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Marine Life Blog » Florida Diving, Florida Keys, Reef Environmental Education Foundation » Fishwatching in the Florida Keys

Fishwatching in the Florida Keys

We’re off to Key Largo to lead the 2009 REEF Sea Critter seminar at Amoray Dive Resort. Our good friend Claire Davies has flown into Jacksonville to accompany us on the 400-mile road trip and we’re facing our biggest challenge of the week: how to get everything packed into the car. Ned wonders aloud how I can travel half way around the world and live out of two fifty pound suitcases for seven weeks but can’t spend a week in Key Largo without packing every inch of free space in the car with “stuff.” 

Video – Packing the Car

I know there should be some travel principle involved here about the distance traveled being inversely proportional to the amount of luggage required but it escapes me at the moment.

May 29 – Our assembled group of fishwatchers is joined by friends from the Keys community for a cocktail party hosted by Amy Slate and her great staff at Amoray. They had just completed setting up a beautiful spread for us under the Tiki hut when a rainstorm, that had threatened us all day, finally let loose. Donna and Andrew, ever on their toes, mobilized everyone into the back-up plan and we reassembled in the classroom, none the worse for the wear. The group was presented with its first fish counting task: Count all the candy fish in the jar. Chris Rudman wins the jar of 340 fish with the closest count (333) and the irony isn’t lost on us that the dentist wins the candy!

Christina wins the count

Christina wins the count

May 30 – Ned started us off this morning with his beginning fishwatching slides, so we’re all ready to count fish. Captain Joe suggests the Benwood Wreck, one of our favorites. The 1942 wreck, located in the National Marine Sanctuary, was a steam-powered freighter that met its end in a collision with another ship, the Robert C. Tuttle. Both ships, running along the coast with lights out to avoid a rumored German U-Boat saw each other at the last minute but couldn’t avoid the crash (The Tuttle survived; the Benwood sank almost immediately.) Sixty-seven years later, we’re diving on the scattered remains of the ship where, according to the REEF survey database over 250 different species of fish have been sighted. OK, that list is the result of over 500 surveys on the site, representing over 500 hours underwater in the past 16 years, so for this dive, we’ll just concentrate on getting our grunts right!

Key Largo has a great population of grunts because it has so much grass bed habitat, which is where grunts feed at night. During the day, they laze (sleep) close to structure such as reef or in the case of the Benwood, a wreck, where they can take shelter from predators that might come sweeping through. We also see one of the largest schools of Yellow Goatfish that I’ve ever seen. Susan Cable and Norris Boone join me out in the rubble off the bow where I’m hunting for Yellowhead Jawfish and cryptic pikeblennies. We get distracted by diminutive male Eyed Flounders that were skittering all over the bottom protecting their territories and harems of females from neighboring males.

Back on the boat and comparing notes, we count at least eight species of grunts.  On our second dive we find a large population of Yellowhead jawfish, some with eggs and we watch a male Redband Parrotfish spawn with several of the females in his harem.

Video – Benwood Grunts & Goatfish

May 31 – We’re switching gears today, from fish to coral. Ken Nedimyer is starting the morning with a fascinating presentation about his coral restoration project. We first dived with Ken a year ago and wrote a short story about him in our Encounters feature for Scuba Diving Magazine. Click here to read How Does Your Garden Grow?  The video that accompanies that article is on REEF’s YouTube channel, WeSpeakFish: .
Ken’s talk is an interesting mix of coral ecology interspersed with real-world experiences but I know as we listen to him that it is the actual visit to his nursery that will get everyone excited. Ken, along with his daughters (who undertook the work as 4H projects), has propagated the 5 corals they started with in 2000 into 5,000 today.

Ken's Coral before May 31, 2009

The fruits of our labor May 31 2009

Ken's Coral after May 31, 2009

With continued care, hopefully this is what our plantings will look like in a year.

 It takes a lot of work to maintain 5,000 growing coral colonies and he is happy to have so many sets of willing hands to help with planting and cleaning. We are joined by Ken’s wife, Denise Nedimyer and Adam Vila, our team leaders, who will assign tasks and keep us all working during our two dives at the Nursery.

Video – Planting Coral

We have a number of seasoned REEF surveyors, who will be counting fish at the site but even our surveyors and dedicated photographers put their slates and cameras down to help clean algae that can rapidly smother coral plantings. Some settled into a trance, enjoying the mindless task of scrubbing, while others entertained themselves by watching all the fishes ganging around to dine on small crustaceans disturbed by our work.

