We Tried to Do Vanlife Right. It Was a Disaster.

8 Aug

A few hours after I bought a 1995 Ford E-350 Econoline van for $2,000 in the fall of 2017, the ABS light lit up on the dashboard. That night, I had a dream: My fiancée, Rachel, and I were driving downhill on a steep, winding road when the brakes went out. As we were plunging to our deaths over a cliff, I stared into her eyes and thought, I failed you.

That was my first vanlife-stress dream. They kept up through the winter and spring as we prepped the vehicle for a summerlong road trip that would see us touring the country in a counterclockwise loop, starting and ending at Rachel’s parents’ house outside Philadelphia.

The ultimate road trip had been our goal since we’d met during our senior year of college, in 2012. We wanted to explore the country in an authentic way, meet its diverse people, see both its ugly places and its beautiful ones. Our idea was inspired by #vanlife, the faux-bohemian, four-wheeled lifestyle movement. Why tour the country in a regular old car, camping in national parks and rooming in hotels off highway exits, when we could buy a cheap van and make it our mobile home? 

There was an important caveat. We decided to reject the cushiness of #vanlife and skip the saccharine Instagram posts. This was partly out of necessity—we didn’t have the budget for a $10,000 vintage van and a $10,000 overhaul. But we also feared the Instagramization of our lives, seeing the mountains through the lens of our camera phones. I rolled my eyes (though secretly a little jealous) at the shirtless #vanlife guys whose long captions detailed the importance of learning how to fix a timing belt with a shoelace. Rachel damn sure wasn’t going to sit naked on the roof of the van for a photo shoot every few sunrises. Social media of any kind was officially banned.

We decided, instead, to take the path of the van bums: the transients, the weirdos, the indie bands with no money. 

Even entering the vanlife world at this basic level was a challenge. We scraped together enough money to buy a van we named Little Honey, a rusty hulk that dribbled gasoline the first time I filled her up, exhibiting all the grace of an old lady peeing her pants. I paid a mechanic in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to make sure she wasn’t quite a death trap. He wiped his grease-covered hands with a dirty rag and said, “You driving across the country in this?” We worked nights and weekends to pay for repairs and exchanged rigid career paths for flexible ones. I left my job as an editor to become a freelance writer; Rachel worked in postproduction while acting, writing, and directing her own films on the side. 

Eventually, we left our expensive Brooklyn apartment behind and moved in with our parents in Pennsylvania, who helped us prepare Little Honey for the trip. My dad and I built a simple wooden bed in the back of the van, then chopped off the legs of an Ikea kitchen cart and ratchet-tied it to the frame. We had a cooler for a fridge and an old marine battery with an inverter. A friend’s mom made us curtains. We saved enough money to live for a few months without working every day. We’d be eating a lot of white rice and frozen vegetables. Life would be simple and tough and good.

I wrote about our proposed trip for a friend’s zine and declared that we would be like William Least Heat-Moon and John Steinbeck, writers on the road, seeking ourselves and America and the Great Truths—seeking, as Steinbeck put it, “bumdum.” But I didn’t finish either man’s book before the trip, nor during it. I still haven’t. Maybe because I didn’t like some of what I was reading: the loneliness, the long-drive blues, the scenes of rural emptiness, the despair and squalor of the country’s poor, the empty spaces that made up most of the adventure and left plenty of room for breakdowns of many kinds.


It was the trip of a lifetime, spread across a 13,000-mile swath of America. We opened the van’s back doors and watched the sun rise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park while snuggled under the covers in our bed. We played poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, near where Wild Bill was dealt his aces and eights, and we later gambled against one another in the middle of Kaibab National Forest, in Arizona, using Oreos as chips. We swam in Leigh Lake at the foot of the Tetons, drove Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, skimmed through the winding canyon roads of Utah, and scanned the skies for aliens outside Roswell, New Mexico. We drove ten-hour days to fit it all in, listened to thousands of our favorite songs, and had mind-bending conversations about things I’d always wanted to talk about. I was in love—with Rachel, with the van, with our trip. I fell fast asleep every night on our thin mattress, exhausted from our adventures, the summer breeze wisping through cracked windows to cool my ankles.

But the nightmares followed wherever we went. 

