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Marine Life Blog » Florida Diving, Florida Keys, Jacksonville Diving, Reef Environmental Education Foundation » A visit with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation

A visit with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation

July/August 2009 – Florida

July 31, Jacksonville, Florida Twenty years ago, Paul and Ned published the first edition of their Reef Fish Identification, Florida Caribbean Bahamas. Two decades later they still consider it a work in progress and spend a lot of time updating the images and information in their popular field guides. During the research for the first edition, they realized that there was not a lot of information in the published literature about the actual distribution of many of the fishes of the Tropical Western Atlantic, thus the idea for counting fish, similar to the Audubon bird surveys was born. Ned and Paul, joined by good friend and advisor, Jim Dalle Pazze, formed REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), their envisioned fish-counting organization, in early 1990. However, the Reef Fish Identification book was an instant success and bestseller, so the Reef Creature and Reef Coral books soon followed and there was little time to bring the fish counting idea to fruition.

While balancing the work to publish and distribute their books, Paul and Ned sought advice from scientists and environmental groups to develop a survey method and data management plan for REEF. Dr. James Bohnsack, of NOAA Fisheries, remains an active advisor to REEF to this day. Good friends Amy Slate and Spencer Slate offered support by loaning one of their employees, a young naturalist, Lad (then known by all as Laddie) Akins. The Nature Conservancy, recognizing the potential for such a grass-roots organization, provided a generous grant to create and maintain the survey database, which was originally housed at the University of Miami.

In July 1993, over three and a half years after REEF was formed, a group of fish watchers, scientists and naturalists gathered in Key Largo to spend a week learning to identify fish and enter the first fish surveys into REEF’s database. A college intern during that first survey, Christy Pattengill is now Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, REEF’s Director of Science. Lad, after serving many years as REEF’s Executive Director, is now Director of Special Projects, and oversees REEF’s Invasive Lionfish project.

Reef Environmental Education Foundation

Reef Environmental Education Foundation

This month, sixteen years after that first Field Survey, REEF issued member number 40,000 and has almost 130,000 surveys in its database! Over 40 scientific papers and reports have been published using REEF’s data. Along the way, the organization has received prestigious awards such as the Robert Rodale Environmental Achievement Award and the Chevron Conservation Award. In 2001 REEF expanded its work to include Grouper Moon, its study of Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands. REEF also manages the Great Annual Fish Count, an international event involving fish surveyors from the Western Atlantic, Eastern Pacific and Caribbean.

Ned and I had the good fortune to be home in Florida this summer, which enabled me to participate in July’s Great Annual Fish Count activities. This year, the Jacksonville Reef Research Team hosted the local count and I, having gone through the JRRT’s seven-month training program over twenty years ago, was happy to join old friends for the events.

One of the GAFC charters is to offer free fish identification classes to all participants. Happily, six area dive shops signed on and with a boost from the local newspaper, we taught beginning fish identification classes to almost 150 Jacksonville divers! We finished off the month with a survey dive on Jacksonville’s newest artificial reef, the Spike. Only underwater for two weeks, the Spike was already alive with Silversides, Black Sea Bass and Vermillion Snappers!

August 15, Key Largo, Florida I spent the past few weeks working at the Lockwood REEF House in Key Largo. Catching up with old friends was an added bonus to my stay. On my very first day at REEF, friends Kathy Lawler and Marge Johnson, attendees of our July GAFC Fish Identification Class in Jacksonville popped through the door to report that they had just put their new identification skills to good use completing their first official REEF fish surveys that very morning while diving with Horizon Divers.

Kathy Lawler and Marge Johnson

Kathy Lawler and Marge Johnson

What luck to be in Key Largo during the annual coral spawning week! Every year from 3 to 8 nights after the full moon of August, corals in the Florida Keys spawn. Different species spawn on different nights at coordinated times, and while nothing in nature is 100% guaranteed, coral spawning has been observed long enough now, that if divers venture out on those nights and have the patience (and a charter boat willing to wait), they are pretty much assured of seeing something spawn.

The evening of August 11, I was guest speaker for REEF’s monthly gathering of like-minded underwater naturalists known as Fish & Friends. After showing some favorite video from Ned’s and my travels, I dashed out the door, drove to Amoray Dive Resort and hopped onto their waiting boat. Laurie MacLaughlin, a coral specialist from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, was on board to collect samples should we have the fortune of observing any spawning coral. I was intrigued by the idea of collecting coral gametes and had visions of divers dashing around trying to catch the thousands of eggs bundles that are simultaneously released by the spawning coral heads. I should have known that scientists have a much more pragmatic approach, which involves “tenting” a likely candidate coral head and simply funneling gamete bundles up into an attached jar, held above the silken tent by floats.

After moderate success on Tuesday night, we headed out again on Wednesday evening, this time joined by Maryland friends Larry and Bev Lesko, who dropped by for a quick visit following their Boca Raton vacation. We observed Giant Star Corals spawn at the beginning of the first dive, which gave us hope that this would be the big night. Right at the end of the dive, my buddy Amy Slate and I happened upon a spawning sponge, its neon orange eggs visible from over twenty feet away.

Almost as soon as we dropped in on our second dive, we began seeing random pink gamete bundles float by – a sign that the coral spawning event we were hoping to see was underway. Amy and I joined John and Judy Halas at a very large Montastrea Star Coral mound, where the pinkish egg bundles were just becoming visible in the opening of each coral polyp. When the coral head finally spawned, we were treated to a 30-minute show, one of the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.

Coral spawning was a great way to finish up my two weeks in Key Largo. I packed up my bags and headed north to meet Ned at Paul’s house. Though tempted to stop off in Palm Beach to make another dive with the Blue Heron Bridge gang, we forged on to Jacksonville where we had four days to pack for our month at Buddy Dive in Bonaire. September is Coral Spawning month in Bonaire – more fun awaits! ~~Anna DeLoach

Filed under: Florida Diving, Florida Keys, Jacksonville Diving, Reef Environmental Education Foundation · Tags: , , ,

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