KEY WEST (CBSMiami/FKNB) – Scientists and volunteers planted 200 live coral fragments Monday in the waters off Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, launching an effort to restore depleted reef tracts and create an educational public snorkel park.

Scientists at Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory on Summerland Key “outplanted” corals in 10 to 15 feet of water about 20 feet beyond a breakwater off Fort Taylor’s beach.

Striving to restore large areas of major reef-building corals, Mote is employing a revolutionary “re-skinning” technique that enables fragments of brain, star and boulder corals to fuse together rapidly to form new coral heads.

“We start the corals at a very small size, but that stimulates them to grow to about the size of a golf ball in about just three or four months,” said Dr. Dave Vaughan, manager of Mote’s reef restoration program.

“We then take those and we plant them as singles and in groups of five,” he said. “The array of five, in just one or two years, should grow together and form a coral head about the size of a dinner plate or a frisbee.

“That would have taken 15 to 25 or more years in the wild,” Vaughan said.

The project, whose goals include creating a publicly accessible coral restoration area and snorkel park, is a collaborative effort between Mote Marine Laboratory, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Keys tourism council and Florida State Parks.

Project organizers are seeking recreational snorkelers and “volun-tourists” to assist with upcoming planting sessions.

Vaughn said he hopes to have more than 5,000 corals planted by the end of July.

The Florida Keys News Bureau contributed to this report.

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