The two months since I have started the internship have passed way too quickly. But as a REEF marine conservation intern, there’s so much outreach and education to spread, as well as take in, what else could you expect? This week was spent painting new fish plaques for a donation program REEF uses to help build its sponsorship. This fundraising campaign is called The Giving REEF, and if you donate a set amount of money you can have a species with your name displayed on our fence. Fellow intern Jessica Sellers and I spent an afternoon harnessing our creative energies to design some brilliant-looking fish.
Then it was all about fish identification. Stacey Weinstock, another fellow REEF intern, and I prepared and presented a fish id lesson to a very enthusiastic group of 32 ninth-grade students that came by the REEF headquarters.
That evening, the interns all sat for our own bi-weekly intense fish identification lecture by two expert volunteer fish surveyors, Allison and Carlos Estape. I was pretty sure I knew all my fish before I started learning what I really didn’t know, but now I’m confident about those pesky damselfish and juvenile parrotfish for sure! It was back in the water the next day for some lionfish research dives and fish surveying with Allison and Carlos. Jessica proved to be a sharp shooter and nailed her first lionfish with perfection. Rest, who needs it? I’m excited to keep this momentum going!
The further I dive into the field of science, the more I realize that science must be applied by engaging in public interaction. This concept has been the overwhelming central theme to the week. On Tuesday night, Dr. Jim Bohnsack presented at REEF Fish and Friends lecture series about the evolution of ocean ethics. It was interesting to learn about the development of marine policy in the Florida Keys and the historical precedence that took place by implementing the first national marine park. But I remained curious of what exactly changed the public perception to support the management regulations. I’ve read many articles about how the original plans for the Sanctuary were not welcomed by the locals, but after enforcing the protection status over time, the public began to view these marine protected areas as a resource.
So, was it law enforcement or social change that created the rise of ocean ethics? I left Fish and Friends still a little curious, but just until the following day when we began preparation for the Key Largo Lionfish Locals Derby. The goal of the derby is to promote public removal of invasive lionfish, whereby teams can compete for the most, the biggest and the smallest lionfish. Seven teams registered and brought back a total of 143 lionfish.
Aside from all the excitement of catching lionfish, derby day itself is a big event for the public to see all the lionfish that were counted and measured as they are brought back to the weigh-in station. REEF derbies have become renowned for their success and organization, which is what led Andrew Zimmern, host of the show Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, to attend his first derby and eat some lionfish. My post at the derby was the dissection table. I had a large crowd, and camera crew, gathered around curious to learn about these fish and what was in their gut. I had the opportunity to answer many questions about their biology and what makes these fish so invasive, and it felt rewarding.
The next day I met with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation at the International Miami Boat show to help with their outreach table. I had the opportunity to meet with Guy as the public cued up to have their recently bought t-shirts and prints signed by him. Watching how enthusiastic these fans were about marine conservation, I realized the mechanism of ocean ethics. It takes leaders to share their ideas in a way that is branded and recognizable by the public to create a following of supporters that will then identify with those ideas, and in turn spread them along.
I arrived back in Florida after ten days of field work participation with the Grouper Moon Project in Little Cayman just in time to swiftly enter the field again to conduct surveys for REEF’s Lionfish Research Program. REEF has several on-going projects for collecting data about controlling the invasion and measuring the impacts of invasive lionfish. Over the past week I have spent two days free-diving for assessments on local lionfish populations, as well as diving over three days to collect data for a study monitoring removals. Part of this data set includes my master’s thesis work, which is measuring the movement and settlement aggregation of lionfish on coral reef habitats. I am using a tagging method that helps detect new lionfish from previously observed and recorded lionfish at my study sites. Not only is it a challenge to net these clever, angry lionfish, but holding one long enough to implant a sewing needle through its caudal tail without getting pricked on one of the venomous spines is sporty to say the least. This week the lionfish team and I successfully tagged eleven-and-a-half lionfish. I admit, it’s a lot of fun, but these days in field days are long and spent focused on getting a job well done. I’m just glad the weather has been offering sunny days and warm water near 77 degrees to assist with keeping me productive while I’m out there on the ocean.
The Grouper Moon Project came to a close this week, and the greatest lesson learned was that in the field nothing always goes as planned. Whether from technical set-backs or nature creating its own designs, the best projects are those that can roll with the unexpected outcomes. Despite some strong winds and a the drop in the air temperature that made boat trips wet, bumpy and chilly, the underwater communication wires required new splicing repairs while we were on a remote island. But rolling with the seas, overall the week was a success for collecting the data about what we observed. But the numbers of Nassau grouper that arrived at the spawning site were lower than expected. Seven hundred grouper aggregating seem like a high abundance while diving with them, but it’s still far below than the 1000s of grouper that comprise the mass spawning event at Little Cayman. REEF science coordinator, Christy Semmes-Pattengill, and Brice Semmens of Scripps institute, contribute the low abundance to a lunar effect. This year, the full moon falls at the middle of the month for both January and February. This “split moon” gives rise to a false start for the spawning period. Some grouper showed up as the early arrivals, but until the mass of grouper arrive as expected next month in February, the main spawning event will not happen. Around the island, many of the local dive masters reported seeing their resident Nassau groupers still hanging around the reef sites, so it’s likely that the grouper were not going elsewhere to spawn. It’s interesting to think that perhaps there is a social effect based on a population threshold that will determine when these grouper will spawn. So why did some fish show up this month and not all of them? In nature, it’s usual to have outliers in the population that differ from the normal population – that’s what makes populations adapt to environmental events in the scheme of evolution.
