August 26, 2010 - Ned and I arrive in the Florida Keys for the REEF Key Largo Field Survey and Coral Conservation trip. Our first stop is a visit to Stephen Frink’s studio to present him with a press copy of Reef Creature Identification: Tropical Pacific. The book has kept us all extraordinarily busy all summer, not to mention the five years plus required to capture the 2000 images. It was so exciting to finally receive the DHL package with five copies from the printer just the morning before. Conveniently, we were also able to drop a copy off at Paul’s in Ft. Lauderdale on our drive south.
On the first evening our group gathers for a sunset welcome party at Amoray Dive Resort. We greet old friends as well as meet new friends, who are joining us for the REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) Field Survey that is scheduled around the annual coral spawning in August. Amy Slate, owner of Amoray, has organized a splendid week of activities including fish surveys, work with the Coral Restoration Project, and hopefully, with luck, night dives to observe the corals synchronized release of gametes.
We begin our week with a review of Key Largo’s most common and famous fishes. Surveyors prepared for the week by studying REEF’s Beginning Fish Identification DVD, so Ned is concentrating his presentation around fish behavior and an in-depth review of a few large fish families such as the grunts. Key Largo is one of the few destinations in the Tropical Western Atlantic where you can dive with most of the many Caribbean grunt species.
We start the diving off with bang, on a specially planned 2-tank dive at the Benwood, a well know wreck site where each evening an unusually large aggregation of parrotfish arrive just prior to sunset. The action begins when a massive group of large Midnight Parrotfish appear out of nowhere. The first group is soon followed by a second and third wave, this time including dozens of even larger Rainbow parrotfish. Soon the wreck is swarming with dozen and dozens of the great fishes that ceremonially swirl around one another bearing ferocious-looking beaks and releasing industrial-sized plumes of waste before bedding down in the wreckage for the night. Ned and I had seen this phenomenon in the mid-90’s off Bimini but had never heard of it occurring anywhere else. For veteran fish surveyors, this is a bonanza because it is extremely rare to be able to mark abundant (over 100) on our underwater slates for the two impressive and seldom-sighted species!
The next day starts with two shallow morning dives at Key Largo Dry Rocks. The fishy site offer an excellent opportunity to observe the rather confusing complex of dartfishes, which inhabit the sand plains just out from the extensive reef structure. During our search I see two fairly large fish circling each other – they could be fighting or courting – either way, they’ve caught my attention and I leave the sand to investigate. They are Orange Filefish, a rather uncommon species, displaying an abnormal color pattern indicating courtship behavior.
At the end of the dive Ned shows off his new trick, feeding grass blades to lobster shrimp, which was recently featured in our Critter Hunt column in Scuba Diving Magazine.
Lauri MacLaughlin, Resource Manager for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary joins us for the afternoon to discuss her ongoing coral spawning research. The presentation revolves around the amazing collection of coral spawning video she uses to educate the public about the natural history of coral reproduction and to showcase the Sanctuary’s efforts to protect the local coral reef ecosystem. Tonight is the projected night for spawning staghorn and elkhorn coral species and Lauri has agreed to allow us to tag along as she and her team place tents over selected coral heads to capture released gametes for further research. Energetic and busy as always, she takes advantage of the boat ride out to the reef to explain how our divers can assist by filling in our observations on spawning survey forms.
We spend the first dive watching Lauri strategically place weighted nets, equipped with collection containers held aloft by floats, over selected corals. Our mission is to closely watch the corals for signs of gamete bundle formation in the polyps. After the second dive, Lauri checks in with other research boats area, who unfortunately, like us, have also not observe any spawning activity. Finally at 11:15 she calls it a night and we gather the collecting equipment and head back to the resort. We ponder the possibilities: was the strong surge a factor; or the full moon of August, which occurred quite late in the month, have altered the timing of the spawn? We are of course disappointed but everyone is well aware few things in nature are guaranteed.
