Underwater, the world is almost weightless—a slow-motion soundscape of silence but for the hiss of the respirator on your back. Light filters down in crystalline rays, spotting the drifting sands you glide above and illuminating an ocean forest rising from the seabed ahead, where thousands of staghorn coral grow up and out, thrusting spiny seeking branches into the blue. In the shallows farther back, a coral graveyard—animals the size of boulders and Volkswagens lying dead since 2010, but a single 1,000-year-old coral head showing signs of life, the dead exterior partially covered in living coral. Nearby, an underwater nursery houses thousands of coral growing at a rate previously thought impossible. As fantastical as it all may seem, none of it is magic, but rather the modern-day miracles of science brought forth at the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, where radical expansion for the campus is already underway to introduce new capabilities for staff and visiting scientists. “Our science has changed the entire paradigm of coral restoration science,” says Mote President and CEO Dr. Michael Crosby, “because we’re able to translate that science into impact.”

Two of the main focuses of this research have been coral health and coral restoration. With saltwater tanks in the lab, Mote scientists measure the effects of changing temperatures and rising ocean acidity on the animals’ growth, reproduction and survival. With understanding comes the possibility of mitigating damage. There remains the question of how to address the damage already done and the coral die-offs already on record, but when it comes to coral restoration, researchers at Summerland have already made great strides, growing underwater gardens of staghorn coral and transplanting them into the wild to repopulate dying reefs. And it was here, on the Summerland campus, that Mote revolutionized the scientific community’s understanding of what are commonly called “brain corals.” They’re also called “orphan corals,” says Dr. David Vaughan, executive director of Mote Tropical, due to the fact that few researchers wanted to bother with them, not being as showy as staghorn coral or reproducing as reliably. Ever the realm of happy accidents, life finds a way. Accidentally breaking a brain coral into many pieces, Vaughan was shocked by the result. “For some reason,” he says, “that stimulates the coral to grow very quickly for the next couple years.” Now, by breaking a single brain coral into hundreds of pieces—clones which will then grow and fuse into one—Vaughan and his team can create dinner plate-sized coral in a fraction of the time. “What would have taken 50 to 75 years,” says Vaughan, “we can produce in two.”

But as the work progressed, the scientists on the Summerland campus outgrew their own habitat, with facilities that were once state-of-the-art becoming cramped and outdated. Made possible through the successful completion of Mote’s Oceans of Opportunity fundraising campaign, the expansion and renovation will add near 19,000 square feet of science infrastructure, says Crosby, including more than doubling classroom capacity and housing capacity for staff, visiting researchers and volunteers. The single small lab will grow into five labs, adds Vaughan, with two being wet labs fitted with running seawater for controlled experiments—one he hopes to turn into a Coral Gene Bank to house as many living specimens as possible—and the other three for general use, such as training visiting scientists. “People everywhere in the tropics looking to help their coral reefs can do so with the technology we’ve developed here,” he says.