SeaWorld and Disney Contribute to Environmental Conservation with Florida Coral Rescue Center

Orlando is home to some of the most famous theme parks in the nation, including SeaWorld. Committed to the rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation of marine life, SeaWorld is working alongside various resource management agencies, like the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), NOAA Fisheries, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, and other zoological facilities, to save Florida's endangered coral reef.

SeaWorld Zoo Team at the Florida Coral Rescue Center


Located in Orlando, the Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC) is an environmental conservation effort that aims to provide a safe and stable home for coral colonies to receive world-class care from a team of coral experts. The Florida Coral Rescue Center was established for gene banking and care of corals rescued from reefs not yet affected by SCTLD across the Florida Reef Tract (Florida's Coral Reef).

"We're currently holding about 753 corals. They are big corals…larger pieces from the Keys, and they [were] all collected from the wild before the disease got to them," said Justin Zimmerman, a SeaWorld aquarium supervisor. "We hold about 18 different species of coral, and they are more of the reef-building corals and corals that protect the Florida Keys from hurricanes and flooding."

The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida holds the lease on the Florida Coral Rescue Center. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting partners to conserve Florida’s native plants, animals, and the lands and waters needed for survival, the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida has raised and donated nearly $50 to these efforts.

The Florida Coral Rescue Center boasts advanced aquarium lighting, filtration systems, and rows of saltwater tanks that are home to the rescued coral. Continued care and monitoring are provided by a team of dedicated biologists who hope to repopulate the impacted reefs and contribute to ongoing coral rescue efforts.

SeaWorld’s Sara Urbanski, who is an FCRC aquarist, shared: "One of the most rewarding parts about working on this project…is being able to see the incredible amount of growth these corals have had in the last 10 months that they have been here. When collected, each coral is mounted on a terracotta tile that serves as a stable base, or anchor, for the coral in the aquarium. The corals brought here in March 2020 are doing so well that they need to be given larger tile bases. To see the Endangered Species Act list corals like the star corals is wonderful."

The state-of-the-art facility represents how important the project really is. Jim Kinsler, SeaWorld Orlando's curator of aquariums and manager of the FCRC, said, "We spared no expense as far as the security of the corals, the monitoring of the corals, and the overall safety… We know how precious these animals are." Leveraging marine research to enhance positive outcomes, the teams focus on animal rescue and animal conservation. 

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease Hurting Florida Coastline

In 2014, a disease impacting the Florida reefs was discovered and has since grown into a severe problem along the state's coast and neighboring countries. So far, it has affected more than 95 percent of Florida's coral reef and has damaged more than 20 of Florida's approximate 45 species of reef-building coral. Corals impacted are rock like or stony and recognized for doing the “heavy lifting” in building local reefs.

The disease works fast. When it begins to kill a coral colony, the reefs collapse within weeks or months. Researchers have concluded that nearly 80 percent of infected colonies die once they've been infected. As conditions along the Florida coast worsened, marine conservation groups from around the country came together in an attempt to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, the cause of the disease is still unknown. However, as scientists continue to conduct marine research and focus on conservation, a temporary solution was proposed, and thus, the Florida Coral Rescue Center came into existence.

The search for a facility commenced in 2019, and during that time, Orlando-based coral retailer World Wide Corals Inc. reached out to help with the project's overall mission, providing equipment.

SeaWorld’s Aaron Gavin, an FCRC aquarist, shared news about his recent stretch at the new center:

Working at the Florida Coral Rescue Center has been an extremely rewarding experience because it has allowed me to contribute to something that is larger than myself. Collaborating with other aquarists from around the country to execute a common goal is an experience like no other. We all care a tremendous amount about our mission and are able to come together to share our experiences, listen, and learn from each other for the sole purpose of saving these animals and all of the life that the corals foster. The work that we are doing is unprecedented in terms of magnitude and novelty. At the center, we are caring for hundreds of corals, representing 19 species that have little to no history with human care. This project is a unique challenge, and we're having a profound impact on the future of Florida coral reefs.

While the project might be unique, Gavin's can-do attitude is shared by all involved. Like the corals they are trying to save, team members must work together as a colony. Collaboration is key to the center's success, as groups must combine resources, exchange ideas, and work in partnership.

Coral Restoration

Coordinated Efforts of SeaWorld and Disney

"This coral disease is such a serious issue, and it's moving so fast… One analogy I kind of use loosely is… a forest fire, and it's just burning through the Florida Reef Tract. So, the timing was critical," said Kinsler.

Current efforts have been coordinated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Additional participating organizations include the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida.  Additional funding organizations include Bass Pro Shops, Cabela's Outdoor Fund, and the Edith and Curtis Munson Foundation

Each partner contributes through funding, resources, and expertise, all in a collaborative effort to ensure the future of Florida reefs.

World Reef Awareness Day 2021

SeaWorld’s efforts to aid the Florida Coral Rescue Center come on the heels of World Reef Awareness Day, held on June 1st, 2021.

World Reef Awareness Day represents a call to action for businesses, organizations, and everyday people to reflect on the importance of coral reefs and their delicate ecosystem. The health of a coral reef often mirrors the health of the surrounding ocean. Many different marine animals and fish rely on a thriving coral reef for protection during spawning season. Additionally, coral reefs also supply a rich thriving food chain, supporting a wide range of sea creatures.

