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Give Back Vacation: Focus on Fish & Coral Reefs in the Florida Keys

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Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann
Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann

It’s one thing to see tropical fish and coral reefs. It’s quite another to be part of their preservation. The opportunity to do the latter is what enticed Virginia resident, James Campione and his wife, when they planned a dive vacation to the Florida Keys.

“Sightseeing underwater is just plain cool and having opportunities to take the experience to another level while doing some good is even cooler,” says Campione, who worked with Atlantis Outfitters to design such an adventure. “We have always loved and cherished the water and its mysteries, so when there was an opportunity to actively participate I wanted to in any way possible. Hands on dive and snorkel trips to survey fish or to help support efforts to replant corals makes for an awesome experience, not to mention very impacting.”

The Campiones aren’t the only ones interested in this type of vacation. Adventure travel that gives back is a top trend today. It’s not something new. A Conde Nast readers poll published in 2009 revealed that 47 percent of respondents said they were interested in volunteer vacations and nearly all (98 percent) of those who had volunteered said they were happy with their experience. What better way to enjoy a ‘give back’ vacation than in South Florida’s back yard: The Florida Keys.

Give Back Vacation, The Florida Keys: Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann
Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann

Atlantis Outfitters, whose mission is ‘dedicated to the pre-servation of our underwater environment,’ launched earlier this year. The business is the brainchild of Bob Potterton and Peter Juanpere, who, for a decade, owned a dive shop together in Chantilly, Virginia, before selling it last year. Through partnerships built with environmental groups, and without the confines of a brick-and-mortar retail shop, the new business connects travelers with educational and preservation projects that benefit the Florida Keys.

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“Over the years we have seen the reefs in the Keys decline,” says Potterton, who is, as is Juanpere, a certified scuba instructor. “This has been well published; however, the fish life remains rather vibrant. We have taken many trips to the Keys with our clients because the area is an easily accessible, affordable location that offers such a wide variety of diving from shallow reefs to deeper wreck diving.

The Florida Keys reef system is one of the largest in the world and needs to be protected. The sanctuary and NOAA are doing a fantastic job in this effort; we need to enhance the effort and remain vigilant.”

Two of the most exciting give-back activities Atlantis Outfitters’ can plan for travelers are the replanting of local Keys reefs with the non-profit Coral Restoration Foundation, and participating in fish count surveys with the grassroots organization, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). Both companies are headquartered in Key Largo with REEF extending their mission globally.

Give Back Vacation, The Florida Keys: Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann
Photo courtesy of Larry Hammonds, Christopher Flint and Craig Hellmann

A REEF Fish Survey is a project enabling volunteers to record the number and type of fish in a particular dive site. Once the survey is completed the data can be submitted online or using paper scantron if someone is without access to the internet. As data is collected and compared to surveys of previous years, a picture of the health of a reef can be accessed. REEF surveys have been performed throughout the dive sites in Key Largo and the Florida Keys. A few of these in Key Largo are Molasses Reef, City of Washington and Alligator Reef.

“It’s always a joint effort with my fellow divers or snorkelers when we conduct fish surveys,” says Campione. “As we visit our beloved REEFs in need, we coordinate a plan to cover as much as possible in our allotted time. We review and discuss what fish we will most likely encounter and make special notes referencing some spectacular creatures we hopefully will come upon: sharks, turtles, eels and rays to name a few. It’s invigorating to know we are helping the various initiatives toward environmental stewardship, both with the REEF surveys and various other surveys we participate in.

I love what we do. How many people can boast about planting coral or counting fish?”

One of Potterton and Juanpere’s big focuses going forward is young people.

“Kids like aquatics. They like the idea of trying to find Nemo, the Disney cartoon character based on a clown fish. If you take something nerdy, like a fish count for example, and make it fun, it’s infectious. It’s a way that can help to preserve the Florida Keys coral reefs for the next generation and interest this generation in preserving the reefs for their children to enjoy too,” says Potterton.

For more information contact Atlantis Outfitters at 703-475-0779, Bpotterton@atlantisoutfittersLLC.com or Pjuampere@atlantisoutfittersLLC.com.

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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