From the beginning, my anxieties stemmed from the van itself. On a steamy day in July, we left triumphantly from Philly, striking out from the same old ugly, crowded highways, quickly moving north on I-87, up into the green mountainsides of the Catskills of New York. But I couldn’t enjoy the views. My eyes were glued on the temperature gauge, which read “Cold  N-O-R-M-A-L  Hot” in an arc. In the fall and winter, when I’d been driving Little Honey, the needle got stuck, as if lodged between the leg of the R and the M. Now, in the 92-degree heat, it meandered up through the M and, to my horror, occasionally cut into the A. Every millimeter it rose made new parts of my body clench. What if the temperature spiked and the van died the first week of the trip, or the first day? 

It didn’t. But Little Honey did threaten to break down almost constantly. I became so attuned to her every noise that the sounds another car made passing us on the highway would make my heart stop. What was that? A misfiring cylinder? Rachel, sensing my imminent freak-out, would grab my arm and point out the window—it was just an old rattletrap pickup passing us.

Slowly, the signs built up—my nightmare was coming true. Cresting the Rockies in Wyoming, the check-engine light flicked on. Then off. Then on again, and it stayed on. A low whirring racket hummed in the engine block. On the day we were supposed to drive into Yellowstone, the whir became so loud that I couldn’t ignore it. I pulled into an auto garage inside the park. “I don’t know what the hell that is,” a mechanic told me, peering into Little Honey’s guts. “But it sure as hell don’t sound good.” He told us to find a shop as far away from the park as we could, to avoid the costly labor and long wait times. We took our rattle and fled.

In Butte, Montana, a man who reminded me of my uncle—country confident, with grease on his hands and trustworthy eyes—called us excitedly and told us he’d figured it out. “It was the dang smog pump!” he yelled. An easy fix—and cheap. I almost hugged him.

We rode on, but my nerves were shot. I couldn’t seem to shake the little voice in my head that kicked in every day when I unchocked the wheels and turned the keys in the starter: If this van breaks down, you’re fucked. I’d always wanted to be handy like my dad and uncles and cousins—the kind of men with the skill to take something apart and put it back together again, repaired. I thought that owning the van would make me handy and mechanical by necessity, and in some ways, it had: I could change a tire, no sweat, keep the simple things lubricated and topped off, even tighten the oil pan with a socket wrench to try to stop an incessant leak. But beyond that, I had failed. I still didn’t know how to diagnose a cracked head gasket or how to fix anything serious. When something bad happened (and I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would), we’d be at the mercy of some wicked small-town mechanic. 

And so the nightmares continued. In the Dakotas, I dreamed we ran out of gas. While we slept in Bryce Canyon, Utah, I dreamed that we had parked the van precariously atop a towering hoodoo. After we overheated in California, I dreamed that the van broke down in the middle of a desert and that we died of dehydration, our bodies mummified by the heat. In Arkansas, I dreamed that we ran out of money and couldn’t afford to get our belongings home. When Rachel also dreamed that the van plunged off a cliff—and then that we were parked atop the hoodoos, just like I had—I wondered if my stressful dreamworld was somehow contagious, my state of anxiety spreading like a virus.

If I was obsessing about a breakdown, I was also fixated on money and the way it seemed to flow through our wallets like water through a sieve. Living out of a van can be surprisingly expensive, especially if you’re burning through gas on long drives every couple of days. I had underestimated our costs. Working would mean stopping, extending the trip, spending even more money. I kept thinking about the saying “so poor you can’t keep mosquitoes in underpants.” I only had three pairs. We didn’t need much to survive. But the list of things we could afford was shrinking fast. I was sinking into despair: over van noises, over dollar signs, over anything and everything. 

Rachel was dealing with anxiety, too. A few months before the start of our trip, sharp, burning waves of pain began seeping down the left part of her face in a wicked cycle: eye, cheek, jaw. A cavalcade of doctors gave hazy diagnoses until we went to a crack neurologist at New York University. He saw the signs of something called SUNA, a rare headache disorder. Two anti-seizure medications finally eased the pain, but a quick Google search revealed that they could have scary side effects on one’s mental state. When I felt anxiety or black moods or lashed out, I could blame the van, money, or luck. Rachel had to wonder: Is it me? Is it the drugs? Is it both?

We rode the roller coaster together. Two days would feel like heaven, the third, hell. Simple miscommunications over nothing exploded into bruising fights. Worst of all were the days when one or both of us felt crummy for no reason at all while we were supposed to be enjoying some massive natural wonder, getting the gloomies while driving through pristine Montana countryside, feeling blue while soaking up rays on a beach in San Diego. This was entirely out of character. We teetered on the edge of paranoia. Things were supposed to be perfect. What was wrong with us? 