To continue with our coral conservation theme, Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), spends the next morning explaining how he made the transition from live-rock farmer for the aquarium trade to coral farmer extraordinaire. Ken tell an inspiring story about how he and his family turned a few coral recruits that settled on his live rock a few years back into over 5,000 rapidly growing coral colonies. His organization has now successfully transplanted corals on a number of reefs in the Florida Keys Sanctuary. We first dived with Ken in 2008 and wrote a short article about him in Scuba Diving Magazine. It is exciting to see his ten years of private efforts now widely recognized and supported by both public and governmental agencies.
After Ken’s talk we load up the boat for a visit to his ever-expanding coral nursery and become a small part of his pioneering, hands-on operation. We are accompanied by Andy Northrop, Operations and Development Manager for the CRF, who briefs our teams on specific tasks to be accomplished during our two afternoon dives. There is no better way to gain an appreciation for the complexities and scope of Ken’s work than to witness his successes for ourselves and personally contribute man-hours to the enormous amount of work required to grow coral. If we were to tell people ahead of time that they would be spending their dives scrubbing algae and cementing coral fragments to concrete bases, I doubt we would get many takers, but after watching Ken’s presentation and seeing the growing corals in the nursery, we end up with a boatload of most enthused divers. The Coral Restoration Foundation has recently started an Adopt-a-Coral Program and Ned called me over to show me a stand of rapidly growing coral inscribed with the names friends at Buddy Dive in Bonaire.
The nursery located on the barren sand flats of Hawk Channel has become home to a thriving community of reef fishes. I survey on my second dive and just off the edge of the nursery, in a grass bed, I follow a parrotfish that looks distinctively different. To my delight, it turns out to be an Emerald Parrotfish, a species that I’ve only seen on two other occasions!
We are scheduled to make two night dives to observe the star corals spawn, but bad weather is building and it doesn’t look good for the evening. Instead, we opt for morning fish counts at Elbow Reef. The first dive is on the City of Washington, a cargo ship-turned-coal-barge that wrecked when the freighter towing it ran aground in 1917. The fish that are accustomed to being fed here, including snappers, groupers and barracuda, meet us during our descent. Once we’re on the bottom and moving along the low-profile wreckage, a Goliath Grouper appears and swims from diver to diver looking for a handout. Soon, several nurse sharks begin making passes before they, either smarter than the grouper or not as hungry, give up and settle under a nearby ledge. It is difficult to concentrate on our surveying task with a four-foot fish following us about.
We spend the stormy afternoon at REEF Headquarters, where Field Operations Coordinator, Alecia Adamson, gives a detailed presentation about the invasive lionfish situation throughout the Tropical Western Atlantic and since last year in the Keys. Alecia is coordinating a series of lionfish derbies in South Florida, the first to take place in a matter of weeks.
The weather is just not cooperating and it is too rough to make it out to the reef. Amoray Resort, always willing to accommodate, asks if we’d like to explore the Bayside of Key Largo. Fish watchers to the core, everyone is happy to have a chance to explore an alternate habitat, to see what we might find. We begin at a grass bed near Tavernier Creek where we add to our list Orange Spotted Gobies with their companion shrimp, Inshore Lizardfish, two new species of mojarras, Sea Bream and Sheepsheads. On our second dive, we explore the mangroves lining Sexton Cove near Lake Surprise where we find Frillfin and Crested Gobies and Keeltail Needlefish. Ned has a face off with a burley stone crab and finds a dandy mangrove nudibranch.
The seas are still a little rough so Captain Jacob suggests that we dive Snapper Ledge, which is a little more protected than the other reefs. As many times as we have been to Key Largo, Ned and I have never dived Snapper Ledge. The site has been in the news lately because of a petition to make the site a marine protected area. I can see why so many people find it special. Grunts, snappers and goatfish number in the thousands. It is one of the fishiest sites I’ve ever seen. We enjoy the dive so much that we tell Jacob not to bother to move the boat for the second dive. It’s a great end to the week.
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Filed under: Behavior, Coral Spawning, Florida Diving, Florida Keys · Tags: benwood, dive resort, field survey, fish behavior, fish identification, fishes, Florida Keys, ned deloach, reef environmental education foundation, stephen frink