Coral reef near Fort Myers Beach shows Gulf rebounding from Ian

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

After Hurricane Ian, our environment at the sea bottom was left in disarray, but we can see it recovering six months later. One famous coral reef off the coast of Fort Myers Beach, 240 Ledge, is an exemplar of that recovery.

The reef lies 24 miles offshore and 60 feet down. In videos from 2019, you can see its beauty: 240 Ledge was rich in soft and hard coral and flourishing with fish. It was a diver’s paradise.

Cole Tillman, a graduate student at The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, knows that firsthand. He’s taken more than 30 dives near 240 Ledge. But these underwater communities provide more than nice spots to explore.

“If you think of, like, a desert and you have a patch of water, everything is going to congregate around that patch of water, so it’s kinda similar to that in the Gulf of Mexico,” Tillman said. “That’s great for replenishing the fisheries’ stock, and it’s also great for anyone that enjoys… just looking at the fish or coming out here and fishing.”

The reefs are as essential to us as they are to the fish.

“It’s not something that in general we think about because we’re so far removed from these habitats, but they get influenced just like the habitats we see every day,” Tillman said.

Tillman took a video two months before Ian showing a bright reef with a healthy assortment of coral. One can see the ledge that gave the reef the name 240 Ledge. After Ian, it was filled in by the churning seafloor. The fish became sparse and the bright-colored coral was buried in the muck.

Six months later, underwater, Tillman sees signs of relief.

“It’s definitely growing back, which is nice to see,” Tillman said. “Definitely slowly, but each time we go out we see a few more things starting to emerge back up. Some sponge cover is starting to come back.”

Fellow diver Ben Rikon, an undergraduate research assistant with the Benthic Ecology Lab, also notes the recovery of marine life, fish and coral alike.

“There’s tons of fish: hogfish, grunts, spadefish… tons of fish,” Rikon said. “Now there’s some giant sea plumes and giant barrel sponges, hard corals like knobby star coral, some stony coral.”

Tillman says it’s nowhere near what it was before the storm, but it will get there.

“It’s definitely a case-by-case basis, but in similar habitats that are hard-bottom, they found that after heavy disturbances like this, whether it’s heavy wave action or storm disturbances, it can be up to 10 years before they come back to what they were before,” Tillman said.

Six months is a small time frame in the grand scheme of things. But both divers are pleased with what they’ve seen so far and will continue to document 240 Ledge’s recovery.

Invasive fish have since moved out of the reef, too, and native fish are coming back to take their rightful place in the ecosystem.

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