Video – Cleaning Coral 

June 1 – Our first dive today is at “The Elbow” on the City of Washington, a ship built for transport and cargo that was brought out of retirement to serve as a coal barge, and met its end when the ship towing it ran aground in 1917.  From their inquisitive behavior, I think the fish are accustomed to being fed here, because a large Barracuda and squadron of Yellowtail Snappers appear instantly as we descend. The Barracuda is so close I can see the parasites scooting around on its face as it passes. After a visit to the adjoining reef where I spot the first Southern stingray of the trip, I return to the wreck and laugh out loud when I see Ron Pederson in a stare-down with a large Black Grouper.

Video – Fish Portraits

Among the highlights of our next stop at Mike’s Wreck is a pair of tiny slender filefish hanging together in a gorgonian. Claire Davies, who found them, waits patiently to point them out to divers who swim by.

Claire's Slender Filefish

Claire's Slender Filefish

After lunch I join Kreg Martin for a two-hour snorkel in the Bayside grass beds off Amoray’s sea wall where we add to our fish lists with Snook, Sea Bream, Crested Gobies and an Oyster Toadfish – a prize sighting. I run the sea slug size range from a 6-inch Ragged Sea Hare to an aggregation of nudibranchs the size of pinheads. I can’t identify them but can’t wait to tell our friend, nudibranch expert Anne Dupont (co-Author of Caribbean Sea Slugs), that I finally found tiny nudibranchs in the Atlantic all by myself.

Our group spends the evening with Lad Akins, REEF’s Director of Special Projects, who explains the problems caused by the invasion of the Pacific Red Lionfish into the waters of the Western Atlantic. If you didn’t catch it in an earlier posting, there is a short video, created a year ago about REEF’s work with other partners to gather lionfish data: and you can read Ned’s March 2008 Scuba Diving article about the problem by clicking here: Born in the Wrong Sea.

Since our last visit to the Florida Keys a year ago lionfish have turned up on the local reefs. In fact, a REEF member sighted the first lionfish reported in the Keys as she was conducting a fish survey at the Benwood in January. During our stay a sixth lionfish was reported near the wreck of the Eagle offshore Islamorada. Of the six sighted all but one have been removed. Lad brings us up to date about the invaders’ rapid spread through the Caribbean. Several of us resolve to keep a sharp lookout for the menacing predators as we conduct our afternoon surveys.



June 2 – We spend the morning at the Lockwood REEF House, where our Executive Director Lisa Mitchell and Volunteer Extraordinaire, Nancy Perez show off our wonderful headquarters building and help those of us who haven’t used the online data entry feature yet, learn how to log in and complete our surveys. I admit I have been one of the holdouts, clinging to the comfort of the paper survey scan form. As everyone has been telling me the online entry of fish sighting data makes the process a snap. It is not only faster and easier on me but also on the REEF staff who must carefully check every survey form submitted for possible errors. Besides the paper form is environmentally friendly and cheaper – I’m sold!

Lisa introduces Reef Internet Data Entry to our Group

Lisa introduces Reef's Online Data Entry to our Group

We spend our afternoon underwater at two different dive sites on French Reef. The first site is where the lone Key’s lionfish that has yet to be captured was first reported. Subsequent searches by lionfish taskforce collectors haven’t been successful, so enthused by Lad’s talk the previous evening, we go on the hunt searching every ledge and cave. Noah Lesser and I are both certain we will find the culprit. Amy Slate, owner of Amoray Resort, joins us this afternoon and helps point out fish, including a resident Goliath Grouper, to our surveyors. We don’t find the lionfish, but do make a rare sighting of a Bluespotted Cornetfish and spend some time watching two enamored Spotted Scorpionfish chase each other around, clumsily waddling and lurching as only scorpionfish can.



June 3 – We spend the morning at Molasses Reef. I hang around the mooring where I spot four of the largest permit I have ever seen. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a cleaning station is the attraction. When the Permits swim off, a group of Bar Jacks moves in to take their place.

Video – Permits & Bar Jacks being Cleaned

It’s hard to tear myself away from the action, but I want to find the resident Goliath Grouper that Captain Dan told us about. Wandering around trying to sort out his instructions, (was it 320 or 220 degrees off the mooring?) I round an outcropping and come face-to-face with the giant fish. The Goliath Grouper can reach up to 8 feet in length and weigh as much as 800 pounds. The species was in rapid decline from over harvesting until 1990 when it was officially made exempt from harvesting. Now, thanks to nearly two decades of protection, populations are on the rebound. The grouper was being cleaned which most likely explains why it can always be found there.