And then, after soaking in the mineral baths at Hot Springs, Arkansas, two months and two weeks into the trip, out of money and exhausted and having decided that we would haul ass back to Philly, ending the trip early, the van broke down outside a town called Hazen. One second we were flying down I-40, the highway flat as a frying pan, and the next I felt a bump and the engine was dead. A stripped timing gear. The thing keeping all the chaos at bay inside the engine had ripped itself apart.

Five days later, our money was gone and so was some of our family’s and so were the grand visions of adventure and struggle and self-exploration. We spent the nights in Little Rock, holed up in a cheap hotel by the highway overpass, ordering Chinese takeout and watching reality TV, wallowing in the cushiness and instant gratification we’d so longed to escape on our trip. When the van was fixed, we got the hell out of town. We sang all the way home, and cried, and celebrated the joys of every weird gas-station stop and potato-chip lunch, and said aloud that we were ending this road trip under our own power, the right way.

But we had trouble with reentry. The flatness of Pennsylvania made me sick to my stomach. It was going to take us five months living with our parents to get back on our feet financially. Which was fine. I wanted to be home.


On the road, we often found ourselves pulling into Walmart parking lots for the night. Before the trip, I had romanticized that idea: What interesting folks would we meet in these lots? People roughing it just like we were? That didn’t happen. Nobody comes up to you in a Walmart parking lot to introduce themselves, share a beer, trade stories about the road. You don’t go up to them. People are exhausted. There are cars filled with plastic garbage bags of clothes and windows fogged up by the condensation of those sleeping inside. If I ever felt desperate or lost, I’d look around and remind myself that we were lucky. One little imbalance in the chemicals washing around our brains, one crash of the stock market, one tragic death that severs the familial safety net, and we could be out here under entirely different circumstances, fighting for survival, living vanlife only because we couldn’t leave it.

We did make one parking-lot friend, in Ocean Beach, San Diego. She was in her sixties and wore a flowing white bathrobe, said she’d been living out of her camper in view of the Pacific Ocean for a while. Called herself transient by choice. She was part of a class-action lawsuit against the state of California for discriminating against the homeless. The cops sometimes came around to give people a hard time, she said, so keep an eye out. The public bathrooms were smelly, and the beach could get dicey at night. But mostly things were just fine. There were outdoor showers and the sun was shining.

When we left, she gave us a long, motherly look. “Be careful,” she said. “It can be tough out there.”

She was right, of course. Experts and researchers know that transient living can wreak havoc on anyone. It’s not just that mentally unhealthy people become homeless or transient; it’s that it’s harder to maintain healthfulness when you don’t have stability—when trouble can come at any time, in many forms. Rachel and I had our families looking out for us, and we had each other, and still we took a thrashing. 

This is something that the chroniclers of our generation’s van movement often forget, ignore, or hide. The Instagram version implies that the only side effect of #vanlife is contentment. You want to live your dream of freedom and nomadism? Do it in your van, touched only by sunshine and perfect vistas. No matter that those Instagram stars have turned their lives into businesses to gain financial stability, escaping the uncertainty that makes #vanlife both sexy and difficult in the first place. What their followers see on Instagram is raw happiness. Anxiety induced by transience doesn’t sell anything.

Whether I realized it or not, I’d thought of vanlife as a sort of test for my interest in adventure, the outdoors, freedom. The thing I was doing was a hashtag, a lifestyle, a measuring stick. If I could just figure it out, get good at it, I knew I’d be happy.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Here’s what living out of a van was: a massive stretch of raw adventure and also an earthquake, destabilizing my life, showing me I didn’t really know all that much about risk, privilege, happiness, failure, and my own mental state. Rachel and I were two tectonic plates, shearing and buckling and melding together under the pressure. When it was all over, I got to see what had crumbled—and what hadn’t. That was vanlife’s gift to me.

A Quest to Protect the World’s Last Silent Places

19 Jun

In 2005, Gordon Hempton placed a small stone on a log in the Hoh Rainforest of Washington’s Olympic National Park, one of the quietest places in the world. He dubbed his miniature cairn One Square Inch of Silence. If he could keep the rock free of human noise pollution, Hempton reasoned, many surrounding square miles would be free of it, too.

