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Miami Is Drowning, and the Corals Couldn't Be Happier

Every square inch of Miami Beach will, at some point, succumb to the ocean. In the meantime, the artist-scientists at Coral Morphologic will be discovering and photographing new species of zoanthids—small, flowery, pod-like relatives of coral that look...

Corallimorphs, from which Coral Morphologic derives its name, are thought to have evolved without skeletons in order to adapt to climate changes.

In Miami Beach people shop for produce at two feet above sea level. The setting for this activity is a Whole Foods in South Beach. This particular Whole Foods was built on what is now the lowest inhabitable plot of land in Florida. In the surrounding area, only a few feet higher and resting on dredged-up land that was once deep-blue saltwater, is a sprawling assortment of condos, hotels, schools, parks, and small businesses that withstand flooding that grows worse every year.


The common denominator is that every square inch will, at some point, succumb to the ocean.

One mile south of the Whole Foods is a small strip of the bay known as Government Cut. The waterway was dredged and formed in the early 1900s to allow easier access to the Port of Miami. A century later, the port stands as the 11th-largest shipping-container destination in the United States. Despite the port’s continued success, the dredging ships have returned to dig up more—their gigantic steel claws scooping up chunks of seabed like a sludgy arcade-game prize.

Across the water, on the mainland, stands the deserted but still imposing building that formerly housed the Miami Herald. The half-demolished and dilapidated structure is perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay, at a relatively impressive elevation of five feet.

In 2011, the Malaysian conglomerate Genting Group, the parent company of Resorts World Casinos, expressed its intention to build a new casino on the property, even though it is still illegal to operate one in the state of Florida. Fueling the controversy was a rumor that the casino would be accessible only by boat or helicopter, which some people took to confirm suspicions that Genting’s proposal would merely serve as a playground for the rich.

Disputes over the project size halted construction and, ostensibly, the dream of persuading officials to change the gambling law. The property is now slated to be a massive mixed-used commercial and residential behemoth. For now it is only an ominous structure, its south side looking like a postapocalyptic nightmare spilling its concrete guts toward the bay.


Just south of the Herald’s former building is a lazy cut of water 1,000 feet long and 300 feet wide called the FEC boat slip. It separates the American Airlines Arena, home to the Miami Heat, from Museum Park, a recently opened and attractive green space on which the new Pérez Art Museum Miami resides.

The FEC slip has a rich history, as it was part of the original Port of Miami, built by Henry Flagler in 1897 and used until the harbor was relocated in the mid 1960s. Nowadays it mostly collects trash and debris sent over by the dredging of Government Cut. In many respects, it’s Miami’s equivalent of Manhattan’s East River. It’s also the place where, in May, David Beckham announced his intention to build a sprawling new soccer stadium—a 25,000-seat manifestation of soccer’s growing popularity in the United States.

At the suggestion of Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Beckham’s backers planned to fill in the FEC slip and occupy it along with the southern portion of Museum Park, after their previous plans for a similar construction at the Port of Miami were rejected. Dollar signs were floated, talks began, and the public reacted.

Among the opposition was Colin Foord, a local marine biologist and the co-founder of the scientific-art endeavor Coral Morphologic. Wanting to get a closer look at the problem, he pulled a Kramer and went swimming in the slip. More specifically he went snorkeling, and there among the clog of underwater detritus he discovered a sewage-enveloped ecosystem that had grown along the seawall protection boulders that the city had installed in 2006. Coral Morphologic calls these strange breeds “urban corals.” Over time, as the slip turned into the mess that it is, its native marine life was forced to adapt to its deteriorating conditions. As the Miami New Times pointed out in an article about Foord and Coral Morphologic’s work, “Studying such ‘urban corals’ is key to understanding the effects that climate change is having and will have on both human and animal life.” In other words, if these corals can make it here, they can make it anywhere.


After deliberation the city put the kibosh on Beckham’s stadium dreams for the FEC slip, and his group is currently reevaluating their potential investment while searching for a new location. Though Coral Morphologic’s findings were not necessarily the smoking gun that prevented the slip from being filled in, their voices were heard, support for the corals’ preservation along the historical boat slip grew, and the issue crawled forward from the murky depths onto dry land, politically speaking.

Jared McKay, co-founder of Coral Morphologic, cleaning and maintaining one of the lab’s sea anemone displays

Foord and Coral Morphologic partner Jared McKay have been studying Miami’s “urban corals” since 2009. That’s when Foord discovered a rare staghorn-elkhorn hybrid coral growing in Government Cut, along the artificial shoreline of Fisher Island. This set the duo’s course of study, making them realize that if these corals were able to grow within Miami’s city limits, on man-made structures and in terrible living conditions, they may hold the key to saving corals elsewhere, across a wide range of habitats.

