of the reef balls
As a boy, Alex Waters heard the song of the sea.
His childhood dreams of exploring candy-colored coral reefs and
examining aquatic ecosystems followed him into adolescence and as
his father's military career moved the family from coast to coast,
he was increasingly drawn to immerse himself in learning about what
was beneath the liquid blue.
Today, Waters shares his passion for the ocean with his Mandarin
High School students; he teaches marine biology. But his lessons go
much deeper than classroom lectures and textbook training.
Under Waters' tutelage, students not only learn about complex
subaquatic communities, they also help cultivate those communities
by creating underwater habitats known as reef balls.
The reef balls -- dome-shaped concrete structures filled with
holes -- are strategically dropped into the ocean, where they act as
artificial reefs, restoring marine life where natural reefs have
been damaged or creating a reef where none previously existed.
"I like to keep my class interesting, keep it fun and keep it
hands-on," Waters said. "The reef ball program is the most hands-on
project I can imagine."
Christen Murphy, a student who took Waters' marine biology class
last year, said being in his class and participating in the reef
ball program inspired her to change her career path. She had planned
to major in marine mammal psychology, but after taking Waters' class
and learning more about marine life, she decided to also pursue a
marine mammal veterinary degree.
"Of all the teachers I've ever known, Mr. Waters is the best as
far as getting the kids involved," Murphy said. "He makes kids want
Along with inspiring his students, Waters also impressed his
peers at Mandarin High School, who voted him teacher of the year for
2001. Additionally, he was voted teacher of the year for the region,
which includes three other high schools.
"He is an excellent teacher, coach, mentor and motivator," said
Milton Threadcraft Jr., principal of the high school. "The reef ball
project has been very successful here and regionally because of
Waters' accomplishments were also recognized at the state and
national level last year. He received the Florida Marine Educators
Association educator of the year award, and his class -- one of only
eight in the nation -- received an award, including a $10,000 grant,
from Sea World of California. The World Environment Excellence Award
recognizes the outstanding efforts of students across the country
working at the grass-roots level to protect and preserve the
environment, and Waters was commended for providing students with a
unique educational opportunity and garnering the community support
to make the project possible.
"We stood head and shoulders above the rest because of the amount
of community support we received," Waters said.
Besides educating others, Waters gives back to the ocean by
serving as president of the Jacksonville Reef Research Team, a
non-profit volunteer organization that uses research diving to
deploy, monitor and enhance off-shore artificial reefs.
The team, which has about 35 active divers, performs three types
of dives: pre-deployment dives to determine where reef balls should
be placed; mapping dives to see exactly how the balls lie after they
are dropped; and monitoring dives to count the fish that inhabit the
Waters said his personal goal is not necessarily to make more
fish for fishermen, but to provide his students with a project that
makes them aware of stewardship and providing a habitat for
"Reefs are the most biologically diverse ecosystem on Earth," he
said. "They are one of nature's crown jewels."