Eat Em’ to Beat Em’

Greetings once more fellow divers. With REEF’s mission being marine conservation through citizen science and education, there are plenty of opportunities to engage the public and raise awareness for several problems our earth’s oceans face. One of the big problems that is seen worldwide is the presence of invasive species. Like unwelcome dinner guests, they come from far away, make a mess, and create a giant problem that must be dealt with. One of the worst offenders is right here in our back yard. The stretch from as far south as Brazil and as far north as New York and New England. They are found all throughout the Caribbean and Gulf and are as harmful as they are pretty. If you read the previous passage and guessed Lionfish, you are correct!

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Originally from the Red Sea and the Indo-pacific region, Lionfish have made themselves quite comfy on our reefs, gobbling up and consuming more than their fair share of native reef fish. Their stomach can enlarge 33 times its normal size, with dense populations consuming 460,000 prey fish/acre/year. Their gluttonous eating habits can reduce fish prey populations by up to 90 %. They can be found in as shallow as a few inches of water, down all the way to 1000 ft.  They become sexually mature in less than a year, and can spawn throughout the year, every 4 days. On top of that, a single egg sack can contain 12,000 to 15,000 eggs, and is carried great distances via ocean currents. If their eating habits and reproductive habits were not bad enough, they are armored like tanks with 13 venomous spines on its back, 1 on each of the pelvic fins, and 3 in its anal fin. While not lethal, the venom is able to give any unsuspecting predator or diver a very painful memory. Altogether, it sometimes seems these guys were manufactured in a lab by some evil genius scientists that had a grudge against coral reefs, or had simply seen one too many creature features during the weekends.

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All hope is not lost. Lionfish have one Achilles fin: they are absolutely delicious. And thus the strategy of eat em’ to beat em’ was born. REEF has been at the forefront of Lionfish management since 2005. Through workshops and educational events, the organization has been working relentlessly to raise awareness of the striped menace, as well as educate divers and community members what they can do to be part of the solution. And the solution is tasty. Solutions such as ceviche, cocoanut crusted, blackened, grilled, the list goes on and on. To really spread the word, as well as remove as many lionfish from the reefs as possible, REEF has been organizing large events known as Lionfish Derbies. At these derbies, teams of 4 compete to see who can catch the most, the biggest, and the smallest, with large cash prizes for the best fish hunters. Not only do these events usually remove hundreds of the harmful species, it also attracts a large group of people who are interested in learning more. Education can be through filleting and preparation, public dissections, and simply answering any and all question people might have.

This summer I was able to help out at 3 official REEF derbies, and 2 sanctioned derbies. Locations included the Gold Coast, Abaco, Sarasota, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach. My duties ranged from manning the merchandise table, to helping score fish, to filleting. Each was a fantastic time, with the excitement from the quick pace requiring efficiency, good communication, and duty flexibility that reminds one of the excitement and adrenaline from a good roller coaster or drift dive.

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Until next time! Happy diving everyone

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Celebrating World Oceans Day with Coralpalooza!

Howdy one and all! Being part of any organization that emphasizes marine conservation, World Ocean’s day is a big deal. While it is true that world oceans day is every day here at REEF, it’s great to see other conscience divers come together to make a difference. This World Ocean’s Day I had the great fortune to see up close the result of everyone’s team work.

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One of the advantages to living and working in Key Largo is the large quantity of non-profit and marine conservation organizations that exist right around the corner. As an intern, we are encouraged to take time to volunteer at these other organizations. For World Ocean day, I had the privilege of volunteering with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) during their Coralpalooza event.

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CRF focuses on the restoration of coral reefs by actually growing elkhorn and staghorn corals in offshore nurseries. In the nurseries, there are several PVC “trees” that are tethered to the bottom and made buoyant through the use of subsurface floats. On these trees, the corals are hung using monofilament line and allowed to grow. Once they reach a certain size, the coral is then fractured into smaller pieces and tagged. Some of the fragments will be placed back into the nurseries where they will be allowed to grow until they are big enough to repeat the process. Other fragments will be selected to be planted out on select sites on the reefs.

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Coralpalooza attempts to bring a greater recognition to World Ocean’s day, as well as conservation issues facing the earth’s oceans. During the event, I was a member of two teams. On the first team, we worked in the nursery. On the first dive, group leaders cut the large staghorn coral, while the rest of the team tagged all corals selected for out planting, and hung the remaining fragments back on the trees. On the second dive, we preformed some cleaning and maintenance on the trees. Fire coral, other growth, and any biofouling organisms are cleaned off the trees to ensure the best growing conditions. During the afternoon dives, the team worked on using non-toxic epoxy to plant the harvested coral from the nurseries at various reefs in Key Largo. Our site was particularly shallow and the surge was intensive. It was hard work, but very rewarding and extremely fun!

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Having done most of my undergraduate research on oysters and corals, it was refreshing to take a break from fish and work with invertebrates once more. I thoroughly enjoyed my time volunteering with CRF, and am most grateful for hosting the event and allowing myself and many others to make a difference.  I look forward to continue sharing more wonderful experiences with everyone. Best Fishes and happy diving!

