Shelby Thomas diving in front of a coral reef

Business & barnacles

Deep beneath the surface of the sea lies a coral reef with the lower half of a mermaid statue fixed on it. A diver approaches, causing a multitude of colorful fish to dart away. The diver situates her upper body above the mermaid tail and extends a thumbs-up, posing for the photo op.
Shelby Thomas

Divers are able to live this experience through artistic, artificial reefs that are being deployed in the Atlantic Ocean by the Ocean Rescue Alliance (ORA), a nonprofit marine conservation and restoration organization that is seeking to preserve and restore marine ecosystems. This organization was founded by Shelby Thomas, a PhD candidate at UF, and she now serves as the organization’s CEO.

Shelby Thomas (BS ‘16, MS ‘18, PhD ‘23) is passionate about ecosystem conservation. Over the years, she has become an expert in marine restoration and conservation, working hands-on to sustain and restore marine environments. Thomas has obtained her master’s degree in Marine Ecology and is currently completing her PhD in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at UF.

While at UF, Thomas learned about the Gator Hatchery and connected with its resources with hopes to scale her organization. The Gator Hatchery is a program supported by the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center for UF students bringing their businesses through the early stages of growth.

“I discovered the Gator Hatchery through another student member this year and have truly enjoyed getting to know the student business community,” she said. “I think more science majors need to become aware of the opportunities and resources that are available. I wish I had found out sooner!

“I believe everyone should have some business exposure and experience that can aid in developing business models that can scale environmental work.”

Among her many goals for marine conservation, Thomas is inspired to engage communities in her efforts. By creating artificial reefs with artistic designs, communities can become involved with her projects and feel connected with the work being done. From ancient Mayan reefs, mermaid tails to memorial plaques, ORA reef designs target to engage meaningful artistic concepts in order to connect community, culture and history. These sites also become unique ecotourism destinations to benefit the public and bring awareness.

The ORA’s artistic, artificial reefs have been wildly successful, received enthusiastically by communities and divers alike. The reefs have also proved to be beneficial to marine environments, providing habitats for aquatic creatures and aiding in marine restoration in the underwater ecosystem.

As she moves forward with her business, Thomas plans to finish her PhD and expand her organization’s services to continue their work in environmental restoration and conservation. She also has plans to create another business that will complement the same mission with artificial infrastructure for coastal resilience and protection.

To those questioning whether to start their own business, Thomas offers encouragement.

“If not now, then when?” she said. “I encourage everyone to pursue their passion. The amount of free resources for building websites and enabling business exposure is much greater than it has been in previous years. This provides an advantage when creating a lean start-up that enables people to conserve funding and resources while growing a company organically.

“I want to empower others to pursue what they love and encourage them that they can create an impact in the world by doing that.”