Video – Goliath being cleaned 

Ned’s afternoon class session highlights the animals and their behaviors that we might see on our dusk dive and night dive, including the almost “sure-thing” spawning Hamlets. There are several requests for the Benwood, which we did as an afternoon dive at the beginning of the week. Sure enough a pair of feisty Butter Hamlets lives up to their billing, performing more than a dozen spawning clasps.

Spawning Hamlets

Spawning Hamlets

In the briefing, Captain Joe tells us to look in the baffles of the collapsed walls of the wreck for the parrotfish that come in to sleep in the wreck at night. What he fails to tell us is the spectacle of the large fishes’ arrival from distant feeding grounds.

Midnight Parrotfish (Scarus coelestinus) and Rainbow Parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia) are normally seen feeding by themselves during the day. It is interesting to note that although the two species are visually different, both are so similar anatomically that they were once considered to be the same species.

Early in the dive one or two individuals of each species arrive then a large group of Midnight Parrotfish swoops in over the side of the wreck, signaling the beginning of a parrotfish onslaught. Just as the sun is setting the great two- to three-foot parrotfish arrive, as if on cue, from all directions. Some pause briefly at cleaning stations while many of the larger individuals charge each other with mouths wide, all the time streaming white clouds of soon-to-be-sand, a.k.a., parrotfish poop. Ned and I first observed this phenomenon in Bimini in the mid-nineties when we were working on our Reef Fish Behavior book but had never seen it since. Just as it becomes almost too dark for our cameras to focus, many Rainbow parrotfish arrive, heading for the bow section of the wreck. It isn’t until the night dive when we see them all nestled down into their sleeping holes that I realize that the parrotfish have divided up the wreck: Rainbow parrots toward the bow and Midnight parrots in the center – hundreds of them tucked into the Parrotfish Hotel.

Video – Parrotfish Hotel

Back on board we share stories about the parrotfish and the spawning hamlets while waiting for our night dive. The wreck is home to a vast array of night shrimp and decorator crabs that only emerge from their daytime haunts under the cloak of darkness.

June 4 – To get to the famous Key Largo reef, Amoray’s boat has been crossing over from the resort dock on the Bayside to the coral reefs on the Atlantic side by way of the Marvin D. Adams Waterway, a.k.a., the Cross Keys Cut. The canal, with walls ten feet high in some places, was cut in the early sixties, through fossil coral reef. Years ago I read a small but very interesting book by John Edward Hoffmeister about the geology of South Florida called Land from the Sea. One of the book’s photos clearly shows ancient coral heads bisected by the rock cutting machine. 

This morning the tidal flow is slow enough that Captain Joe can maneuver the boat for me to take some photos of the wall. Having made the trip hundreds of times, he is able to point out interesting corals as we pass.

Coral Wall

Coral Wall

Our last two dives of the week are at Key Largo Dry Rocks. It is the last chance for fishwatchers to add species to their life lists that might not be as common elsewhere. I join Cynthia and Ron Pederson out over the grass beds just off the reef, where we score a triple with Blue Dartfish, Hovering Dartfish and Seminole Gobies all in one area.

Video – Surveyors at Work Below 

After Dr. Christy of REEF has a chance to process and enter our surveys in the fish database she will forward our official trip fish sighting statistics. Until then we can get an idea of our success based on Kreg Martin’s list, which indicates that collectively we identified more than 150 species – an impressive total for our mixed group of beginning and advanced fishwatchers. And our fish counts were only a beginning to the interesting fish behaviors, including spawning, symbiosis, feeding and cleaning, we learned about and observed during our action-packed week filled with fishy fun in Key Largo.

Key Largo Fishwatchers!

Key Largo Fishwatchers!

June 25 – Christy has completed the REEF data batch report, which can be accessed at: 
As a group, we completed 139 surveys and saw 178 species! Way to go!

~ Anna and Ned DeLoach

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

2 Responses to "Fishwatching in the Florida Keys"

  1. Brianna Holt says:

    that is astonishing. my name is Brianna Holt i turn twelve this Halloween. i am IN LOVE with the ocean. I have a binder full of ocean species and a seperate one with phylums and/or families and another one with cool information about the ocen. i think what you do is amazing and i hope to do that one day too. My one and only dream is to move to Papua New Guinea when i get older and become a marinebiologist and then discover a new species in the coral triangle. my sort of friend emmy goes to the keys every summer and then brags about it when she comes back… I just want to follow my dreams and do what i love and do best… but any way i think all of your videos and pictures are so beautiful and lets hope thats the way the ocean stays

  2. Brianna Holt says:


    thank you

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