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Toughing it out in Paradise

Things are going great as a REEF intern. One of REEF’s current major projects is the study, removal, and public education of the invasive Lionfish. Part of studying invasive lionfish involves various projects such as the impacts of the lionfish derbies and the traveling tendencies of lionfish. One current lionfish project aims to see if lionfish prefer one type of structure over another (Vertical vs. Horizontal). As interns, we are given the opportunity to assist in the project, diving to conduct surveys and collect data. However, the project is not set in Key Largo. In fact, it is not even setup in the United States. The site of the project is in the Sea of Abaco, between Great Abaco and Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas.

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The journey began early one Tuesday, as we drove from Key Largo to Fort Lauderdale. Once there, we took a quick, 1 hour flight over the Great Abaco Island. Once we landed, we transferred to a van and proceeded North. The final leg of the journey involved taking a ferry ride to Green Turtle Cay (pronounced ˈkeɪ/). The first day was mostly travel, some grocery shopping, as well as preparing all arrangements for the next day, such as tanks, weight, boat etc.

On day two, we began work bright and early. We loaded up and headed out to our study sites. For the first 2 or 3 sites, we observed and learned how to lay a transect, inspect the structure, and perform the surveys. We also collected equipment that was being used to monitor select sites. Throughout the day, our survey technique improved. Throughout the day we kept our dive gear on: Reach the site, splash in, conduct the survey, and return to the boat to move on the next site. Dives lasted 5-7 minutes and our max depth was 15 ft. We were tested physically, as we did a succession of multiple quick dives that required entering and exiting the boat in full gear, and mentally, as we faced many heavy rain storms that reduced visibility. Day three was more forgiving as we had clear sunny skies and better visibility. In total, we did 37 dives over the course of 2 days.

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Day four was a bit of a day off. Instead of conducting research, we took time to take the boat out and snorkel various areas. We also had the opportunity to learn how to spear lionfish. Since harvesting any marine animal in the Bahamas on open circuit is illegal, we had to free dive and spear. It was quite the adrenaline rush. You circle the surface, like a shark, waiting to spot the colorful pattern of a lionfish. As soon as you do, you take a series of big drawn out breaths, slowing your heart rate down. You dive down, slowly approaching the unsuspecting invader, aiming the pole spear right behind the gills at a perpendicular angle to the fish. With the shot lined up, you release the spear.

As luck would have it, during our stay in Green Turtle Cay, the 8th annual Abaco Lionfish derby was taking place. The Abaco derby was the first Lionfish Derby back in 2008, and it is still going strong with great participation and results. The derby also gave us a chance to conduct surveys pre and post derby, to see how effective the event was in reducing the Lionfish population in the area.

After 5 days, it was time to head home to analyze the data. While short, the opportunity to help with research was quite the memorable experience. Even though it proved challenging, I loved every minute of it. It may be a hard life some times, but I would not want to be doing anything else. Until next time!

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Wisconsin – Saint Croix River National Scenic Riverway & Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

I landed in Denver the night of July 22nd. Susanna Pershern, the SRC’s Audio/Visual Specialist, graciously picked me up after my late flight and offered to put me up for the night. The next morning, Brett, Susanna, and I packed up the Suburban and the trailer with tanks, dive gear, cameras galore, and enough snack food for a cross-country road trip and headed out on our 15-hour drive to Wisconsin.

We left the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado behind as they slowly turned into rolling hills before completely fading away to the flat plains of Nebraska. Since I hadn’t seen either of them in a month, the first few hours were full of conversation as we exchanged stories of our travels over the last few weeks. Somewhere along the freeway in Nebraska, we decided to listen to the book Wake of the Perdido Star by actor Gene Hackman and Dan Lenihan, the founding chief of the SRC. As the sun set, I drifted in and out of sleep to visions of sailing ships, fighting pirates, and a little old town in Massachusetts. We split the trip up by staying a night in Lincoln. But we started the second day of the trip right where we left off with cow pastures out our window and the discovery of treasure on a Caribbean island. The hours passed as the cornfields of Iowa transitioned into the wooded areas and lakes of Wisconsin. By nightfall we had made it to our hotel in Siren, Wisconsin.

The reason Brett, Susanna, and I drove to Wisconsin was to spend a few days working with the kids of Northwest Passage. Northwest Passage offers a variety of services including a comprehensive assessment center as well as intensive residential treatment for children and adolescents struggling with their mental health. Over the past 40 years, Northwest Passage has developed an innovative program that combines both traditional mental health treatments with multiple experiential therapies. One such experiential therapy program is In a New Light, a therapeutic nature photography program aimed at empowering marginalized youth by encouraging artistic expression in tandem with outdoor exploration.

For the past few years, the National Park Service and the SRC have helped fund In a New Light via small grants. However, until this year, no one from the SRC had made it out to visit the Northwest Passage kids. But when Brett first explained to me what it was, I knew I had to jump on the opportunity to see the program for myself, interact with the kids, and experience the transformation. Having grown up with many of my friends struggling with their own mental health issues, I found the goal and mission of Northwest Passage to be remarkable and one that was close to my heart. I fell asleep excited; I looking forward to being a part, however small, of the healing process of these kids.

On our first morning, we met up with Ben Thwaits, director of the program, at the In a New Light gallery. Created with the intention of providing a venue to proudly display the work produced by the kids, the public gallery is impressive to say the least. Inside, breathtaking work from Passage graduates adorned the walls in various collections from different trips they have taken over the years. I was shocked by the quality of work that was hanging on the walls. I found myself wishing I were as good of a photographer so that I could capture moments so perfectly.