Hempton, now 66, lives in the small town of Joyce, less than 15 miles from the park. He’s been recording endangered natural soundscapes around the world for more than 37 years. A documentary he made about his work, Vanishing Dawn Chorus, won an Emmy Award in 1992. “The earth is a solar-powered jukebox,” he likes to say.

For years, One Square Inch of Silence worked: Hempton monitored the spot and alerted noisemakers—mainly commercial airlines—of their trespasses via recordings and letters. He wrote a book about it, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet, and used it to spread awareness about the beauty of natural sound. Then, last year, the U.S. Navy ramped up training flights from its nearby Whidbey Island base to a large area over the western part of the park. Growlers, as the Boeing EA-18G radar-jamming jets are called, began flying more than six missions a day, producing a rumbling on the ground sometimes topping 70 decibels, about as loud as your garbage disposal.

One Square Inch of Silence became, frequently, loud. Hempton filed a complaint during the Navy’s public-comment period, which he says was censored and never saw the light of day. Recently, Hempton admitted the project had failed and started looking for ways to move forward.

“I realized I was asking the international community to care about one place,” Hempton says. “It wasn’t enough to talk about one place. We needed to talk about all places.”

For the past year, Hempton has been working on a new project, Quiet Parks International (QPI), which aims to certify and protect earth’s natural soundscapes. If it works, it will be one of the most comprehensive, cohesive actions ever aimed at curbing noise pollution.


The problem Hempton hopes to take on is gargantuan. To understand it, try a little experiment: when you reach the period at the end of this sentence, stop reading for a moment, close your eyes, and listen.

What did you hear? The churn of the refrigerator? The racing hiss of passing traffic? Even if you’re sitting outside, chances are you heard the low hum of a plane passing overhead or an 18-wheeler’s air horn shrieking down a not-so-distant highway.

If you heard only the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, you’re one of a lucky few. But it’s likely that quiet won’t last.

Just as humans have spread colossal amounts of carbon dioxide and trash around the planet, we’ve also blanketed it in our damn racket. Air traffic has tripled since the 1980s, and the number of cars worldwide, already over a billion, is expected to reach two billion by 2030; the U.S. Bureau of Transportation estimates that 97 percent of the American population is regularly exposed to highway and air-traffic noise. And it’s not just in populated areas. A study published in Science in May 2017 found that human-caused noise had doubled background decibel levels in many of the most protected wildlife habitats worldwide. (In some endangered habitats, it increased background decibels tenfold.) Human noise is constant and practically everywhere.

Recent studies have shown that quiet can decrease stress levels and lower blood pressure and heart rate; another showed that silence helped mice regenerate brain cells in their hippocampus. On the flip side, man-made noise has been proven harmful both to people (causing high blood pressure, heart disease, and low birth weight) and especially natural ecosystems. When a researcher from Boise State University introduced a “phantom road” into pristine Idaho wilderness by simulating the din of traffic through loudspeakers, the noise alone drove a third of the local songbird population away. Some of the birds that stayed lost significant portions of their body mass, likely because they couldn’t hear to communicate or hunt.

“There is an epidemic of extinction of quiet places on the planet,” says Hempton. Haleakala Crater in Hawaii, formerly one of the world’s quietest spots, is overrun with more than 4,000 helicopter tours a year; in a recent story in The New York Times, several naturalists in search of quiet in remote regions of New Hampshire’s White Mountains were foiled by motorcycles, buses, and wailing babies. Hempton estimates that there are now fewer than ten places in the U.S. where natural noise can be heard uninterrupted by noise pollution for longer than 15-minute intervals.

The solution, he believes, is not meeting the noisemakers head-on. In 2017, Hempton and the captain of the Whidbey Island air station, Geoff Moore, went for a hike together in the Hoh Rainforest, but nothing changed. The big noisemakers, like overhead flight paths and power plants, are mostly unstoppable once they’ve been established. Instead, QPI is looking to locate the rare, relatively untouched natural soundscapes around the world and protect them before it’s too late.


The first question QPI has to answer seems simple: How quiet is quiet? Hempton and his team have already identified over 260 exceptionally quiet places around the world. Next, with the permission of local communities and governments, they hope to send out teams to certify those areas as quiet parks.