The purpose of World Reef Awareness Day is to spread awareness about the relatively simple changes all of us can make to improve the health of coral reefs worldwide. There are many things the average person can do to participate, from using coral reef safe sunscreen before swimming in the ocean, to eliminating reliance on single use plastics and spreading awareness about the importance of the reef ecosystem. Use the hashtag #WorldReefDay on social media, and find out more about what you can do to help on

Disney Conservation Contributions

"With the Florida coastline as home to Disney Cruise Line and part of our backyard, we want to do what we can to keep coral reefs vibrant and healthy," wrote Dr. Mark Penning, vice president of animals, science, and environment for Disney Parks.

Disney Conservation was established in 1995 and is committed to "saving wildlife and building a global community inspired to protect the magic of nature together." Its mission was inspired by Walt Disney, who said, "Conservation isn't just the business of a few people; it's a matter that concerns all of us." The Disney Conservation Fund has directed $100 million toward supporting non-profit organizations that work with communities to save wildlife, inspire action, and protect the planet. In 2007, it opened the first coral reef nursery in the Bahamas, which is committed to growing, caring for, and releasing corals back into the ocean.

Dr. Andy Stamper, Disney Conservation science manager, has been a leader in contributing to the Florida Coral Rescue Center. He said, "The effort to reverse the collapse of an entire ecosystem isn't something that can be done without the herculean efforts of many people with a diversity of talents and resources. I consider it a privilege to play even a small part in this huge effort." This is just one more way that Disney continues to contribute and promote a sustainable future for younger generations.

The effort displayed by the Disney team in preserving the coastline of Florida is just one of many contributions provided by the Disney Conservation Fund. Additional programs include those related to renewable energy, fuel conservation, sustainable design, waste reduction, responsible water use, green production, and nature protection.

Coral Growth

SeaWorld Conservation Contributions

"There's a big problem for corals in the reef down in the Keys; [they] are in dire straits, and when SeaWorld heard about it, they knew they had to react," said SeaWorld's Zimmerman.

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment is another major organization, along with Disney, that is contributing to the current disease mitigation in Florida. Its assistance has positively influenced the participating teams' ability to transition coral to the new facility. Numerous aquarists from SeaWorld have participated in the project and have shared their insight into what it's been like to be a part of such an influential team.

According to SeaWorld’s Erik Ostertag, who is also an FCRC aquarist:

Most people see corals as the background for fish in a habitat. For me, I started in reef keeping as a hobby as a teenager because of my love for fish. As I immersed myself in the care of corals and learned of their biological needs, I soon felt differently. As a professional aquarist working on this project, I have met people who feel the exact same way. We all see just how amazing and important these corals are. It is incredibly encouraging [to be] working on such a crisis. I love being part of a conservation project that is much bigger than myself. In this project, the corals are individualized and important. Each colony we have is priceless and will serve as the building blocks for Florida reefs.

The building has already begun with the unexpected birth of new corals. Jelani Reynolds, also from SeaWorld and an FCRC aquarist, noted:

Having the cactus corals (Mycetophyllia sp.) produce larvae was exciting. Their survival in the ocean is naturally challenging, and, now with SCTLD, they have it even tougher. Caring for them and getting to watch them grow has shown me exactly how tough these little guys are.

The future of the coral reef is essential for the survival of our environment. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion and offer recreation opportunities. They provide jobs and are a source of food and medicine for local communities. Globally, more than half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection. As new diseases are introduced into the environment, the efforts of organizations are required to ensure a safe and secure future for coral reefs. Without continued aid and support, the consequences will be detrimental.

The response of the SeaWorld team has been promising and is only one of its many contributions to environmental conservation, animal conservation, and marine conservation. SeaWorld is recognized as one of the world's foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal husbandry, behavioral management, veterinary care, and animal welfare. In addition to participating in the current collaboration, SeaWorld also provides the following services:

  •   Research to identify the science supporting environmental conservation, animal conservation, and marine conservation.
  •   The Rising Tide program, which helps researchers breed aqua-cultured fish and create a sustainable solution for the future.
  •   Funding and research to support killer whale research and conservation.

SeaWorld teams have helped rescue more than 38,000 animals over the last five decades. To date, SeaWorld has also given more than $17 million in support of research and conservation projects around the world.

Hope for the Future

With ongoing efforts by organizations such as SeaWorld and Disney, the future looks hopeful. The destruction caused by humans and the harm resulting from environmental responses – including the current stony coral tissue loss disease – will not deter a sustainable future so long as facilities around the world implement continued research and changes.

Lisa Gregg, Florida Coral Rescue Team co-lead, concluded:

FCRC represents hope for the future of Florida's Coral Reef. To be able to save thousands of corals from disease so that restoration practitioners can be provided the necessary stock to produce and repopulate the reef tract with new generations of genetically diverse corals is every conservation manager's dream. Florida owes a great debt to AZA, the FCRC, and all of the gene banking facilities nationwide for taking on this significant challenge and knocking it out of the park.