 

Along the back wall hung an exhibition entitled “Under the Surface”. The stunning collection was comprised entirely of shots taken by the kids using underwater cameras in the local rivers and lakes. In fact, over the next two days, we would be joining both the boys’ and girls’ field trips to the local Saint Croix Riverway in order to explore the river and take some underwater pictures with them.

Later that morning, Ben took us to the Gordon dam on the St. Croix River where we met up with the Passage girls, their teachers Kelly and Ian, and Toben Lafrancois, a biologist and co-founder and director of the New Light Under the Surface program. After donning our gear, Ben and Toben gathered everyone around for introductions and a safety orientation. Due to recent heavy rains and flooding along parts of the St. Croix, the water was moving faster than usual over the dam and everyone was asked to be cautious and stick with their buddies.

As soon as Ben was done talking, they darted out into the river in pairs. Armed with only a camera and snorkel gear, the girls spent almost five hours in the water taking pictures of mussels, crawfish, freshwater sponges, snails, and the dam. It was amazing to watch the whole process. Some were constantly moving, flitting between subjects, exploring further downstream then back upstream, trying to take lots of pictures in a variety of habitats. Others girls were very patient and would stay in the same spot for a long time trying to get that perfect shot. They weren’t afraid to ask questions or help each other out by offering advice on how to shoot a certain subject.

  

The next day, we took the boys out on the river, about a half-mile downstream, just at the end of some exciting rapids. Initially it seemed as if there weren’t as many typical subjects to photograph, and I was worried that the boys wouldn’t enjoy it as much, but they spent just as long out on the water getting some wonderful shots of fish, grasses, an old dock, and the rapids. The boys even managed to find a plethora of discarded items on the hard bottom including a fishing rod and a tackle box.

Being out on the river with the kids was a blast. I loved working with them and watching them splash about and have fun with their friends while exploring the world, satisfying a curiosity, and building meaningful relationships, reminding me what it’s like to be a kid. And that was the beauty of it all. When they were in the water, they forgot about their issues; they were just kids. You couldn’t tell they were troubled at all. They were normal kids who just needed the time, tools, and encouragement to explore their world, develop relationships, and express themselves. And that is what Northwest Passage is doing for these kids.

On Wednesday, we took three of the Passage guys a few hours north, up to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on the southwestern shore of Lake Superior for the day. Lake Superior is known for its shipwrecks so Ben and Brett were hoping to get the guys snorkeling in a new environment with new subjects, maybe a shipwreck or two, to photograph. We were on our way to a wreck, but the Coast Guard had other plans for us. They had gotten a call for distressed kayakers and they needed all NPS vessels to head to the location to try to get eyes on the kayakers. By the time we got there, another boat had already sighted them and had started guiding them into shore. As we started heading back out for our planned day on the water, the Coast Guard showed up to take control of the situation.

We spent the afternoon snorkeling in a bay next to some photogenic cliffs before heading over to two shipwrecks – the Ottawa and the H.D. Coffinberry. The guys really enjoyed exploring the two shipwrecks, so much so that we had to call them out of the water because it was getting late.

 

When we got back to dock, I went to grab something out of the car when I overheard the three Passage guys gawking about how awesome the day was and that absolutely made my day. It may not seem like a lot, but to hear three young teenage boys say that to each other without being asked by an adult means that they must’ve had a fantastic time out on the water. Ben told me later on that on the drive home the guys could not stop talking about it and that one of the guys seemed really serious about joining the Coast Guard. It’s amazing to think that the events of one day could change a person’s life course and give them a new goal, a new dream to work toward.

On our last day in town, Brett, Susanna, and I went out on Lake Superior with Toben and a Passage graduate to do some basic photographing of the park. David Cooper, our boat operator, brought us to the backside of Devil’s Island where wave action over time has carved out sea caves in the rock face on the north side. We all dove in so that we could take pictures of this magnificent natural façade.

However, about halfway through the planned dive I realized the waterproof battery cover on my camera had opened. Susanna and I immediately called our dive and headed back to the boat to dry my camera. I remember panicking thinking about how I lost all of my pictures and how Brett was going to kill me, but I did everything I could to dry the camera as quickly as possible, so all that was left to do was wait. Thankfully, the following morning, as we were packing up the car to head back to Denver, I put the battery pack back in after leaving it out all night to dry and the camera was working fine. I definitely learned my lesson to upload my pictures every night!

Thanks to Brett and Susanna for allowing me to come along on the road trip to Wisconsin and for taking me on my first cold water dive ever! Another thanks to Ben and Toben for doing what you do for the kids at Northwest Passage. You two are impacting the lives of these kids every day and helping them turn their lives around. It is just remarkable. Lastly, a special thanks goes out to the kids of Northwest Passage who impacted me in an indescribable way.

 

 

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Wait, what kind of fish was that again?

Greetings once again! Even in such a short amount of time, so much has gone on. There is never a dull moment at REEF, with plenty do. Due to the diverse range of work we do as interns, there is plenty to share and talk about.