Part of what makes the group’s work so unique is that their research underwater is a small part of the equation. In their lab, located in the neighborhood of Overtown, tray after tray of vividly bright fluorescent corals, sea anemones, zoanthids, fish, and crustaceans fight for the attention of grow lights hovering above them. At Coral Morphologic, corals and coral-related creatures are hybridized, categorized, grown, documented, and ultimately sold to private aquariums around the globe. Since founding their operation in 2007, the pair have discovered and identified four new species of zoanthids—small, flowery, pod-like relatives of coral that look particularly trippy under colored light. The Miami Vice zoanthid, with its range of striking colors (the original a combination of pink and blue, like the eponymous show’s titles), is Coral Morphologic’s proprietary brand.


Not content with being the self-appointed stewards of Miami’s overlooked subaqueous ecosystem and turning this ambitious prospect into a successful business, they have developed their work into an art form that spans the disciplines of photography, filmmaking, sculpture, and installation. The naturally mesmerizing animals are typically photographed and filmed individually in extreme macro and under a special actinic blue light (similar to a black light). Watching the elegant corals interact with their surrounding environments is as mesmerizing in an uptight white-walled gallery as it is on a laptop screen in the college dorm of the biggest stoner on campus.

The videos are sped up a number of times to serve the attention span of the internet age, after which McKay composes a score for each video that includes noises from inside the lab as well as sounds emitted by the corals themselves. A collection of Foord and McKay’s early coral films, Natural History Redux, was recently released online. Selections of these shorts were screened at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival and projected large-scale on the facades of buildings during Art Basel; their photos, films, and sculptures have been displayed in numerous gallery shows. The pair have also collaborated with artist Bhakti Baxter, wrapping tollbooths at the Port of Miami with enormous photos of their zoanthids—an undertaking that was recently featured in Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network Year in Review for 2014.


Coral Morphologic’s works are not just simple portraits of their lab specimens. Foord and McKay view them as ways to expand the existing mythology of coral, touting their symbiotic relationship with Miami and their importance to the existence of it as a destination. Fittingly, the actual process of growing these corals, their lives on display in the lab, is part of the art.

“A lot of ideas that guide the way they grow the corals and the way they shoot them—those are all choices that they make,” said Lucas Leyva, a Coral Morphologic collaborator. “They’re curated and presented in a certain way. There’s something really intense about your art being a living thing that you cloned and you provide the context for it and the story behind it.”

Foord and McKay have been best friends since attending middle school together in New Hampshire—a relationship that carried over into high school, where they immersed themselves in punk and DIY culture. As Foord put it, they spent much of their time “hanging in the kitchen, eating chips and salsa and talking about life,” formulating their own ideals about the world around them. “We were friends of the cool kids,” McKay adds, “but we weren’t the alphas of the cool kids, so that gave us perspective a little bit as outsiders to analyze what was going on, like who’s screwing who. That sort of started this descent into armchair psychology of why people do the things that they do.”


Growing up, Foord spent his free time building a miniature aquatic zoo in his childhood home’s spare rooms, with the full support of his parents. By the time he’d sent off his portfolio to college-admissions boards, he had amassed a large collection. “My senior year, I had about 400 gallons of aquarium in my bedroom,” he said. Foord enrolled in the University of Miami, where he was displeased but ultimately unsurprised to find that his undergraduate classmates’ main interests were studying dolphins, turtles, and whales. As a life-form, corals have been largely understudied. According to Foord, some of his professors—and others in academia—opposed cultivating corals in tanks, essentially equating it to researching captive whales.

“You have to understand, most of what we know in coral biology has come about with the advent of scuba diving, so this is all after World War II,” Foord explains when I ask about his university experience. “It really wasn’t until the 60s that people started to recognize that corals are fluorescent.”

Colin Foord documenting his subject’s slow movements through time-lapse video

Corals naturally fluoresce but are not bioluminescent, so their bright colors are not visible in the spectrum offered by direct sunlight. With the help of actinic lights, however, corals shine as brightly as the most psychedelic black-light poster. Fluorescent lights weren’t introduced until 1939, though, and blue LED lights weren’t available until the mid 90s. Why corals fluoresce is still an unsolved mystery for scientists. Foord and McKay continuously seek new information.


