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WPTV - February 2019

BIG PINE KEY, Fla.-- If there's one place where nature and divers meet it is Big Pine Key. Here boats at Looe Key Reef Resort carry 20,000 divers a year to one place, Looe Key Reef. It is known as “The crown jewel of the Florida Keys,” yet some don't see it that way anymore.

“I'm glad I'm the Captain on most days because I don't have to get in the water and be sad,” says Katie McHugh, of Looe Key Reef Resort.

To understand what happened here, you have to talk to one man who's bringing a secret to the surface and he says he has the science to prove it.

“It breaks my heart. It is one of the greatest disappointments of my 40 year career," said FAU Harbor Branch Scientist Dr. Brian Lapointe.

We followed Lapointe to Looe Key Reef where he just released a 30-year study of data and video showing what no one wants to see or hear.

“Sadly we've lost virtually all the coral, we're down to less than 5 percent coral now,” says Lapointe.

This is one of the last living reefs in North America and according to Lapointe, it’s on the verge of death. Nitrogen levels have doubled over the years according to his research. “It’s kinda like these corals all of sudden got high blood pressure.”

Coral bleaching, septic discharge, even a new disease called Stony Coral Tissue loss have contributed to the coral decline. But Lapointe’s cumulative data shows one primary issue coming from one consistent place: Southern discharges in Lake Okeechobee.

Water released to the south heads right into the Everglades toward Florida Bay and into the Lower Keys. Lapointe says his data can prove this water, loaded with nitrogen, has slowly suffocated Looe Key Reef.

“Bad decisions made that have cost this state dearly, I'm talking about sending water south through Florida Bay,” said Lapointe recently on the floor of the State Legislature. He was speaking to lawmakers hoping to reverse a trend and keep Looe Key Reef a destination for divers.

“Night and day compared to five years ago,” says McHugh.

Each day now represents a day lost for locals watching a reef die a slow death and knowing when it’s gone, the dive plan could change.

“We really need an epiphany to rethink what we’re doing to the water down here,” says Lapointe.