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REEF’s mission is to educate and enable divers to become active stewards and citizen scientists. Data collected by REEF and its’ members is used by researchers to monitor health and biodiversity of fish species worldwide. REEF provides members with various resources to learn fish identification such as identification books and fish ID webinars. They also provide members with underwater paper and slates to record the species and number of fish seen during a survey. Divers conducting a survey assign each fish species they see an abundance category. The categories are: single (1), few (2-10), many (11-100), or abundant (101+). The data is then uploaded online and added to the vast REEF database.

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As an intern, one of our perks is the opportunity to take a half day during the week to go out on one of the local dive boats and conduct fish surveys. Since the beginning of the internship, I have conducted 19 Surveys and am working on becoming a level 3 surveyor. As a REEF member, there are different levels of surveyors. Everyone starts as a level one (novice) because everyone knows at least one fish. After conducting 2 surveys, and passing a level 2 quiz with 80% or better, a diver can advance to level 2 (Beginner). After 25 surveys and passing the level 3 quiz, a diver becomes a level 3 surveyor (advanced). Level 4 and 5 are expert surveyors and require even more dives and a greater range of knowledge of fish species as well as their phases.

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Fish identification really keeps you on your toes. It requires a lot of time and dedication to learn the many species found in the Water of the Tropical Western Atlantic Region. It also requires a keen eye and patience as fish come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and variations making them hard to identify sometimes. Although large reef fish are cool, there is just something so exciting about finding small blennies and gobies that are the size ones pinky finger. With each dive, my range of fish which I can identify grows and with each survey I get more excited to test my knowledge. The fish ID has even pushed me to start working on improving my underwater photography skills to keep a record of what I see and to double check my survey data. Diving with a purpose also makes diving more enjoyable. I can’t imagine ever being able to go back to just diving and not having a slate in my hands.

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With summer passing by, that means Lionfish Derby season and Kids camps are almost upon us. Looking forward to sharing more wonderful experiences with everyone really soon! Best Fishes and Happy diving
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Greetings everyone!

Hi everyone! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Patrick Peck, I am a Geoenvironemental Studies Major with a Biology minor and GIS certificate. I am currently attending Shippensburg University in South Central Pennsylvania, and expect to graduate this December. My passions are rooted in the outdoors, specifically in exploring and helping protect and conserve our aquatic world. Thanks to OWUSS, I will have the opportunity to do just that. This summer, I will have the honor of being the Dr. Jamie L. King REEF Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) Marine Conservation Intern.

I am deeply grateful for the funding and support of the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society. Everyone from the society has been immensely kind and helpful as this journey begins to unfold. I would also like to thank REEF for hosting the internship and giving me the opportunity to work, learn, and dive in the exciting and fun field of marine conservation. As appreciative as I am for this wonderful opportunity, I would also like to thank all those who have helped me get to this point, specifically the staff, faculty, and educators of the Geography and Earth Science Department at my school for preparing me and helping guide me in my academic pursuits, and the Chincoteague Bay Field station where I have begun my foray into Marine Science.

Living in Pennsylvania, the trip to Key Largo is about an 18 hour, 1,200 mile journey. Being a long voyage and summer, one’s first thought is usually road-trip. Unfortunately, during long car rides, I tend to get rather bored after the 5 hour mark. Thus, I took the less exciting train option. Amtrak operates a train from Lorton, Va to Orlando, FL where passengers can park their vehicles in specialized cars in the back, and enjoy the option of napping whenever one pleases toward the front. So after a series of long naps, I arrived in Orlando early one morning, and finished the uneventful journey to Key Largo.

While the trip down was uneventful, the internship has been far from that. In the first week alone, we had the opportunity to go diving and conduct our first fish survey (more on that in the next blog post), kayak through the mangroves at John Pennekamp State Park, dissect a lionfish, and assist in one of our first REEF events, one of the monthly Fish ID presentations. As well as all the fun and excitement of field work, the other interns and myself have been hard at work learning where everything is around the office, how to handle storefront orders and materials, and all the effort and work that goes into working at a non-profit. While REEF does keep us busy, I am so excited to be working all summer with such a fantastic and passionate group of people. I look forward to sharing all of this summer’s adventures so stay tuned for more!

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2016 AAUS Lee Somers Internship – MarEx and Black Gill Shrimp

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The summer is flying by! I have been working at the MarEx aquarium at Skidaway Island a lot since my last blog. I have learned so many things. I have been on reptile duty for a few weeks wihch includes cleaning the filters in the mud turtle, snapping turtle, and diamondback terrapin tanks, as well as providing fresh water for the snakes and lizards. I also get to feed these reptiles on occasion. At the aquarium I also help by cleaning protein skimmers and tanks and by feeding the fish. I went with the MarEx Aquarium to Beach Week on Tybee Island, which is sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Our theme was marine debris education and I created posters, helped design an activity, and played a game to speak to beach-goers about marine debris. It was a lot of fun! The MarEx Aquarium has two loggerhead turtles on display. One of whom is a three year old named Rider and it will be released into the wild soon. I was also able to aid in some sea turtle husbandry this week. I helped take Rider out of the tank and carry it to a small pool outside so that Rider could have a sun bath. The aquarium has UV lights above Rider’s tank, but there is nothing quite like real sunshine! MarEx Aquarium also has weekly summer camps for kids. I was able to go fishing and trawling with the summer camp groups as a volunteer camp counselor. During the fishing trip my group caught: 18 sharks, 2 stingrays and a blue crab! The trawling trip was aboard the Sea Dawg, a MarEx vessel and we caught sharks, crabs, shrimp and various species of fish. I really enjoy spending time teaching children about marine and aquatic organisms.

