My family and I returned a few days ago from a trip to one of our favorite places to share time together, the ever-magnificent Florida Keys. We had caravaned together to participate as volunteer scuba divers in the second annual I.CARE Trash Derby. I.CARE is an acronym for Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education. Much deserved accolades to I.CARE co-founders Mike Goldberg and Dr. Kylie Smith, as well as their stellar team. The herculean efforts required to pull an event of this magnitude together paid off in a successful event enjoyed by all.

As the name suggests, this environmental event was dedicated to removing marine trash from Key Largo to Key West.

Volunteer divers, partnered with professionals from dive shops across the Keys, and land-based volunteers, conducted marine trash removal from red mangrove forests along our shorelines. Private boat owners also joined in with their teams. Over two days, we collectively removed more than 12,000 lbs. of marine trash from our seas, reefs, and mangrove forests. The impact of this successful event is profound, benefiting not just the individual communities but the entire Florida Keys ecosystem.

Our family stayed on Cudjoe Key, which is conveniently located fifteen minutes south of Big Pine Keys’s excellent Captain Hooks Dive Center.

We had 60 feet of visibility with 1-2 foot seas on the day of our Trash Derby dives.  Over the course of our two tanks, we managed to nearly fill a three-foot-tall dive bag.  The vast majority of our bag was occupied by two lengths of large-diameter rope that we very carefully extricated from the reef structure. Great care was used to prevent damaging the reef during the process. The good news is that finding marine debris in our two dive locations was not easy. The dive sites were gorgeous and brimming with very colorful marine life. My fiancé and I were accompanied by a pair of adult French angel fish for a large part of our second dive. They seemed fascinated by us and watched us closely as the four of us swam along together.

The I.CARE Trash Derby culminated in a festival on Sunday at lovely Founder’s Park in Islamorada. Live music, food trucks, two beer tents, along with a bevy of widely diverse vendors tents made for a festive Cinco de Mayo setting.

Thank you to those folks who came by our book sales tent to chat with us. In addition to staff from Keys Weekly strolling about, multiple booths were set up for the likes of Mote Marine Laboratory, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Water Warrior Alliance, to name a few. Later in the day, I.CARE handed out awards in several categories. There were also raffles and drawings for prizes ranging from dive gear to dive trips.

Just as the coral reefs are a financial boon every day of the year for local businesses, so too was the influx of volunteers arriving to help make the event a success.

Volunteers needing lodging poured into the area. Many were looking to help a very worthy cause but also to have some fun and enjoy a delicious meal of locally caught fresh seafood while watching a legendary Florida Keys sunset, favorite tropical beverage in handA well-established ethos among many in the dive community is to work hard and play harder.

It is vital to continually protect the reefs of Florida moving forward.

Like many scuba divers and snorkelers, I have seen the changes to the coral reefs of Florida over the last thirty years firsthand from the eye level of the creatures upon the reefs. We have lost significant ground. In addition to global warming, ocean acidification, and stony coral tissue loss disease, our reefs face a less-discussed enemy – apathy

As a species whose young are increasingly addicted to their electronic cyber universes as opposed to being aware and involved with the natural world around them, apathy has become the enemy of environmental protection. Educating our next generations on the importance of the natural world and working together to help protect it is key to the existence of coral reefs, their inhabitants, and humanity itself.