veteransSanctuary reefs are being bolstered by the efforts of some very special volunteers this summer. Divers with the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge and SCUBAnauts International joined scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in July to help tend corals in an underwater nursery as part of an ongoing reef restoration effort.

The Mote Marine Laboratory coral nursery and transplant sites are one of several in the Keys permitted by the marine sanctuary. In these nurseries, scientists grow corals – primarily the threatened staghorn coral – which are eventually transplanted to reef areas where those species have declined. In late July, eight combat wounded veterans, 20 SCUBAnauts, and two snorkelnauts helped Mote scientists hang small coral clippings on underwater structures dubbed “trees” where the corals grow rapidly.

The combat wounded veterans participating this summer included transtibial (below the knee) and transfemoral (above the knee) amputees who are able to dive by using specialized waterproof prosthetics, as well as a double lung transplant recipient and veterans with traumatic brain injuries. Their inspirational motto Vulneror non Vincor (I am wounded, not conquered) is also applicable to Keys corals reefs, which like reefs around the world, have declined for the last 40 years but benefit from conservation and restoration efforts.

 In the Mote Marine Lab coral nursery, staghorn coral clippings hung from special underwater structures grow quickly. When colonies grow large enough, they may be planted at reef sites as part of reef restoration efforts.

By involving citizen scientists in reef restoration, Sanctuary partners at Mote are providing hands-on opportunities to learn more about threats to reef health and conservation efforts. Through this cross-mentorship program, the youth and wounded veterans overcome individual challenges to create a positive change for the reefs and each other.

“Our wounded servicemen and women make a powerful impact and example on youth and those who face similar circumstances. Through these challenge experiences, they demonstrate to others that despite their injuries, they too, can overcome seemingly insurmountable personal challenges, while advancing rehabilitative research,” said David Olson, founder of Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge.

The Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge improves the lives of wounded and injured veterans through rehabilitative high-adventure and therapeutic outdoor challenges while furthering the physiological, biomedical and pathological sciences associated with their injuries. Past challenges have included hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, packrafting and mountaineering in Alaska, and hiking the Grand Canyon.

SCUBAnauts International’s mission is to guide young men and women ages 12 through 18 along a pathway for personal development by involving them in the marine sciences through underwater marine research activities, such as special environmental and undersea conservation projects, that build character, promote active citizenship and develop effective leadership skills.

This restoration event is being supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and The Nature Conservancy’s Community-Based Restoration Program, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, private donors, Fury Watersports in Key West, and Mote and its Protect Our Reefs license plate program.