This summer I have also been working with Dr. Marc Frischer, a SkIO faculty member. One of his graduate students, Ashleigh, is working on black gill shrimp research. She is doing mortality experiments on local shrimp to study black gill. Some shrimp get their gills infected with a ciliate which causes an immune response of producing melanin, thus turning the gills black. I help with daily shrimp counts where we check the shrimp for black gill and feed them. If a shrimp dies, it gets measured and the gills are preserved for future molecular work. I helped Ashleigh break down the first experiment last week, and then went on a collection trawl in order to start the second experiment. I was also able to go on a research cruise with the Frischer lab as well. SkIO has a research vessel called the Savannah and it has a huge A frame and J frame winches for trawling, plankton tows and CTD casts. We spent 2 days on the ship doing plankton tows and CTD casts looking for gelatinous plankton called Doliolids. We did not find any Doliolids on the cruise even though the water conditions were good. We did catch some ctenophores in the plankton tows, which was pretty cool. The research cruise was a blast.

I am looking forward to the last 3 weeks of my internship! I will be traveling to Pensacola, FL next week to do some diving (finally!).

 

Dolphins playing in the wake of the Sea Dawg

Dolphins playing in the wake of the Sea Dawg

Beach Week games!

Beach Week games!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

Beach Week!

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Immersion suit safety drill

Immersion suit safety drill

Safety drill

Safety drill

 

The Big Bongo plankton net

The Big Bongo plankton net

CTD

CTD

CTD cast

CTD cast

Ctenophore caught in plankton tow

Ctenophore caught in plankton tow

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The oyster on the right is a male and has just spawned!

Oyster spawning

Oyster spawning

Trawl catch

Trawl catch

juvenile sharpnose shark caught in trawl

juvenile sharpnose shark caught in trawl

Squid friend caught in the trawl

Squid friend caught in the trawl

RV Savannah

RV Savannah

Putting Rider back into his tank

Putting Rider back into his tank

trawl net in the water

trawl net in the water

 

The otter doors to the trawl net

The otter doors to the trawl net

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Rider getting a sun bath!

Rider getting a sun bath!

Carrying Rider back to the aquarium

Carrying Rider back to the aquarium

 

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Key West – Dry Tortugas National Park

Another beautiful sunset from the roof of Fort Jefferson

Another beautiful sunset from the roof of Fort Jefferson

The morning of July 11th, I met up with Mike Feeley and Jeff Mills in Miami. With the 26-foot Twin Vee Catamaran in tow, we began making our way down to Key West. The drive down Overseas Highway is one of my favourite drives – 120 miles of palm trees and clear blue water out both windows. In fact, I just made this drive at the end of May with my undergraduate research lab. Every summer, Dr. Malcolm Hill’s lab at the University of Richmond travels down to Summerland Key to spend a week or two doing fieldwork with marine sponges. So I’ve made this drive for the past three summers and it’s come to be quite familiar.

SFCN crew: (front) Mike Feeley, me, Rob Waara, Nicole Palma, Erin Nassif, Lee Richter, Jeff Miller MV Fort Jeff crew: (back) Brian, Mikey

SFCN crew: (front) Mike Feeley, me, Rob Waara, Nicole Palma, Erin Nassif, Lee Richter, Jeff Miller
MV Fort Jeff crew: (back) Brian, Mikey

Mike and Jeff are two of the biologists working for the South Florida/Caribbean Network (SFCN) and this week I was joining their crew. SFCN is one of 32 NPS Inventory and Monitoring Networks across the country. These I&M Networks are in charge of collecting and analyzing natural resource data for parks and then providing them with information that can be integrated into park planning and management strategies. Specifically, on this trip to Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO), we would be performing annual benthic surveys on sites that the SFCN has been monitoring for years.

I was surprised when we pulled up to the Naval Air Station in Key West, but this was where we were meeting the Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson. The MV Fort Jeff is a supply vessel for DRTO owned and operated by the National Park Service that would serve both as our transportation to and from the park, in addition to our housing for the next 10 days. When we pulled up to the bulkhead where the MV Fort Jeff was docked, my eyes widened with excitement. I’ve never even seen a full-scale research vessel before (aside from on TV specials on the Discovery channel) and I was so eager to be spending my week on board.

The Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson

The Motor Vessel Fort Jefferson

Shortly after we arrived, Rob Waara and Lee Richter, the other half of the SFCN staff, and interns Erin Nassif and Nicole Palma pulled up to the dock with a truck packed to the brim with supplies for the week. On their way down, they had gone grocery shopping to get food for the eight-person team for our 10-day voyage, a very important task. We spent the afternoon unloading the trucks, launching the Twin Vee, and double-checking we had everything we would need for the expedition before settling into our quarters.

Our cabins aboard the MV Fort Jeff

Our cabins aboard the MV Fort Jeff

The next morning, it was all hands on deck as we helped Captain Tim, Brian, and Mikey push off out of Key West at 0700. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, the Dry Tortugas can only be reached by boat or seaplane. Ever since their discovery by Ponce de Leon in the early 16th century, the Dry Tortugas have had an incredibly rich history. The location at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico made them an incredibly important stop along shipping routes heading into or out of the Gulf. As such, a fort was commissioned to be built in the early 1800’s by the United States. During the Civil War it remained in Union hands as a naval base and later was used as a prison. Though it was never technically completed, the Fort Jefferson stands as the largest masonry structure in the Americas, with 16 million bricks making up the imposing three-story, hexagonal fortress. Today, its casemates house National Park Service staff and thousands ofvisitors flock to the park to walk the parade grounds of this historic structure.