The teams will test each potential site for three consecutive days, measuring natural-noise decibels and intrusions; while no area is pristine, these readings will help them set the organization’s official standards for certification. According to Hempton, any “alarming or shocking” signature, like gunshots, sirens, or military aircraft, would immediately disqualify it from certification. Loud noises, if they’re natural, are fine.

On top of these wilderness quiet parks, they’ll also certify urban quiet parks, quiet neighborhoods, quiet hotels, and quiet marine parks, using more flexible noise standards. “We call the the urban parks quieter parks,” said Matt Mikkelson, an acoustic expert and a QPI associate adviser.

The parks could use the certification as they wish. QPI’s model has taken inspiration from the International Dark-Sky Association, which has, over the last 31 years, changed public perception on light pollution, helped enact policy on national and local levels, and established 120 locations as International Dark Sky Places. People visit these areas solely to see the Milky Way. So, QPI figures, why wouldn’t they visit a quiet park solely to hear the birds and the wind?

They’ll soon find out. In April, QPI announced its first official wilderness quiet park, a large swath of land in Ecuador that includes the Zabalo River watershed. The land for the park, about 200,000 acres, is owned by the indigenous Cofán tribe. When Hempton visited the area to record its sounds for certification, he recognized it as “a sonic eden,” the most pristine soundscape he’d ever heard.

“In a word, it’s a symphony,” Hempton says. The only sound intrusions he recorded were distant, barely audible commercial-jet flyovers every few hours.

Zabalo will be patient zero for QPI’s other main question: How much tourism money can quiet places bring in?

Proving certified quiet places as moneymakers will be vital to convincing powerful problematic entities—say, the U.S. Navy and its $68 million jets—to respect the cost of clamor. As the population continues to increase, Hempton says, “every square mile of the planet will be scrutinized for what its value is. And we believe quiet is gold.”

Tickets for the first quiet-park tourist group, which was led by Hempton and lasted 13 days in the park this June, went for $4,485 each, with half of the proceeds going to the Cofán (the other half went to a travel service; QPI and Hempton’s help was gratis). In an e-mail, Randy Borman, president of the Centro Cofán Zabalo, who worked with Hempton to create the park, wrote: “This type of trip is extremely important to the community as we work on developing our strategies for survival as a culture and a people, but also as we work to keep an intact and working environment which can in turn provide environmental services to the world at large.” Borman’s son, Josh, helped Hempton lead the first tourist group. “We’re trying to conserve our lands,” he says. “We don’t want oil companies to come in, we don’t want planes or highways going over our land.”

If the math seems straightforward, it’s not. “[Monetization is] a clever idea,” said Nick Miller, a retired acoustic engineer on QPI’s standards committee. “But it’s tricky. You’ve got to be convincing that the quiet does make a difference in visitation.” Economists have figured the math for, say, the cost impact of noise in neighborhoods around airports. But those numbers are divisive—the FAA and homeowners can feel very differently about how much roaring necessitates financial compensation. And there’s no agreed-upon cost-benefit analysis of a jet-free forest.

A bigger problem may be even more nebulous. “How do you get everybody to care about a resource to which they may never have had access?” says John Barentine, director of public policy for the International Dark-Sky Association. “If you’re a city dweller, and you don’t see stars at night, there’s a tendency to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way the world works.’ It would be the same for quiet parks.”

For now, QPI is in talks with park organizers in Sweden, Taiwan, New York City, and Portland, Oregon, where they hope to create urban quiet parks and build a grassroots movement. QPI just certified its first quiet community, Green Mountain Farm in North Carolina. And Hempton continues his stare down with the Navy in Olympic National Park. Even though the fighter-jet noise instantly disqualifies it from certification, he insists that Olympic will eventually become a quiet park. He hopes the Zabalo model can help prove to the Navy how much of the $300 million Olympic brings to the region has to do with its quiet. “The reason the Navy uses that space rather than Idaho is because they want to save fuel,” he said. “It’s an economic choice. But Olympic contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy, and the Navy doesn’t realize how they’re causing a negative economic impact.”

Activists are still fighting hard: in May, the National Parks Conservation Association (which has thrown its support behind QPI) announced it was suing the Navy for repeatedly failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the impact of its jet-training activities over Olympic. (The Navy declined to comment on the suit.)