Aside from the Nassau grouper aggregation, it’s speculated that other fish species may use the same site for their own spawning events. Located at the west end of the island where currents can converge, the site is unique in that it extends outward from the near shore as a plateau before it drops thousands of feet down to the abyss as a bluff. Hundreds of Horse-Eye jacks were seen in darkened body coloration and elicited rushes through the water. Dog snapper were seen in spawning groups of up to 17 individuals, while even Honeycomb cowfish were seen in pairs on the reef. Drifters, ring-like floating satellite links, were deployed to learn more about how the currents may act in favor at this site to recruit fish species that spawn there.
I leave the Grouper Moon project with a new perspective about how fascinating these fish are. As I spent hours of interaction with these creatures while counting them, I began to appreciate how charismastric these fish are to the reef. Watching a grouper lay gentle and still for a deep “dental” clean from tiny gobies, I felt a bond with their presence. Some members of the aggregation would follow me and prod for scaly body rubs, almost affectionately. It’s clear these fish fear little on the reef, which probably contributes to how vulnerable they are to human harvest. I do not like to personify nature, but after spending time with these fish and watching their behavior as they respond to their environment as well as divers, I ascend to my safety stop to contemplate whether they are as curious of me as I am of them.
Arriving on a delayed flight from Miami International Airport to Grand Cayman, I rushed through customs and the security check point for my connecting flight to Little Cayman, a small puddle jumper which was already waiting for me on the tarmac, literally. The co-captain welcomed me on board. “Grab a seat anywhere you like,” he said. First class is in the back in these planes.”
After landing in style in my private charter, I was met by the Cayman Department of the Environment (DOE) welcoming crew with a green, grumpy grouper t-shirt. The DOE assists with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) for their own data collection of the Grouper Moon project. Among the committee were Laura, DOE staff, and Alex from the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation here in Little Cayman. We hit the road to where I was staying and within hours I was on my first dusk dive about to meet the other welcoming party – the aggregating Nassau grouper.
Aside from Christy and Brice, Steve Gittings, Science Coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program, has come to participate in his six year working on the project, along with some other REEF volunteers: Leslie, Brenda, Lynn and Hal.
So far, we have been keeping counts on the abundance of Nassau grouper making notes on the percentage of color changes along with displays of behavior as the numbers of fish increases at the spawning site until the main event begins. The site itself is protected by the Cayman government as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), and is a large promontory with a shallow plateau at 70 to 80 feet and drops off at a wall to 1000s of feet below. There are three moorings at north, south and east positions along the plateau that assist with providing a reference for where the grouper are congregating and finding your way back to the boat. I arrived on the evening of the full moon, so it will still take a few days for all the Nassau grouper to leave their resident areas and migrate to the site.
So far, there have been only a few 100 grouper to count but at the time of the mass spawning the abundance threshold should increase into the 1000s. This is an exciting time with great anticipation among the divers and the fish themselves. Other species are aware of the happenings here on the reef as well. Schools of horse eye jacks and ocean triggerfish, as well as a lone dog snapper have been hanging around the grouper, and it will be interesting to see how all the reef community comes into play when the spawning occurs.
There are so many fascinating parts of nature to explore, and that can be said especially for the marine world. Massive aggregations of schooling fish congregate each year to their transient spawning grounds to breed with one another and continue the fate of their species. Once in abundance around the Caribbean Sea, Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) have been overfished in many of their former ranges and have since become listed as endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list for threatened Species. Their predictable spawning aggregation cycles that occurs annually from the months of January to March a few days after the full moon make them especially vulnerable to fishing harvests. On the promontory ledges of steep walls, rare moments of life occurring unforeseen by most of the human population happen in a rapid dash of color changing fish spiraling towards the surface, followed by a flash of cloudy fertilized gametes. I have been invited to stay in Little Cayman Island for the next ten days by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, director of science for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), along with her husband Dr. Brice Semmens, assistant professor for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to assist with data collection for Nassau grouper spawning aggregation. The project is called the Grouper Moon Project because the event is triggered by the rise of a full moon that coincides with a drop in the water temperature and shift in ocean currents. Fish from around the islands here in the Caymans leave their local residence and travel to meet thousands of other Nassau grouper standing by for courtship. The dive schedule is intense with three dives per day taking survyes at depths of 80 to 100 feet to count these fish and investigate their population size as well as when the spawning will actually occur. Until now, I have seen one Nassau grouper on Molasses Reef in Key Largo that measured about 40 cm. It is incredible to think that I will soon be swimming among thousand s of schooling fish in sizes greater than half a meter in length. I can’t wait for all the action to get started.