A view of the parade grounds of the Fort Jefferson.

A view of the parade grounds of the Fort Jefferson.

A hermit crab crosses the wooden bridge on his way to visit the Civil War fort.

A hermit crab crosses the wooden bridge on his way to visit the Civil War fort.

A look back in time at the casemates of former prisoners.

A look back in time at the casemates of former prisoners.

After about 4 hours of cruising the open water, the Civil War fort appeared on the horizon. As we approached Garden Key and the bricks began to take on shape, I was taken aback. The fort, surrounded by a moat (which I discovered later had a crocodile living in it), looked like something out of a medieval fairytale. This and the 100-square miles of ocean surrounding the fort would be our stomping ground for the next 10 days.

Surrounded by a moat, the Civil War fort seems like something from medieval times.

Surrounded by a moat, the Civil War fort seems like something from medieval times.

That evening, we went over the game plan for the week. SFCN has been monitoring three sites at DRTO – Bird Key, Loggerhead Key, and Santa’s Village. Each site is comprised of multiple permanent 10-meter transects that are surveyed to monitor coral species, colony counts, and cases of disease. As the only things marking the permanent transects are metal pins fixed to the reef, the dive operations would be divided into two teams. The navigation team would dive first in order to locate the pins using compass bearings and distances and lay down the 10-meter transect tape between the two pins. The survey team would then drop, perform the survey, and collect the tapes.

The next day we loaded the Twin Vee with all our dive gear, a water jug, and a lunch cooler and set out on our first day of surveys. As my coral identification is not as practiced as that of Mike and Jeff (who have been doing this for years now), I joined the navigation team. Equipped with a compass, transect tapes, and a slate with pictures of the site, Lee, Nicole and I splashed in to lay down the transects for the survey team. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out to be an exciting challenge. Distances and bearings were not always enough to find the pins. Oftentimes they were covered with algae, hidden at the base of a sea fan, or overgrown by a sponge. Most of the time we relied on the pictures of the site to locate the pins, sort of like an underwater game of “I spy…”. When we came up for our surface interval, the survey team would go down to work on the transects we set out. We repeated this process again before it was time to head back in to the MV Fort Jeff for dinner.

Erin returns from tying the transect off to the end pin.

Erin returns from tying the transect off to the end pin.

Lee searches for the end pin of the transect. It was hidden underneath overgrowth of algae.

Lee searches for the end pin of the transect. It was hidden underneath overgrowth of algae.

Lee checks that the transect line is tight and follows a straight line.

Lee checks that the transect line is tight and follows a straight line.

Rob and Jeff prepare for the transect survey.

Rob and Jeff prepare for the transect survey.

 

Even though I was on the navigation team, it was hard not to stare in awe as DRTO reefs were teeming with life. I’ve been told that the reefs here were what the reefs of the Keys used to look like decades ago. Large groupers and snappers, which have been fished off the reefs in the Keys, thrive in the park’s remote and protected waters. Large boulder brain corals and great star corals populate the reef’s hard bottom with soft corals and gorgonians swaying in the current. Despite this, algal growth and coral disease, often indicators of unhealthy or declining reefs, were also very prevalent.

Sea fans and gorgonians surround large colonies of Great Star coral.

Sea fans and gorgonians surround large colonies of Great Star coral.

Disease and algae are visible amongst the corals and gorgonians.

Disease and algae are visible amongst the corals and gorgonians.

Goliath groupers hanging around underneath the MV Fort Jeff.

Goliath groupers hanging around underneath the MV Fort Jeff.

It wasn’t long before we fell into a comfortable and efficient rhythm. We spent every day on the water. We picked up wherever we left off the day before and would motor over to the next site when we wrapped up the one we were working on. Four transects per dive with two dives a day allowed us to wrap up each site in two or three days, depending on the weather. After returning from the field, Nicole, Erin, and I would spend the evenings exploring the fort or snorkeling along its perimeter.

The moat wall surrounding the fort teems with coral growth

The moat wall surrounding the fort teems with corals.

Sergeant major damselfish swim along the moat wall.

Sergeant major damselfish swim along the moat wall.

Corals have colonized the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Corals have colonized the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Grunts school around the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

Grunts school around the old coal docks surrounding the fort.

On the second-to-last evening, I had the opportunity to join the United States Geological Survey (USGS) crew on their nightly East Key turtle nesting monitoring. We motored the short distance over to the 100 by 200 meter island where we would be spending the night and set up camp before it got dark. Every half hour someone walked the shoreline to look for a nesting female. Luckily enough on the 2200 walk three turtles had come up to nest. I had never seen a turtle nesting before. It was miraculous to watch these 300-pound beasts lug themselves up on shore and sometimes go hundreds of feet before finding the perfect spot to dig their nest. Some even dig multiple holes until they find the right one to lay their clutch in. The whole nesting process took an hour or two to from start to finish.

Sydney the Loggerhead turtle in the corral.