Some days, Hempton finds the time to drive to the park and hike down the Hoh River Trail to the spot where a stone on a log still marks the one square inch he designated 14 years ago. During jet-free intervals, he listens to tree frogs croak and water droplets plop on the mossy forest floor. “For those who think of the environment and worry that the planet is coming to an end,” he says, “quiet is the total antidote. You come out with renewed hope.”

Can You Hack Coral to Save It?

13 Feb

On September 10, 2017, as Hurricane Irma drowned the Florida Keys with a five-foot storm surge and shredded houses with 130 mph winds, David Vaughan, a 65-year-old marine biologist, and Frank Slifka, a 67-year-old maintenance man, huddled inside the Elizabeth Moore Center for Coral Reef Research and hoped for the best. There were not many places to hide on the tiny spit of sand called Summerland Key, but the research center was one of them. The $7 million facility was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane and resembles a cinder block on burly concrete stilts. From the second floor, Vaughan peered into the storm to check on his house and boat next door. All he could see was the wind itself, a roaring wall of gray.

When the storm’s eye passed directly overhead, the wind died and the storm surge sucked back out to sea. Vaughan could see that his house’s roof had begun to collapse. His boat had smashed into his Prius. He had 40 minutes to save what he could before the back wall of the hurricane hit and another storm surge rushed in.

He and Slifka rushed downstairs, turned their backs on everything Vaughan owned, and got to work in the laboratory’s ground floor, rescuing thousands of tiny plaster plugs capped by dark dots the size of a pencil tip—genetically hacked coral polyps that the storm threatened to wash away. Without them, Vaughan knew, the Florida Keys might not survive the next century.


When I drove into Summerland Key three months after the storm, debris still lined the main road, piled almost as high as the three-axle trucks rumbling in to retrieve and burn it. Just 20 miles east of bustling Key West, the island remained a ghost town. Boats and trailers sat marooned on front lawns, their carcasses spray painted with the redundant tag “trash.” Many residents hadn’t returned to clean up.

The Elizabeth Moore Center's parking lot, however, was packed with cars. The building had survived the storm. Inside its thick concrete walls, offices and dorm rooms thrummed with the paperwork doldrums of scientific life. Down in the open-air ground floor, the plastic holding tanks that had overturned in the storm once again brimmed with the corals Vaughan and Slifka had saved, plus thousands of others, submerged in bubbling seawater. Grad students slowly circulated among them, staring down into the troughs, gliding suction hoses along their bottoms.

Mote's strategy hinges on farming coral in a lab. (Courtesy Dan Mele/Mote Marine Lab)
Coral must be broken apart to regrow separately. (Courtesy Dan Mele/Mote Marine Lab)

When I wondered aloud about their job, one perked up and removed his headphones. “We’re removing detritus from the bottom,” he said.

“Snail shit,” said another.

Suctioning snail shit is where the rubber meets the road for the facility’s main mission: saving coral from extinction via a groundbreaking technique of genetic modification and cloning.

Corals are strange creatures, invertebrate organisms made up of individual tentacled polyps that, under a microscope, each look like a miniature Sarlacc pit. Inside each polyp are tiny marine plankton that photosynthesize food, giving the polyp enough energy to build a calcium carbonate reef structure around itself and its neighboring polyps.

They’re also fragile. Without grad students to suction up snail shit at this stage of their lives, the polyps would be strangled by too much algae. Without carefully monitored water temperatures, the polyps would overheat and expel all their algae and bleach, a much greater danger that leads to wide-spread die offs.

Vaughan, the executive director of the Elizabeth Moore Center, has a graying castaway’s beard and cloudy blue eyes. He commutes to work every day by paddling a canoe 50 yards across Summerland Key’s canal from the dock at the back of his house, which is still standing. “People say, ‘You’re the best low-carbon-footprint commuter,’” Vaughan said. “They don’t even know that I hold my breath going across, so I’m not emitting anything at all.”

Vaughan giggles—he does that—but he’s getting at something. Since the 1970s, the greenhouse effect from the atmosphere’s absorption of carbon dioxide has raised average ocean temperatures by almost two degrees Fahrenheit. In the next 100 years, that temperature could rise by between two and six degrees more. Worse, the sea has absorbed about half of humanity’s total CO2 output, which has chemically reacted with the main substrate of the ocean, calcium carbonate—a compound that all sea animals with exoskeletons, like crabs, shrimp, clams, and coral, depend on to live—to make oceans 30 percent more acidic than they were in the 19th century. That higher acidity makes it harder for coral to build its reef structure. If ocean acidity continues to increase into the next century, it could mean reefs will begin eroding faster than they are being built—or, literally, start melting away.

