Colin Foord Braves Bad Weather and Giant Eels to Save Sea Creatures From Deep Dredge
But that's not enough for Foord. Upset that smaller corals were being sacrificed on the altar of economic progress, he applied for a permit to save them last December. The Army Corps of Engineers initially told him he could begin collecting them in January but then pushed the date back to February, then March, then May. By the time he finally received the go-ahead, Foord had less than ten days to save thousands of specimens before blasting begins June 7.
"The Corps and its Contractor never committed to a commencement in January of 2014, nor a 6-month window," says Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Laurel Reichold. "However [we] did commit to providing as much advance notice and duration as possible, which we believe we have done."
But Foord says he's already found large corals that were missed by Tetra Tech and would have otherwise been blown up. Smaller corals, meanwhile, are actually better for scientific study because they are easier to ship overseas.
"Miami is a giant, living laboratory," he says. "Some of the most exciting and important corals on Earth are growing right here."
His enthusiasm is infectious. He talks about coral the way a master sommelier describes wine. It doesn't hurt his cred that he looks like a modern-day mad scientist: mischievous eyes, a thin frame, and thick, dark hair sticking straight up as if electrified.
Foord grew up in Freedom, New Hampshire, a Walden-like world of White Mountains, tall forests, and clear ponds. When he was 6, he and his family flew to Cancun, Mexico, for vacation. From the second he stuck his snorkel mask under the ocean's surface, he was hooked.
"I saw brain corals, and they captivated me," he says. "The idea that they looked like a human brain, to a 6-year-old's imagination that was like wow. It just struck me as a mystery." Thus began his coral addiction, an appetite that only accelerated when he learned how to scuba-dive at age 12.
It was around that time that Foord met Jared McKay, a long-haired, wild-eyed musician who lived one town over. They quickly became best friends. Jared indulged Colin's aquarium obsession, which was fueled by his job at a pet store in the local mall.
"We'd take road trips to go to aquariums in fucking Connecticut," McKay remembers. "Five hours away to get three fish." Once, during high school, Foord's coral infatuation reached a literal breaking point. He built a 250-gallon aquarium above his dad's office. Colin wanted to use thicker glass. His father didn't see the need. They came home one day to find 250 gallons of water soaking his dad's legal documents.
Foord flew down to the University of Miami for college. The city -- the only one in the contiguous United States to have its own coral reef -- was perfect for him. But not even The U could keep up with Colin's coral craze. He quickly realized that few of his professors -- let alone his fellow students -- were interested in the tiny corals and corallimorphs (similar to coral but without a stony skeleton) that bewitched him.
"They were like, 'Oh, I'm here because I like sharks. I'm here because I like sea turtles. Or I like dolphins' -- the standard, same old stuff," Foord remembers. "It became clear that the only way I could study the types of corals I wanted to study... was to do it on my own."
Well, almost on his own. Foord somehow persuaded McKay to move to Miami. Foord had begun collecting and cloning corals during college. Now he and McKay ramped up the operation. They called themselves Coral Morphologic and began making beautiful experimental films about corals, sea anemones, and any other creatures they found in the shadow of Brickell skyscrapers or quietly basking in the neon of South Beach.
"We had to come up with a creative way to do that kind of research while also funding ourselves," Foord says. The duo soon became darlings of the Miami art scene and even partnered with superstar indie band Animal Collective on one film. They also began to make money with "coral aquaculture," the careful cultivation of corals in a lab, along the Miami River. They sell the creatures to collectors and researchers around the world.
Coral Morphologic first made national headlines in 2011, when Foord gave a TED talk unveiling a rare, hybrid coral he had found growing along Government Cut. The Deep Dredge, he worried, might kill the creature.
But Foord isn't necessarily against the dredge. Part of the reason Miami is home to such an amazing array of corals is because Government Cut -- the manmade channel cutting through reefs and sand beds on its way to the port -- serves an unintended, positive purpose. Every day, the tide funnels fresh ocean water into the bay and then sucks sewer water out to sea.
The combination has spawned what Foord calls "urban corals" -- amazingly robust varieties that grow on concrete marinas, shopping carts, and even the turbid boat slip next to AmericanAirlines Arena where David Beckham wants to build a soccer stadium. "What other NBA team has brain coral, eels, and other tropical fish swimming under it?" Foord marvels.
Foord isn't opposed to the stadium, just as he isn't opposed to the dredge. In fact, in the long run, the Deep Dredge will improve water circulation in the bay and help more coral grow. But he believes both projects must be done more carefully. If the FEC boat slip is filled in, for example, he thinks Beckham should build a new artificial reef nearby.
As for the Deep Dredge, Foord wishes he had more time to rescue the coral in the path of destruction. "We were blindsided," he says. Foord has enlisted University of Miami students to help in the effort, but time -- along with bad weather -- is against them.