Sydney the Loggerhead turtle in the corral.

Maria the Green turtle in the corral.

Maria the Green turtle in the corral.

We monitored each turtle’s nesting progress and once they had finished, before they returned to the ocean, we corralled them on the beach in order to gather data on them. We noted the species, took various measurements on size, collected a blood sample, and tagged any turtle that hadn’t already been worked up this year. We had two returners. Esther was a Loggerhead who had nested and been worked up earlier that year and Maria was a Green who has nested in past years but hadn’t been seen in awhile. The third turtle was a new Loggerhead who I named Sydney. After finishing up with Sydney around 0100, the rest of the night was uneventful and I got some sleep under the light of the stars. We returned to the fort just in time to watch the sun rise.

Sara and Devon take carapace measurements on Maria.

Sara and Devon take carapace measurements on Maria.

On our last night in the Dry Tortugas, the rangers called together a potluck. Everyone gathered in the crew quarters at the Fort as we laughed and shared stories of the week around delicious food. We talked well into the evening and even got to witness a green flash as the sun set over the cloudless horizon.

Evening potluck with the DRTO staff at sunset.

Evening potluck with the DRTO staff at sunset.

Sunset over the western bastion of Fort Jefferson.

Sunset over the western bastion of Fort Jefferson.

In the end, my time in DRTO was more than I could’ve imagined. The SFCN crew was friendly and warm and I was delighted to have lived and worked with such a passionate team of NPS staff. I’d really like to thank the entire SFCN team as well as the MV Fort Jeff crew for putting up with me during those 10 days and allowing me to join in on your annual monitoring effort. It was an incredible learning experience!

“Always remember kids. Today is a great day for a day!” – Mikey Kent

Next stop…Wisconsin?

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Week 6: Jumping Ship

Kneeling on a platform at Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston, FL. Photo By Robby Myers.

Kneeling on a platform at Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston, FL. Photo By Robby Myers.

Well it’s the end of my internship at Bonnier, and I can’t believe how fast six weeks flew by. I’ve had such a wonderful summer per everyone at Bonnier and OWUSS, and I can’t thank these two groups enough for this experience.

This week I worked mainly online to clean up Scuba Diving’s tagged web pages. It took the entirety of two days to go through the “Photos” tag and clear out articles that weren’t related to underwater photography. It seemed a bit tedious when I was given the assignment, but it was actually really fun to go through so many articles, especially ones dating back to the early 2000’s. Diving has sure changed a lot since then, and it makes me wonder how much it will have changed when I look back 10 years from now.

Thursday was my last day in the office because I had a job interview in Gainesville on Friday morning. I applied to be the managing editor of The Independent Florida Alligator, a local newspaper run by the students of the University of Florida. I had worked at The Alligator for three semesters, and I wanted to take on more responsibility as the editor-in-chief’s right-hand woman. In the interview, I was able to talk a lot about my internship — especially about journalistic skills I’ve honed and ideas I’ve been inspired by at Bonnier. The hiring board was very impressed by my work with the dive group, and I got the job!

I will definitely keep in touch with the Bonnier team, and I plan to contribute to both magazines in the future. I want to thank the entire OWUSS family for making this possible — it has been an amazing summer of growth and experience, and I am eternally grateful.

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Hovering above the quadrat, I record the size and species of bioeroding sponges at multiple points along the transect.

St. Croix – Buck Island Reef National Monument

The first thing to greet me as I arrived in St. Croix was the light. Surrounded by the dark blackness of the ocean, a tiny island of light slowly came into view as the plane approached the airport. As the brightness grew in the night, so too did my excitement. This was it. The start of my adventures in the field for the National Park Service.

After getting off the plane and claiming my baggage, I was greeted by a bubbly Tessa Code, a Biological Science Technician for Buck Island Reef National Monument. As it was late, we kept the chit chatting to a minimum. She handed me the keys to the government vehicle I was borrowing for the week and reminded me that they drive on the left side of the road here in the US Virgin Islands. (For those of you wondering, their driver’s seats are on the left side of the car like in the states.)

So here I was in a new place, with an unfamiliar car, at night, slightly tired, learning to drive on the opposite side of the road. My what a challenge that was! Thankfully, I was just following Tessa’s car in front of me to Park Service housing, which helped me out tremendously. Even still, I managed to make a few turns to the wrong side of the road. Yet, I must say, by the end of the week, I was really starting to get the hang of and even enjoy driving on the left side of the road.

Monday, July 4th, was a holiday so I had the day off. I made plans with my college friend who grew up on island, Cassandra, to see the Frederiksted fireworks. Beforehand, she excitedly invited me over to her house for a holiday barbeque her mom was hosting for friends and neighbors, as I was her first stateside friend to come visit her home and her island. Cassandra and her family are 9th generation Cruzans and I loved listening to their stories and learning about the culture and history of St. Croix from them. We all sat around the table talking and laughing, while enjoying a delicious buffet with citrus pasta salad, escabeche, baked macaroni and cheese, mahi mahi, and steak.

That night, we ventured down to Frederiksted to watch the fireworks. In the square, local food vendors were set up along the street selling conch pates, fresh juices, and Johnny cakes (think a lighter, fluffier, more delicious donut). Unfortunately, just as we arrived, the weather turned for the worst and it began pouring rain. For a bit there, we all thought that the fireworks would be cancelled, but just as the rain stopped a loud crash echoed in the air. The reflections on the surface of the ocean and the sound of the waves took the display to a magical level. Perhaps my favourite fireworks display of all time!

