The Florida Keys is the epicenter for virtually every outdoor passion: boating, fishing and scuba diving, or a perfect place just to relax and unwind near the water.
For glasswork artist Ethan Crawford, 25, the Keys have been a source of creative inspiration and an environmental calling. Ethan particularly enjoys sculpting staghorn or any type of branching coral and sharing the message that reefs are in danger.
“Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated by how living things grow,” says Ethan, who spent most of his childhood in Kentucky, and now lives in St. Louis and ventures to Florida. “I found fossils of coral while playing in the creek in our backyard. The thought that my house was once a coral reef was cool to me.”
More than 250 million years ago, Kentucky was covered by a shallow tropical sea—not unlike the Florida Keys today.
“I went scuba diving for the first time in 2016,” Ethan says. “My brother and mother were both certified divers, and they encouraged me to get certified. Our first trip was to Cozumel, Mexico. The reef was beaming with life and vivid colors. The sea life was incredible.”
A year later, he went back to the same dive sites, and the beauty he saw was gone.
“The coral was bleached out, the color was gone, and most of the fish, eels and sea life I’d seen before left to feed elsewhere,” he says. “Heartbroken, I started researching if there was anything I could do to help.”
Ethan’s experience with dead or “bleaching” coral is a worldwide phenomenon associated with rising water temperatures. Suspected factors are pollution, climate change, global warming and overfishing.
In the Florida Keys, water temperatures frequently exceed 85 degrees in the summer, which promotes algae growth. That kills coral. In the past 30 years, the Keys has lost 80% of its coral.
“Everything we do as humans has its impact on our environment,” says Frank Slifka, director of coral programs at Captain Hook’s Dive Center in Big Pine Key. “Everything is interconnected. The challenge is how we get the farmer in Iowa or Nebraska to understand the importance of the ocean and our coral reefs.”
Ethan understands that challenge.
“As a kid growing up in Kentucky, we are all told that the reef is dying, but it’s difficult to relate to because not many people there are exposed to sea life firsthand,” he says. “Americans everywhere struggle to connect what’s happening to our coral reefs with the destruction of our own food supply, the increased damage during natural disasters, and growing risks to the health of plants, animals and humans. Witnessing the coral bleaching firsthand in 2017 changed my life forever.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Ethan’s in-person glassblowing classes slowed, he had to figure out how to make a living without earning an income from teaching. He started making TikTok videos sharing the science behind glass and livestreaming himself creating pieces.
“I was able to gain a following of over 365,000 followers and sell what I make, sometimes while I’m making it, all live on TikTok,” Ethan says. “This has been helping me reach people I never would have been able to and start the conversation about why I make my coral sculptures.”
Ethan has followers in Australia and Singapore, and has sold art to buyers in the United Kingdom and Malaysia.
In addition to donating a portion of his profits to coral restoration, Ethan is one of many scuba divers donating time to the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, which is working to save coral reefs through coral farming.
Volunteer divers receive an introductory class on how the coral farms work and the techniques used to fight growth of algae and fire coral—a marine organism similar to coral—on “pop up” coral trees. Divers help plant young coral on the ocean floor.
When divers experience the coral farm for the first time, emotions are varied. For some, it is a realization humans are witnessing a delicate life-or-death battle hanging by a string. It’s a scene eerily similar to the 1978 science fiction movie “Coma,” in which humans on life support are suspended mid-air, dangling by wires for survival and experimentation.
The coral trees are similarly on monofilament lines tethered to the ocean floor and held upright by a buoy.
Ethan’s initial reaction to viewing the coral farms was one of joy and hope.
“I felt so excited to see hundreds of super healthy corals,” he says. “Every piece of coral had polyps out. I couldn’t help but think about how happy they looked. Then seeing them transplanted was a huge eye-opener. Hopefully coral will be here longer than we will. It’s amazing to see the growth of the colonies, especially once they start merging. It gives me hope that our efforts can create positive change.
“I was totally geeked out learning about how volunteers can break this stony coral into tiny fragments, stimulate growth by hanging them from special trees allowing 360 degrees of water flow and light, and secure clones of the same coral near each other so when they grow into each other, they recognize the same DNA and form one larger coral in less time. It’s amazing to see restoration efforts firsthand, I can’t wait for my next volunteer dive.”
At home, Ethan works in stifling heat, shaping glass staghorn coral pieces in temperatures exceeding 120 degrees.
“I will continue to do whatever it takes to educate people about how critical reef health is to the well-being of all living things,” Ethan says. “Unfortunately, we are at a moment in time where coral reefs have been dying faster than they can rebuild.
“It’s scary to have the thought that some of this coral could go extinct in my lifetime, and the next generation of people will never get to experience the same reef I got to.”