South Florida nonprofit helping save coral reefs by planting artificial mermaids

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – On a brisk South Florida December morning, Local 10 News’ Louis Aguirre joined a team of divers in Fort Lauderdale.

They were on board the American Dream II, bound for the waters off Hollywood Beach in search of mermaids.

“Everyone knows a mermaid, right? In the folklore and the sailor stories,” said Shelby Thomas, Co-Founder and CEO of Ocean Rescue Alliance.

But this is no fairytale.

In fact, these special mermaids, made of eco-friendly materials, may hold the key to bringing back Florida’s lost coral reefs.

“It creates ecotourism, but more importantly, creates habitat and aids in restoration,” said Thomas.

An army of mermaids deployed to the bottom of the sea to inspire us all to take action.

“We bring awareness to marine conservation through sculpting people as mermaids, and sinking those down in the ocean to create artistic artificial reefs that still create habitat for fish,” Thomas said.

The goal is to get to a thousand mermaids.

Thomas, also a marine scientist, is helping to orchestrate the project.

The Ocean Rescue Alliance, or ORA, is a nonprofit that since 2019 has fused art and science to create artificial reef sites off the coast of South Florida.

There are two in Palm Beach County and now there is one in Broward County.

“The City of Hollywood is a first city to actually invest into building these artificial reefs with us,” Thomas said.

Aguirre met up with Thomas in the parking lot of the Hollywood Police Department, where the latest 20 modules, including four new mermaids, were being staged before finally being deployed.

It is urgent work.

“In Florida, we have the third largest reef in the world,” Thomas explained. “And unfortunately, stony tissue loss disease has been rapidly degrading natural reef systems. The coral tissues will start to become white, and bleach, and then that’s when you can really see that, that those corals are dying.”

In fact according to a recent NOAA study, 75 percent of Florida’s coral reefs are eroding, fueled by climate change and human pollution.

If all the reefs die, the entire marine ecosystem will collapse.

“We only live on this Earth because of our oceans, and we need healthy ecosystems for that,” said Thomas.

Two days later, those mermaids and modules were on a barge that took them to their final destination, about a mile offshore, directly behind the Hollywood Diplomat Beach Resort.

Each one weighs between 2200 lbs. and 3300 lbs. They were hoisted up by a crane and then dropped into the sea around 45 feet below.

That’s where industrial divers strategically arranged them on the ocean floor.

It took a year of planning just to get to that point.

And a month later, Aguirre, Thomas and Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy went down to check on how the new reef was doing.

Life was blooming, and new residents had already claimed their spot.

“Actually, the fish move in the night of,” said Thomas. “I like to say if you build it, they will come.”

The team observed triggerfish, schools of damselfish even hog snapper that made the new reed their home.

It will be about a year before corals can be transplanted there. Special locks placed all over the structures will make the process a lot easier.

“The innovation with this is to actually be able to simply screw in a coral fragment,” Thomas explained. “So all the nurseries, for example, University of Miami’s rescue reef, will grow corals directly on these fragments on a plug in their nursery.”

Thomas said in just three years, corals at the first two sites are already thriving. To date, some 25,000 corals have been successfully out-planted. A very promising outlook for the new Hollywood reef.

Mayor Levy, an avid diver, can’t wait to show it off.

“We want to welcome everyone from around the world to enjoy this,” Levy said. “And we love the fact that it combines the arts with the marine environment together with the mermaids.”

“I already see we are going to have more dives,” added Ocean Rescue Alliance Co-Founder and COO Evan Snow. “We’re going to have more people, citizen scientists, helping us out-plant coral…helping us save the reefs one reef at a time.”

With the new additions, ORA has now deployed 200 artificial reef structures to the bottom of South Florida’s coastline, with 39 of them mermaids.

Only 961 to go.

“I’m extremely happy,” Thomas said. “It’s so nice to see this is such a long process and to finally see the reef in the water, doing well, surrounded with fish, and get to enjoy it with you guys. Just an incredible experience.”

The goal is to also create these underwater sculpture parks closer to shore so that snorkelers can enjoy them too, and design structures that can also help with resiliency to protect against storm surge and coastal erosion.

Not only is it a win-win, it’s a big ecotourism draw that also restores our corals and encourages more biodiversity to our marine ecosystem.

For more information on Ocean Rescue Alliance, including how you can commission a statue or plaque to memorialize or honor someone, click here.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.