Fireworks reflect on the ocean waves on the 4th of July.

Fireworks reflect on the ocean waves on the 4th of July.

The following morning I stopped by Park Headquarters to meet up with Zandy Hillis-Starr, Liz Whitcher, and Robby Fidler. Together, we all sat down to discuss our plans for the week with Zandy, Chief of Resources Management for the park. Liz is a graduate student from Florida Institute of Technology who is heading a study to assess coral accretion on the reef at Buck Island as part of a larger collaborative investigation with the NPS and the USGS. The plan for the week was that Liz, Robby, and I were going to be returning to sites to collect sediment traps and perform various transect surveys on the reef. With the go-ahead from Zandy, we drove over to Green Cay Marina, where we met up with Jeff Gay, our boat operator for the week.

After loading the boat with tanks and gear, we were out on the water on our way to Buck Island before 900. On our way over, Liz explained to Robby and I the exact plan for our dives. Each site consists of three sites – the fore reef, the reef crest, and the back reef. At each site of all 18 random locations, we needed to collect 6-month-old sediment traps and conduct five transect surveys – parrotfish (x2), sponge, urchin, and photographic. That’s a lot to do underwater!

Each dive went the same. “80 feet…50…30, 20, 10.” The engines kicked into reverse before being shut off abruptly. “Go! Go! Go!” Jeff Gay shouted at us as we entered into the water for our dive. As the photographic and parrotfish surveys took longer and required advanced-level identification, my job was to perform the sponge and urchin surveys. When we hit the bottom, each of us set up our transects and began our work.

Hovering above the quadrat, I record the size and species of bioeroding sponges at multiple points along the transect.

Hovering above the quadrat, I record the size and species of bioeroding sponges at multiple points along the transect.

Swimming over a large colony of brain coral, Liz takes hundreds of pictures along the transect in order to produce a 3D photogrammetry model of the reef which can be used to get a more precise estimate of coral cover.

Swimming over a large colony of brain coral, Liz takes hundreds of pictures along the transect in order to produce a 3D photogrammetry model of the reef which can be used to get a more precise estimate of coral cover.

Robby swims away along his 30 meter transect to perform his parrotfish survey.

Robby swims away along his 30 meter transect to perform his parrotfish survey.

When I swam the 10 meters on the first pass, I would peek in, around, and under the coral heads in a game of reef “I spy” documenting the size and species of urchins. On the second pass, I held a half-by-half meter quadrat over the reef and estimated the surface area coverage of different bioeroding sponge species. I was shaky at first in my confidence of sponge identification, but I drew on my previous experience working with sponges in my undergraduate research lab and my comfort level with it grew as I the week went on. At first, the whole process took us just under an hour to complete at each site. The rough surf in less than 10 feet of water was new to me and definitely impacted the first few dives. But as the week progressed, I grew more comfortable in the conditions and with my freshwater sponge identification, which allows us to accomplish two sites in one dive in the same time.

After diving at 27 sites all around the island, most of which are closed off to diving by the public, I can say that the reef at Buck is gorgeous and diverse! Buck Island is surrounded by a fringing reef with the reef crest about 500 feet from shore. Beyond the reef slope, the north side of the island has these towering reef structures, aptly named haystacks, that emerge from the sandy bottom 30 feet below and sometimes break the surf.

A soft coral attached to a dead structure, towers over a Symmetrical Brain Coral (Diplopia strigose) colony occasionally breaking the surface.

While parts of the reef are laden with rubble, the reef is very much alive. Schools of blue tang often swam through our transects as a large barracuda would stalk us from a distance. Our tapes passed over giant colonies of brain coral a meter wide and sat next to large sea fans that swayed in the surf. Perhaps the most striking thing about Buck was its abundance of Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata). The two Caribbean species of Acropora are critically endangered and many places have seen massive die offs. Here, however, I was blown away by how big some of the stands were; they seem to be faring significantly better than other locations.

An impressive Acropora palmata stands tall and healthy, towering over the rubble of dead colonies.

An impressive Acropora palmata stands tall and healthy, towering over the rubble of dead colonies.

Unfortunately, Liz and Robby had another week of surveys left and I had to head off to Florida to begin my next adventure. On my last night on island, Cassandra and her mom took me out for a sunset cruise on the Jolly Roger, a boat Cassandra used to work for in high school. While the sunset was less than photogenic, the laidback cruise was a relaxing way to end the week and offered Cassandra another opportunity to share her home with me.

A relaxing ride on the sunset cruise.

A relaxing ride on the sunset cruise.

Cruzans are known for being particularly friendly and inviting, but none are more so than Cassandra and her mom. Thank you so much for welcoming me to the island and teaching me about your people and your home. Another huge thank you goes out to Liz, Robby, and Jeff for working long days out with me on Cara Cara and teaching me new things along the way. I wish I could have stayed longer to help you finish your surveys!

Jeff, our boat operator, grabs our gear and helps Liz, Robby, and I get out of the water after a dive.

Jeff, our boat operator, grabs our gear and helps Liz, Robby, and I get out of the water after a dive.

Up next. Dry Tortugas!

 

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