First Days and Fish Surveys

A month after I sat sleepily on a plane bound for NYC, I enter REEF’s Headquarters in Key Largo, Florida. REEF HQ is an adorable yellow house in the median of the Overseas Highway and the oldest house in the Upper Keys. Nearby stands a restored wooden cistern, which was used in the early 20th century – back before freshwater was transported to the Keys from the mainland – to collect rainwater for use by the house’s residents. The white picket fence ornamented with brightly colored fish and corals adds to the charm of the place.

I arrive at REEF HQ with 2 of my 3 wonderful new roommates and fellow interns, Lawrie (no, that is not a typo) and Ashley. At 9 AM, the office is already bustling, and the six full-time staff members and two leadership interns gather in the main room of the house/office to introduce themselves. I am excited to be working with such a small team, and looking back, I think this made learning the ropes in the office easier. Still, I am surprised at how much there is to learn and remember, even for such an intimate office space. There is certainly plenty to keep us busy!

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Me, Lawrie, and Ashley on our first day in Key Largo

Before I talk any more about my experiences here, I want to go big picture for a moment. REEF’s overarching mission is to conserve marine environments through citizen science and education, and they have three major projects that serve this goal. One project, the Grouper Moon Project, aims to monitor, study, and protect one of the still-thriving Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations off the coast of Little Cayman. Because many spawning sites such as this one have been overfished, protection of remaining spawning sites is important. Unfortunately, not much happens with this project during the summer months, so it’s not a part of my internship. But I do have the privilege of being able to get involved with REEF’s two other projects: the Volunteer Fish Survey Project (VFSP) and the Invasive Lionfish Project.

The VFSP was developed in 1990 as the foundation of REEF. The goal? To enlist volunteer divers and snorkelers to collect fish species richness and abundance data by identifying and counting the fish they observe. These data are collected using the Roving Diver Survey Method, which allows divers to swim freely while surveying. Divers then enter their data into REEF’s online database, which is now the largest marine sightings database in the world.

And last but not least: The Invasive Lionfish Project. I am sure most (Many? Some? Not totally sure who my audience is here) of you know that lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific, are invasive in the Atlantic; they were first spotted off the coast of Florida in the mid-1980s, and aquarium releases are theorized to be the cause of their arrival. Their lack of predators and rapid rate of reproduction (they spawn about every four days after they reach sexual maturity at one year old) enabled lionfish to rapidly populate the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and East Coast of the United States, where their numbers are now far higher than in their native range. Their overabundance, along with their voracious appetites and ability to eat as much food as they can swallow, means that they cause damage to coral reefs by consuming copious amounts of local reef fish. REEF works to control the lionfish population by hosting events such as Lionfish Derbies, Lionfish Collecting and Handling Workshops, and Lionfish Jewelry Workshops. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself – more on those later.

Working at REEF is refreshingly different from my previous jobs and internships, which have always required that I focus all of my energy on one project. As a Peer Writing Tutor at Indiana University, my only job for any given hour was the student and the paper in front of me. On various independent research projects, I would chip away at the project for twelve weeks or a semester or a year. Things might go wrong, new pieces might be added, but I was still working towards one goal. My goals at REEF are less linear. Occasionally I’ll begin chatting with an eager high school student or a friendly vacationing family on a dive boat, and they’ll ask me, “So, what is it that you do, exactly?” This question always makes me pause for a moment while I gather my thoughts; I still have not come up with a sound bite to concisely describe my mixed bag of intern duties. Many days are spent working in the office, but even those aren’t uniform. Usually, tasks stack up in every shape and size – sometimes I’m doing computer research, sometimes I’m helping out with an education program, and sometimes you can find me rinsing out coolers or weed whacking in the yard. By helping me learn how to prioritize and efficiently complete many different projects, working on such varied jobs is filling holes in my skillset that I did not even know existed. I am happy to take on this challenge; I would be naïve to think that every position in my future will involve a goal that is neatly packaged into one large, digestible task. In fact, most of them probably won’t.

When I’m not in the office, you can probably find me underwater.

A perk of being an intern at REEF is being able to dive for free with an assortment of dive shops on Key Largo to conduct fish surveys for the VFSP. Somehow, this piece of information slipped by me when I was preparing for my internship in the spring, so I was stunned to be met with this news during my first day at work. We are allowed to take half of a workday to do a two-tank dive and a couple fish surveys, and we can dive outside of work whenever we want. Most weeks, we try to do at least one night dive and a half-day of diving on the weekend in addition to a couple weekday dives.

Because I studied abroad in Bonaire my junior year, I was already familiar with the most common Caribbean reef fish, but I was excited to brush up on my fish ID skills and start learning some new species. On our first Wednesday in the Keys, we go on our first dive as REEF interns with Ellie, REEF’s Education Program Manager (and former OWUSS REEF intern!). I immediately start noticing some differences between the fish life on Bonaire’s reefs and the fish life here. Fewer smallmouth grunts, but more white grunts; many more large, boldly-colored parrotfish; far fewer goofy-looking porcupine fishes and stoic trumpetfishes.

[Unfortunately, I am having some technical difficulties with my SeaLife and cannot pull photos off of it onto my computer. But hopefully I will be able to post some fish pictures soon!]

Hm. Me, REEF, first days, fish…I think that’s about all. But I want to end this post the same way my time with OWUSS began: with a collision of worlds. IU does a week-long field school in the Florida Keys, and during my second week here, I once again found myself hugging Charlie and Mylana hello. Armed with a laptop, pole spear, and Zookeeper, Lawrie, Ashley, Marie (one of the two leadership interns, Roommate Number 4, and marvelous human being) and I climb the stairs to the living quarters above Quiescence Diving Services. There, we take a deep breath and do our first presentation for REEF while the IU students eat Key lime pie.

The Saturday before the IU crew heads back to the Midwest, all the IU alums in the Keys gather for a Saturday night barbeque. These faces, which I had seen often in IU’s classrooms, my lab meetings, and the familiar 1920s-era pool in the Wildermuth Intramural Center, color a new landscape with familiarity.

It is a warm and lovely way to begin the summer.

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