The combination of warming and acidification has been devastating to coral. Since the 1970s, scientists estimate 20 to 40 percent of the world’s coral has been killed off by bleaching events caused by high water temperatures. In certain areas, it’s been worse. In 2015, 22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest living structures, died off in a mass bleaching event. A 2008 study estimated that only 2 percent of Florida’s native staghorn and elkhorn corals remain alive. And bleaching events worldwide are happening more often as earth’s average temperature climbs. Florida’s reefs have experienced bleaching events in 12 of the past 14 years.

The effects of this mass extinction are catastrophic. Never mind that reef tourism generates $5 billion annually in Florida and $36 billion worldwide. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people depend on fish stocks that are supported by the coral reef ecosystem, without which they’ll starve.

What’s more, if reefs disappear, millions of people living in these low-lying coastal regions, including the Keys, could be displaced—or drowned—by megastorms like Irma, which the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes will only get stronger in coming years due to warming ocean surface temperatures. These communities depend on fringe and barrier reefs, where corals rise like a wall from the seafloor, beating back the strength of incoming waves like defensive linemen breaking up an oncoming blitz. A study during Hurricane Wilma in 2005 found that barrier reefs attenuated 99 percent of the height of the storm’s 42-foot waves before they hit the shoreline. But the reefs pay a price for their work. Before Irma smashed into the Keys, many of its fringe and barrier reefs had been covered in hard and soft corals. Now, said Robert Nowicki, a postdoc research fellow at the Mote Marine Laboratory, the organization that runs the Elizabeth Moore Center, some of them had been “scoured almost to nothing, like the surface of the moon.” If there’s no new coral to replace the old, life as we know it along the world’s tropical coasts will almost certainly change.

Mote volunteers planted 500 Stagorn Coral on Hope Reef in June 2017. (Courtesy Conor Goulding/Mote Marine Lab)
Coral replanted by the Mote Marine Lab (Courtesy Joe Berg/Mote Marine Lab)

“Twenty-five-to-30-foot waves were hitting our reef during Irma,” Vaughan told me. “If those waves had not been smashed on the reef, then they would have smashed on our island, right here. I think our tallest buildings are 33 feet. So where would anybody run to?”

In the past five years, all these disastrous consequences for reefs have pushed coral reef restoration to the forefront of marine science. The field is expensive and controversial, but today, it’s considered the tip of the spear in the fight to help coral survive into the next century.

Scientists like Ruth Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, have recently made major strides in identifying and crossbreeding the genotypes, or genetic families, of each coral species that can survive the higher temperatures and acidification we can now expect in the coming years—temperatures and pHs that will kill and then dissolve many of the world’s less-hardy corals. The goal is to create a “super coral” that will survive an increasingly inhospitable ecosystem.

Vaughan and his team are part of this search for genetically superior corals. But their main contribution is what Vaughan calls his microfragmentation program, which both clones corals and hacks the mechanisms for their growth rates. “We can fix things that we thought impossible ten years ago,” Gates told me when I asked her about Vaughan’s work. “Really, his techniques are at the center of the question, ‘How do we build a reef?’”


Vaughan’s technique is absurdly simple: He uses a saw to chop healthy hard coral pieces into much smaller fragments; these grow back extremely quickly atop small concrete plugs and are then replanted in the sea. In essence, he’s created a sea-life version of Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Smash them up, then watch them come roaring back with a vengeance.

The technique is a vital one for the field. Coral’s biggest problems might be warming seas and rising acid levels, but those are magnified by a sad fact of life for corals: They aren’t very good breeders. “We actually didn’t know how corals reproduced until the 1980s,” Vaughan said. That’s because, as if adhering to some dirty fairy tale, corals breed only a few days a year, en masse, for around 30 minutes, shortly after the full moon in August, when they simultaneously fill the sea with their white, snowy-looking gametes in a single, very unkinky orgy.

Because of this sex tactic, only one in a million potential baby corals is successfully fertilized and survives to become a juvenile. That means it takes some corals 25 or even 50 years to successfully reproduce. Given the rate of the ocean’s decline, that’s not going to produce the genetically superior corals nearly fast enough. “We’ve probably got 50 to 100 years to act with these resistant strains of coral,” Vaughan said. “If we still don’t change in 100 years, and it keeps getting hotter and hotter—there’s certainly a limit to everything.”