This week’s arrival of the other interns has brought new energy into the office and the house as well. It’s great to have others that are sharing the same experience, and by no doubt we are going accomplish so much as us four interns to work together. Handling matters at the office has become daily routine. I am anxiously looking forward to doing some more fish surveys, but the weather has plans to keep me dry, at least for now. So, for the time I have fully processed 12 lionfish dissections and found that I am dynamite at extracting lionfish otoliths. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the process entails slicing open the skull to pry out small, calcium carbonate “ear stone” structures located behind the brain in vertebrates, and used to determine the age and growth of fish – sort of, like counting the rings in a stump to age a tree. One of the stomach contents held a recently ingested dusky cardinalfish.
This week at Fish and Friends, Jack Grove gave a lecture about his epic mission to salvage the anchor of the Acadia. Aside from the dynamically entertaining story he gave, the message was worth taking home: if the worse happens and it looks like your anchor is going to sink, keep trying until hope brings it to the surface. I feel as there have been many times throughout my graduate school career where my project has hit a wall and would sink. But there just might come a day when it all works out as long as you are driven to achieve the goal. Jack was determined to raise the anchor after some unforeseen setbacks, but today on the shore of the island Pitcairn in the South Pacific Ocean lays the bounty of his ambition. That night at the local pub I had the pleasure to chat with Jack some more about how he made a name for himself and the work he did in the Galapagos as an ichthyologist. It’s rewarding to have this sort of mentorship now as I am deciding the rest of my life in the marine world. You can’t get the real kind of career advice from reading a textbook, but you can from real people’s perspectives – and it certainly has its place hearing it over a burger at “Sharky’s.”
It’s been weeks already since I was chosen by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) as the 2014 Spring REEF Guy Harvey Intern, but the feeling of being honored by that decision has yet to leave. Although, it has been elevated with a great sense of anticipation. I have had many experiences working in the marine environment, but this opportunity is going to be the benchmark of my early professional career in ocean conservation. I am looking forward to a semester of science, public outreach, planning events and of course, SCUBA diving.
But, every road has its beginning. Mine began on the Florida turnpike in a 1997 Ford F150, loaded for bear, with my dog Layla as co-captain in the passenger seat. I was headed from Fort Lauderdale to my new home for the next five months in Key Largo. I appreciate that this opportunity comes at the start of a new year. I normally spend the first week of January thinking of new goals I can set for myself, so I’ve already made a few pertaining to this fellowship.
The first goal is near completion – an overachiever, yes I am aware. I unpacked. I wanted to get settled in as soon as possible so I can focus on what lies ahead. I came down a week early, and already there is plenty to do. My calendar is going to fill up fast with plans for special projects and events over the next few months. But so far, I’ve spent the week in acclimation becoming accustomed to the daily tasks of the new position, such as meeting visitors at the office, responding to emails and answering phone calls. Layla is adjusting too – she knows where her treats are and how to ask for them.
These next few goals are going to take some time, but come the month of May I’ll be glad and feeling accomplished as I reminisce over this post. The big goal to work on is surveying at my research sites over the following five months to collect the data I need to finish my master’s thesis and graduate. I am grateful for the support this fellowship will contribute towards my work as a graduate student at the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center. I am conducting a study to investigate the population dynamics of invasive lionfish (Pterois volitans and P. miles) at sites within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Readers, stand by for post updates about the progress of my research as I will give periodic reports from the field as they occur.
You might say that last goal was at the top of my list, but honestly I am more excited to tell about and achieve this next one then, well, graduate with a master’s degree. In precaution of saying this last statement, please do not re-post this on any of my thesis committee members Facebook pages – just kidding. It’s going to take some study and commitment, but I would like to complete the required 50 fish identification surveys and pass the level five exam to be considered as an “expert” by the REEF fish identification survey program before the time I leave here in May. As part of this goal, I would like to finally count 100 species in one survey dive on Alligator Reef. It is one of the few sites rich enough in species diversity to accomplish this – but it takes an expert eye and a long, cold bottom time.
Lastly, this next accomplishment is going to be hard to judge by and started with a conversation I had with REEF director of special projects, Lad Akins, in his office a few weeks ago. He asked me what I wanted to do when this was all done, whereby “this” he meant the fellowship and graduate school. I must admit that I was taken a little by surprise from the question. Until that time, I had been so focused my thesis project, volunteering with REEF and working a day job as a divemaster and PADI SCUBA instructor that I really didn’t stop to think all of “this” was going to end soon. I have a career goal to work in coral reef conservation among stakeholder, government and non-government organizations, but there are many outlets to follow on that path. So, upon completing this fellowship it is my hope that I connect with one of the various REEF or Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation affiliated collaborators to gain insight from their job expertise – at which time, I will decide the direction this road takes next.