the water. “I had grown up going to the beaches off of the Jersey Shore, but didn’t know it was something I wanted to pursue until I applied to UMiami’s marine science school,” which is formally known as the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, located in Virginia Key off of Key Biscayne.
“I got my first scuba certification by my junior year of high school, so I was 16 or 17 years old,” she says. “However, scuba diving can be really scary, especially person to person. However, the second you go on two or three dives you’re like, ‘I’ve got this, I’m just getting used to breathing underwater.’ And now that I am, I’m like, ‘Let’s go.’”
Now, she is a divemaster. What does that mean, exactly? She is literally is in charge of taking groups of ocean conservationists and enthusiasts on deep-sea scuba diving expeditions down to the coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay.
Sound impressive? Yes, she is.
However, her journey to become the marine advocate and divemaster she is today didn’t happen overnight — it took a leap of faith to take a gap year in her education, as well as the drive to take on every opportunity given to her by the the team at the University of Miami School Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, to truly open her eyes to her life’s passion and purpose — preserving the ocean and its coral reefs (which are living and breathing animals, by the way).
“Going to school and starting to take formal classes in marine science and environmental work is where it transformed from just being passionate about the ocean, almost selfishly studying it just because I’m fascinated by it (it didn’t really have any larger meaning), to learning formally about all of these incredible threats that are happening and how the ocean really needs our help,” she explains. “So, I was like, ‘Ok, cool. It’s not just about passion, it’s about purpose.’ I still have that passion part, so, it’s still an amazing job that I love. I love studying it.’”
Although she had found her passion, after graduating from the University of Miami in 2016, she found herself unemployed and with no clear direction on where life would take her. But she knew one thing — she would stay in Miami and do what she loves.
“I was unemployed begging my parents to stay in Miami,” says Kaufman.
So, she embarked on a gap year before applying to graduate school, which is when she also got her her scuba divemaster certification, as well as the clarity she needed.
“I started volunteering, and I ended up going on a scuba trip between the two non-profit organizations that I work between right now that I found on social media,” says Kaufman. “One is Rescue a Reef, which is a coral restoration program at the University of Miami, and Debris Free Oceans, which is a grassroots nonprofit based out of Miami. And we did coral planting on one dive, and we planted like one hundred plus coral, and then did a scuba cleanup... it’s been incredible.”
“The coolest part about ocean conservation is that you can have the most amazing time and see the most amazing things while fighting to protect such an amazing treasure.”
Soon after, Kaufman completed her Masters in Marine Biology, and is now Debris Free Oceans’ first-ever part-time employee. She also still works for the University of Miami under her advisor as a researcher. “My days at UM are honestly just wild sometimes,” says Kaufman. “We grow all of these corals in these amazing off-shore nurseries, which is a twenty-minute boat ride off of Key Biscayne.”
However, the coral reefs she has an immense passion for are also in dire danger.
“There’s a bad disease outbreak that started around 2014 called ‘SCTLD,’ which stands for Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, and it has affected more than half of all the coral species on the reef,” she explains. “It spread from where it started in Miami and went all the way down to the southern most part of The Keys, and it’s been observed in the Caribbean at this point. It’s just been really hard to stop.”
However, Kaufman is optimistic that their efforts are working, as there is funding to help save the reefs, as well as a coral rescue team where they go and collect susceptible species ahead of time and transfer them to an aquarium. There, they use them to breed and repopulate those species that lost a lot of their population due to the disease.
“There’s really cool stuff happening, as scary as it is,” she says.
Thankfully, according to Kaufman, Debris Free Oceans and Rescue a Reef, which is UM’s Rosenstiel School’s coral conservation program, have received more funding than ever before. “We’re currently in projects with Frost Science, with the Florida Aquarium, Force Blue,” she says. “Now, we’re sponsored by the NFL — we even had work featured at the Super Bowl. It’s raising a ton of awareness.”