Reef Balls and Eternal Reefs Create New Habitats for Animals of the Sea
The Ocean’s Forests
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After graduating from college, Todd Barber and his father nearly died crossing the Atlantic, from Miami to Bimini, in a 40-foot sailing vessel. The Barbers hoped to make the chain of Bahamian islands, about 53 miles east of Miami, in six hours. Instead, they were caught in a hurricane’s churn for three days. Hurricane Gilbert, which reached Category 5 status on the afternoon of Sept. 13, 1988, spun winds of 185 mph, moved through the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and made landfall over northern Mexico.
“It almost killed me,” Todd Barber said of the terrifying trip. “We rode 60-foot seas … and took turns strapping into the helm.” Later, he discovered that the hurricane almost wiped out the coral reefs he had enjoyed visiting in Grand Cayman every summer as a teenager. He would dive alone, plant himself on the bottom, take pictures of the reefs and watch the fish swim by. He even gave the fish pet names.
Reflecting recently on the journey that changed his life, Barber said, “It’s a blessing we survived that trip. The reef was a symbol of what I had lost. I thought maybe my job is to fix the ocean. There are lots of things affecting the oceans, not just hurricanes.”
Barber hung on to his dream of helping oceans by taking up a hobby: making an artificial reef component that would replicate and sustain coral and marine life. During his 10-year career with IBM, he conducted a series of trials and mitigated design errors with his college roommate and diving buddy, Don Brawley. The result was an artificial reef module designed in 1993 that he named the Reef Ball.
Barber transformed the hobby into a business and founded the Reef Ball Foundation in 1999. As chairman, he travels around the world restoring ocean reef habitats, working hand-in-hand with governments, businesses, individuals, schools and community organizations.
Helping the oceans did not stop there. When Brawley’s father-in-law asked to have his cremated remains put in a Reef Ball, Eternal Reefs was born. According to George Frankel, owner of Eternal Reefs, Don’s father had said, “I can think of nothing better than having all that action going on around me all the time after I am gone.” Brawley honored the request in 1999, mixing Brawley’s ashes into the Reef Ball’s concrete. Eternal Reefs, based in Sarasota, uses the balls to memorialize people and their pets. Frankel says, “I will absolutely be a Reef Ball.”