“Coming to Miami and wanting to study corals and thinking, What a perfect place about the opportunities I’d have through my formal education—they just didn’t exist at that time,” Foord said. “Meanwhile, there is an entire aquarium hobby that exists as its own economy, separate from the academic world of science. And believe it or not, most of the major breakthroughs in equipment technology and general coral husbandry just came out of trial and error by hobbyists.”

Like most scientists and artists, Foord and McKay are passionate about their work. When asked for the most basic breakdown of why coral populations are rapidly dying across the globe, instead of giving a succinct and easily digestible catch-all answer like “pollution,” Foord’s response is convoluted and tangential. One reason leads to another and on to another. His rigor and enthusiasm carry over into email as well. Tirades morph into indictments of corrupt, red-tape politicians and business owners who are selling off Miami as its ecological foundation is quickly being destroyed and eroded past the point of no return. Throughout our correspondence, I’d often wake up to lengthy, midnight-oil emails detailing the minutiae of the importance of what he and McKay were doing and whom they were up against. Much of this discourse concerned dredging—specifically a dredge that was happening soon.

While the city began to execute its plans to re-dredge Government Cut, making way for post-Panamax supertankers utilizing the expanding Panama Canal, Foord and McKay were vying for approval to save and relocate the massive amount of corals that had grown on the seawalls formed by prior dredging. The US Army Corps of Engineers, who are carrying out the dredge, had planned to remove all corals over ten inches in size, which would have left behind thousands of smaller corals that Foord and McKay view as highly important, both for aquaculturing and for studying the largely unknown nature of their adaptive characteristics.


Corals are legally protected, and removal of them in Florida or the Caribbean requires an extensive permitting process, basically meaning never. In the instance of the dredge, however, the Corps of Engineers deemed the specimens growing in Government Cut “corals of opportunity,” granting Coral Morphologic and researchers from the University of Miami the chance to save as many as they could within a brief window of time.

Finally, Foord and McKay received news that the city would allow Coral Morphologic to transplant corals rescued from the dredging site to a large artificial reef about a mile away from Government Cut. And while city, state, and federal officials seemed to support their endeavors, when it came time to issue permits the government took their sweet time—almost more time than the coral had to be saved.

The rescue dives were originally slated to begin in January 2014, and Foord and McKay dropped everything to prepare for the challenging task at hand. Then nothing happened, so they waited. And waited. In early May they were told the permits were to be issued at last—and, what’s more, they’d have until July 15 to complete the rescue, more than enough time to work. When the permits were actually issued, on May 24, they were then told they had only until June 6 to save as many corals as possible.

Racing against the clock, navigating dangerous tides and passing ships, Foord and his assistant were able to rescue a significant amount of corals. “That was the hand that we were dealt,” Foord said, “and I think we did an incredibly good job, given the circumstances. I’m proud of the work that we did.” They’ve now focused on the transplant reef. Having already cleaned it in preparation for the transplants, their main mission is to protect it from coral-suffocating silt kicked up by the dredge. It’s a job that’s proving more and more difficult every day. In late July, Coral Morphologic, along with Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers for failure to responsibly monitor sedimentation while dredging. The case is ongoing.


Two specimens found in Coral Morphologic’s lab, Zoanthus and Montastraea, provide income, research opportunities, and hours of entertainment.

The Weird Miami Tour, run by artists Naomi Fisher and Jim Drain, is a seasonal Sunday bus tour of Miami that visits non-traditional, somewhat esoteric locations. It was on one of these tours that Coral Morphologic first met Alberto Ibargüen, the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, one of the country’s leading arts endowments. At the time, Foord and McKay were in the process of building out the lab where they’re currently based and in the meantime working out of their home.

“The foyer, the dining room, the living room, the sunroom were all full of coral, in water, under special light,” Ibargüen recalled of the duo’s early backroom setup. “I thought, Well, this qualifies as weird Miami. And it was all very beautiful. We then walked about four blocks away to what was going to be their new lab, and they showed a video that was something of an a-ha moment for me.”

Ibargüen proposed that Coral Morphologic project their videos onto buildings during Art Basel, the tropical winter prong of a trio of influential and profitable art festivals that also take place yearly in Switzerland and Hong Kong. Of course, Foord and McKay were ecstatic about the possibilities.

“From very early on, the idea of projecting corals onto limestone was a really important part of our artistic practice,” Foord said. “That stems from the idea that the cement and the limestone that compose the buildings of Miami are actually fossilized corals from eons past, when Miami was underwater. To project the corals back onto these buildings, it references the geologic past, the present technological future we’re in, and a potential future. If sea levels continue to rise, the corals will have no problem coming right back in and cementing themselves onto the concrete, onto themselves.”