Vaughan stumbled on his procedure five years ago when he accidentally broke a piece of coral in his lab and left it in the bottom of the tank. When he returned two weeks later, it and the other fragments had regrown to their original size. He’s still not sure exactly why this happens, but his closest analogy is our skin cells, which regrow quickly to cover a fresh wound but otherwise lay dormant.

Using jewelry saws, Vaughan and his team started fracturing their lab-fertilized corals. Within three to six months, they could turn a single coral into 60 to 100 new organisms the same size as the original. The fractured corals continued to grow between ten and 40 times faster than coral in the wild, depending on their species.

Then Vaughan made a much more important discovery. Because the polyps were technically all part of a single organism before they were fragmented, they were clones—and they would willingly reconstitute back into a larger organism, skipping ahead into maturity. “Usually, when corals touch each other, they start fighting, and they can kill each other,” Vaughan said. “But when we put 100 of the fragmented pieces next to each other that had come from a single original piece, they didn’t fight. They recognized each other as themselves. And they would actually start to fuse together, like skin grafting.”

A piece of coral the size of a golf ball, fractured into 20 pieces replanted side by side, could produce a single large coral the size of a pizza just four to five years later. It worked in the wild, too. In four years, Vaughan could have a sexually mature coral the size of a football or a table—depending on how many individual pieces of coral he decided to combine—which would have taken a natural coral 25, 50, or even 100 years to grow.

These quick-growing fragmented corals could be planted near one another in the wild to cross-breed and create uber-corals resistant to high water temperature, ocean acidification, and disease. When paired with the work of genetics-focused scientists like Gates, it would be like replanting a rainforest that could continue to proliferate, with offspring that grew bark strong enough to break a logger’s chainsaw.

Vaughan set a goal to plant a million corals before he retired. He and his team grew their coral output exponentially, planted multiple offshore nurseries, began making their reef-growing techniques cost-efficient, and started working to score the major state grants needed to rebuild Florida’s reef industry.

Then the hurricane hit.


Working quickly, Vaughan and Slifka saved the vast majority of the coral plugs outside the Elizabeth Moore Center—some 5,000 out of nearly 7,000. Inside the lab, another 14,000 corals rode out the storm, along with a gene bank holding the most promising genotypes of all 28 coral breeds found in the Keys.

Out in the field, acres of wild corals were sandblasted by the storm’s waves. One of the lab’s field nurseries for lab-fractured elkhorn and staghorn corals—more fragile, branching corals that look like antlers and are endangered in Florida—was almost entirely wiped out. “It was pretty disheartening,” said Erich Bartels, a staff scientist. “That coral was the result of 500 hours of work per person, per year, for seven years.”

But another field nursery for the lab’s elkhorn and staghorn farther south fared much better, with only minimal losses. And the lab’s hardier boulder corals also had a higher survival rate. “All we can do is plant as many good corals as we can," said Nowicki, "use the numbers game, and spread everything out so that a single storm can’t destroy everything we’ve done.”

Vaughan still says he won’t retire until he plants his million corals worldwide. Upscaling the process is beginning to pay off. The cost per coral has dropped from around $1,000 a piece to only $20 a piece, thanks to more efficient methods. The lab already has grants to plant between 25,000 and 50,000 corals in 2018, and by spreading his techniques to local coral restoration labs worldwide, Vaughan hopes to quickly catapult those numbers into the hundreds of thousands per year. He and his team are hoping to change the public’s attitude toward saving reefs, which, since the Great Barrier Reef’s die-off in 2015, has shifted toward hopelessness.

“One of the things that disheartens me the most is people saying, ‘Oh, we’re screwed. Planet’s over. There’s nothing we can do,’” Nowicki said. “There are things we can do. But you have to have the courage and the resources to go out and try.”

On my last day at the lab, I found Frank Slifka, the maintenance man who stayed behind to weather Irma with Vaughan. Slifka was working in the bowels of the facility, where the tidal surge had swept through during the storm, cleaning up and keeping track of diving equipment in metal wire cages.

“People ask why we stayed behind,” Slifka told me, shaking his head. “We weren’t trying to be brave or heroic or anything like that. We just decided that if we were really here to save the coral, then that’s simply what we needed to do.”