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ADFC Members celebrate a great dive visiting the Coral Forest off of Klein Bonaire.

Featured Article

Saving the Earth's Coral Reefs

One Adventure at a Time

Article by Elysa Leonard

Photography by Aquarium Divers for Coral Society

Originally published in Leesburg Lifestyle

By day, Elysa Leonard is the owner of Splash Communications, an Ashburn-based online marketing, PR, website design and social media company. But in keeping with its tagline, “Don’t just make a ripple, make a Splash!”, the diminutive marcom maven is also helping to save the world’s coral reefs.

It all started with a contract for the Baltimore Aquarium where she is a volunteer diver. There she first heard about and then met Michael Anderson, a volunteer diver for the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey. Over the past two decades, Michael witnessed the decline of coral reefs along the Florida Keys and Florida's eastern coast, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Bonaire on his personal scuba diving trips and (sorry, we can’t resist) “dove” into both the causes of coral depletion and what was being done in efforts to restore the reefs.

What he learned about the latter was that most efforts in replenishment rely on volunteer divers who have to pay to become certified in coral restoration, which deters most recreational divers. So, he created a new organization to combine the forces of more professional aquarium divers to travel to the most devastated areas around the world to save the coral reefs. It’s called Aquarium Divers for Coral Society, and it’s just starting to make waves.

In keeping with our “explore” theme, Elysa, the group’s marketing director and a board member, told us about her adventurous passion project.

Q: Tell us more about the Aquarium Divers for Coral Society.

ELYSA: ADFC is Michael’s initiative. His idea was that aquarium divers like himself have untapped skills that can be put to good use doing coral restoration work. Aquarium divers already do intricate work underwater so have unique skills and near-perfect buoyancy control which gives them the delicate underwater coordination needed to help restore damaged areas without injuring living coral. The 501c3 charitable organization is made up of mainly aquarium divers who want to help coral restoration efforts around the world. Globally, this pool of talent includes hundreds of aquarium divers who, combined, could have an immense impact. It will truly make a difference in the health and survival of coral reefs! Our organization is open to not only aquarium divers but any certified divers that want to learn about coral restoration and support our work. See htttps://

Q: How does Coral Restoration work?

ELYSA: Coral Restoration’s main goal is to keep endangered coral species from extinction. Corals are not plants but tiny animals that live attached to the ocean floor. Staghorn and Elkhorn corals are two of the most recognized on the Endangered Species Act, where more than 25 coral species are listed. In the Caribbean, their population has declined by more than 90 percent! They thrive in shallow water in Florida and the Caribbean and tropical water around the world. ADFC has been working with coral restoration organizations that have developed a restorative process called fragmentation. Genetically similar corals are hung from a tree made of PVC pipe. There they grow until they are large enough to be out-planted where they can thrive and become a healthy new thicket of coral. The new corals are attached to the ocean floor with zip ties, cement, or in some cases just wedged together to create a secure structure. 

Much of our work involves cleaning coral trees in underwater nurseries. The trees quickly become covered with fire coral and algae and need to be scrubbed using hand tools so the algae does not smother the newly growing corals. Good buoyancy is important when doing this work so divers do not damage the corals they’re trying to save or any of the other parts of the reef. 

Q: Why did you want to get involved?

ELYSA: It sounds simplistic, but I own a marketing and public relations company, Splash Communications, and have been looking for a charitable organization for my company to support for a long time. I wanted to work with a charity that fit my company brand. I have been volunteering for the National Aquarium in Baltimore for more than 15 years. I love to dive and I am passionate about saving these ocean environments. My position at the aquarium gives me a unique opportunity to teach people about this extremely important yet very fragile ecosystem that needs our help to survive for future generations.

Working for the aquarium gives me a platform that I can’t take for granted. Michel Cousteau once told me: “You can’t care about saving something that you don’t know exists.” For me, that summarized the whole “raison d'etre” for aquariums. Their sole purpose is to show people the underwater magic of a place they may never otherwise see. 

Coming from a marcom background, I could see that ADFC needed Splash’s help. We created the logo, icon and website and I have joined the Board of Directors as the publicity chair. Even with Covid travel restrictions we recently completed three trips to Bonaire and Curacao to get certified and help support Reef Renewal Bonaire and Coral Restoration Curacao with their coral restoration. Bonaire, a Dutch island, is one of the most pristine reef systems in the Caribbean Sea, but even there, the reefs have suffered and the restoration work is designed to keep it stabilized. There, we were put to work cleaning coral trees on location at Buddy Dive Resort’s Reef and in a much larger area off of Klein Bonaire. We also helped dismantle a pop-up nursery that was being relocated. Bonaire is doing great work to restore and bring back Staghorn and Elkhorn corals. We were able to more than double their numbers in the water on this trip and, as travel opens up, plan to bring in many more divers to help the reefs expand. We have upcoming trips planned to the Florida Keys in July and August and will return to Bonaire in November of 2022.

Q: How can we help? 

ELYSA: Check out our website, Join our organization and show your support. If you are a diver, join us for a coral restoration trip, get certified, and help restore the reef. We want to do more of this valuable work and funding would help us accomplish our goal of increasing the coral reef by 20%. We have webinars throughout the year presented by practitioners in the field that you can join. They offer real-time information about the work being done to restore and renew coral reefs throughout the world

If you want to learn to scuba dive, I highly recommend Nautilus Aquatics They have two locations in Sterling and Vienna. They are locally owned and the dive instructions are very safety conscious and work with teens and adults. I also recommend watching the documentary, Chasing Coral. It will tell you even more about why we are doing what we are doing.

  • Healthy Elkhorn Coral
  • Elkhorn Coral hung on PVC pipe to seed coral nurseries
  • ADFC Members and Buddy Dive Staff at Buddy Dive Resort. Elysa Leonard 3rd from left, Michael Anderson, 4th from left.
  • ADFC Members celebrate a great dive visiting the Coral Forest off of Klein Bonaire.
  • Elysa cleaning a Staghorn Coral Tree at Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire