Without oceans, life as we know it would cease to exist. Underwater ecosystems regulate the climate and provide us with fresh water, food, and about seventy percent of the oxygen we breathe. Our lives are forever entwined with this fragile world we can’t see. Every day we unknowingly put our own survival at risk. Carbon dioxide emissions make ocean waters more acidic and toxic. Exposure to sunscreen chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are so devastating to coral, fish, sea urchins, and algae, that Hawaii will soon be banning them. We can choose alternative sunscreens that use titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead to protect against the sun’s harmful rays. Like a ripple effect, each person’s decision to make environmentally friendly choices can influence others and effect positive change in our environment. Dr. Jessica Miles is an inspiring example of what one person devoted to helping save marine life can do. Dr. Miles is the Department Chair for the Environmental Science Technology Program at Palm Beach State College and professor of biology and environmental science. She created The Reef Hope Project to research and apply the latest technological advancements to help coral reefs. This project is an interdisciplinary collaborative effort of students and faculty from diverse backgrounds and departments including environmental science, engineering, biotechnology, and art. Dr. Miles elaborates, “This is how learning in the real world takes place. It doesn’t happen in isolated little groups. The Reef Hope Project is based on understanding science, using the most up to date engineering technologies, and also the art students are involved with making something beautiful, so all these disciplines come together...It’s this spark that’s turned into a wildfire.”

Like The Reef Hope Project, the ocean’s ecosystem is made up of synergistic relationships. When one organism is in danger, it affects other oceanic life, which affects us. Dr. Miles and students involved with The Reef Hope Project use GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to collect satellite imagery or aerial photographs, which enable them to visualize the relationships of marine life, and see how they evolve over time. Because of this cutting edge software, the ocean no longer seems endlessly deep, or too mysterious and far away. One example of a symbiotic oceanic relationship is between algae and coral. Algae live inside coral and emit a myriad of iridescent, vibrant colors on to it. When algae photosynthesize, they provide coral with oxygen. If the ocean becomes too warm, algae will vacate the cells of the coral, leaving it looking bleached and perishing with no source of life. Many fish species depend on coral, and if coral continues to die off due to atmospheric warming, there will be catastrophic repercussions in the ocean and on life on earth.

palm beach state college
The Reef Hope Project hopes to help save our coastlines.
dr jessica miles, reef hope project
Dr. Jessica Miles, Department Chair for the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Palm Beach State College, Professor of biology and environmental science, and creator of The Reef Hope Project.
Dr. Miles has worked with the Andrew “Red” Harris Foundation, which the Harris family set up to honor their son who died in an underwater accident saving his friend’s life. This foundation has deployed over two hundred artificial coral reefs into the ocean. Dr. Miles scuba dived to collect information about the living conditions of these reefs, and she researched how they change over time. Artificial reefs are often made from road construction and sunken ship debris. They give coral a place to settle on when they’re swimming around in the ocean. Both natural and artificial reefs profoundly affect wave activity and the structure of our coastlines. Dr. Miles explains, “A very important value of reefs that people don’t really know about is that they do a tremendous job in breaking up wave activity by as much as ninety percent. In addition to natural healthy coral out there, there are also artificial reefs in the environment that armor the coastline. When a hurricane hits, we spend millions in beach renourishment. Those coral are there to help protect and prevent the beaches from being completely obliterated and washed away. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) estimates that our South Florida reefs are worth about 8.5 billion dollars. They’re very valuable ecosystems, and if they’re not doing well, we need to do something to protect them.” This year, Dr. Guy Harvey was Palm Beach state’s celebrity guest speaker. Dr. Harvey is a multifaceted wildlife artist well known for his colorful, realistic depictions of fish on t-shirts, posters, and other apparel. He is also a marine biologist, diver, photographer and conservationalist. Because of money he helped to raise for The Reef Hope Project, students will be able to create their own artificial reefs.

The Reef Hope Project is an inspirational liaison connecting people with life in the ocean. There are numerous amazing work and volunteer opportunities in science, engineering, and environmentalism in South Florida. In less than a year since its inception, this project has greatly impacted the lives of many who have been touched by its mission. Dr. Miles enthusiastically reveals, “I’ve had students say to me, ‘This class has changed my life, and I want to pursue science because of what I’ve learned. I feel like I want to have a job that has purpose and meaning. This is a field I could work in every day and feel like I’m doing something to try and help improve our environment.” Anyone who is passionate about saving marine life is welcome to join.
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