Ibargüen was formerly the publisher of the Miami Herald. He retired from journalism in 2005 to take the reins of the Knight Foundation, a private foundation formed by the Knight family, of the Knight Ridder newspaper company. Begun as a means of cultivating journalism and the arts in the communities in which Knight Ridder newspapers were based, the foundation funds such endeavors in eight cities, including Miami, Detroit, and Akron, Ohio, while advising on the endeavors of 26 others. The mission of the Knight Foundation, and that of Ibargüen and vice president Dennis Scholl, is to make art accessible to people and places that might not otherwise encounter it. “Art in general,” Ibargüen clarified. From education to poetry festivals, the idea is to bring communities together through art.

“I cannot imagine a time when art does not have relevance in the development of a community,” he told me. “Art that explains who we are, art that inspires us to be better, art that shows you other ways of thinking, art that stuns, art that makes you human. These are not theoretical sentiments. I really don’t think I’m passionate or sentimental about it. I’ve seen it.

“Seventy-five percent of people who live here were born someplace else. Fifty percent were born in another country. We need connectors; we need to find lowest common denominators to help us bond and attach to place; we need to develop roots, because it’s such a young community. I don’t care whether it’s Gloria Estefan or Beethoven; I don’t care whether it’s looking at a master painting or something that somebody down the street just provocatively put together. I think that’s the beginning of the conversation, and it begins to create a sense of community and create the kind of groupings that will determine what is the future of Miami.”

One morning before a dive, I hung out in the kitchen at the lab while Foord laughed with his two assistants, Allan Cox and Max Ivers, who had recently come aboard to manage the zoanthid side of the business. Cox also serves as Foord’s dive partner, an important relationship that requires a great deal of trust. Foord was mixing up a portion of dried coral powder and orange juice, at once a calcium supplement and a funny aside that’s only partly a joke—that he’s trying to become one with the coral.

The evening before my departure, the group had suggested that I experience the coral lab in full bloom. In complete darkness, we shined handheld blue lights on each of the tanks, slowly drifting from coral to coral. The calm and quiet that overtook the room, the reverence the group collectively shared for the creatures, the startling beauty that emanated from the fluorescence all combined to create a feeling of the sublime, like the experience some say they have standing in front of a Rothko or others may have observing the Northern Lights. A powerful rush of beauty and adoration washed over me. Adding to Coral Morphologic’s mystique is the fact that its lab was once the site of a small Pentecostal church. The bubbling tank filled with their collection of zoanthids sat over what was once the pulpit. A sense of spirituality permeated the space.

On my last day in Miami, I left the lab to meet Harold Wanless, professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, where he’s worked for the past 43 years. We spoke on a bench in South Pointe Park, situated at the southern tip of South Beach and a short walk from the lowest-sitting and most flood-prone Whole Foods in the world. He looked around at the jet skis whirring behind him and shirtless runners passing by and sank into a sad smirk. “We haven’t faced up to reality yet, and I don’t know if we will,” he said. A portion of his academic research has focused on modern environments, specifically the type found in South Florida and the Bahamas, and sea-level rise over extended periods of time—particularly the way in which reefs, barrier islands, and swamps respond and adapt to erosion and dredging. He spent the last few summers in Greenland, studying the melting ice sheets.

“Back in 2007, we put out a forecast for Miami-Dade County that we would probably have three to five feet of sea-level rise this century, which puts Miami in a very serious situation,” he said. “But with the information that’s come out this year on the accelerating melt in Antarctica, the lack of topography to hold back the ice, and the same in Greenland, we’re probably looking at more like seven to ten feet or more by the end of this century, and that’s absolutely shocking. We sit on amazingly porous limestone. You can build all the dykes you want, and it might keep out a storm surge, but it won’t keep out water coming in underneath and flooding, inundating the land. It’s over; it’s as simple as that.”

Foord shares Wanless’s bleak view of the future, but when it comes to the corals attached to Miami’s buildings, he is more optimistic: “Miami used to be a coral reef. The highest elevation in Miami is Cutler Ridge, which was a fossilized coral reef, so all of Miami was once underwater. Miami Beach was just a barrier island with mangroves on it. It was a real estate experiment by some rich guys to sell the vacation dream, and they did a very good job of it. People have made billions of dollars. In the future there’s going to be a certain point in time when that real estate bubble pops in Miami, when people have to rethink whether even having a house is sustainable for more than five or ten years before there’s going to be another major hurricane. We’re surrounded by water. This is what makes Miami Beach so relevant, because it is, to use the parlance of our time, a YOLO kind of place. It’s here today, gone tomorrow.”