Grouper Moon Project - 15th Year of Conservation Science in the Cayman Islands

Protecting a Caribbean Icon - Over 4000 Nassau Grouper gather at the spawning aggregation on Little Cayman. The site is protected during the winter months. Photo by Paul Humann.
REEF Grouper Moon team member, Dr. Scott Heppell, swimming in the aggregation. Numbers, sizes, behaviors are all documented. Photo by Josh Stewart.
Starting a few nights after full moon, the fish change colors to almost all bicolor and spawn. Spawning happens right at dusk, and occurs over several evenings. Then the fish all leave the site and go back to their home reefs for another year. Photo by Jim Hellemn.

REEF scientists and volunteers just wrapped up another season of the Grouper Moon Project, a collaborative research effort with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (CIDOE). In it's 15th year, this important project focuses on one of the largest (and one of just a few) known spawning aggregations of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean. Over 4,000 grouper amass in one location for 7-10 days following winter full moons. Our team went to Little Cayman around full moons in both January and February this year (both because it was considered a “split year”, meaning the full moon dates were right on the line of predicting which month would be the strong spawning month). February turned out to be the big month, and spawning was seen over 3 nights starting 3 nights after full moon.

Several interesting video clips and stories from the field were posted on REEF's Facebook page. Be sure to check it out and like our page to keep updated on all REEF's programs.

Since 2002, REEF and our partners at CIDOE, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Oregon State University have used a variety of research techniques from diver surveys to state-of-the-art technology to study this amazing natural phenomenon. The research has yielded ground-breaking results that have led to improved conservation for Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands.

In addition to the research, REEF also is leading the charge on an educational program surrounding Nassau Grouper and spawning aggregations. Thanks to support from Disney Conservation Fund, we have created an exciting K-12 education curriculum rooted in the link between healthy reef communities (including humans) and healthy spawning aggregations. See last month's REEF newsletter for more about the Grouper Education Program.

Want to learn more about the Grouper Moon Project? Watch this short PBS documentary about our efforts. 

Many Thanks! The Grouper Moon Project wouldn’t be possible without the dedication, passion, and financial support from many individuals, Cayman Island businesses, and foundations. It truly takes a village to pull off this conservation research project. In 2016, we especially appreciate the continued generous logistical support provided by Peter Hillenbrand, and local lodging and dive operators Reef Divers & Little Cayman Beach Resort and the Southern Cross Club. Funding from the Disney Conservation Fund supported field efforts and the Grouper Education Program. FLOW Cayman Islands has provided support for the live-video feeds for the Grouper Education Project since 2012. Cayman Airways provided inter-island travel support. And the staff at Central Caribbean Marine Institute provided research space for the fertilized egg work. Thanks also to our scientists, REEF volunteers, and partners who made this year's efforts possible. It's impossible to list everyone here - please visit the Grouper Moon page to see the full list - www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject.

If you would like to support this important marine conservation program, please donate to REEF - https://www.reef.org/contribute.

Bermuda - a Unique Destination

The Grotto Bay Resort, home to the Bermuda REEF Field Survey this October.

Bermuda is at the northern extent of the Tropical Western Atlantic survey region and represents a unique destination for REEF's fish watchers. There are six spaces left on our Field Survey Trip to Bermuda (October 1-8), and this is your opportunity to dive pristine reefs, expand your knowledge of marine life, and search for elusive and beautiful fish such as the redback wrasse. Trip leaders Ned and Anna DeLoach will entertain participants with their fish identification and behavior expertise, providing engaging lectures and photographs in conjunction with educational seminars each evening. Pink sand beaches, fascinating historic sites and a blend of British Colonial and African culture help to make Bermuda, also known as the "Jewel of the Atlantic," a captivating destination for non-divers as well. Check out the full trip description at www.REEF.org/trips.

Even if you can't make the trip, be sure to join Ned and Anna online for their free Fishinar at the end of this month, August 30. See www.REEF.org/fishinars for all the details.

Playing Virtual Darts With Fish ID

A group of REEF surveyors in Mexico have set up a study group on “WhatsApp” (a mobile device chat app) to prepare themselves for REEF Level 2 tests in the Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) region. The group is coordinated by Itziar Aretxaga, who recently passed level 3 in that region and is a Level 5 expert in the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA). Members of the group live throughout Mexico, but stay connected and learn together through a game of virtual darts on their mobile phones. Every day they are presented with a problem fish they have to solve, and at the end of the day the recognition card for the fish of day is sent with instructions of names in English and Spanish and features to look for.

Along with the daily mystery fish, the participants are playing a rolling game over the course of two months in which one participant “throws a dart” with a photograph to another participant to recognize. The recipient has a maximum of 24 hours to reply. If the recipient identifies the species, he/she receives 1 point. If the reply is incorrect, the recipient receives -1 point. If the sender misidentifies the species for one that is not in the study cards already seen, he/she receives -2 points. If anybody other than the recipient replies within the 24 hr period, he/she receives -2 points. If the recipient does not reply within 24 hours or replies incorrectly, the dart can be picked up by any participant, and points are assigned to the one that first replies with the correct answer. The score is normalized by the number of darts aimed at each participant and the final prize is a round of beers paid by the participant who scores less points.

The group has been playing fish-darts for three weeks now, and is having quite a blast with 35 cards already studied and almost 40 darts sent in the game. Negative points have been assigned mainly for misidentifications of photographs found with Google on the internet. In two weeks, when they complete the 50 species they have set for themselves to study, they will declare a winner and the person in charge of beers for all. ¡Salud!

The Faces of REEF: Dottie Benjamin

Dottie with one of her underwater fishy friends, Nassau Grouper on Little Cayman. Photo by Mary Solomon.
A possible new species, "Dottie's Jawfish"! Photo by Dottie Benjamin.

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Dottie Benjamin, a REEF member since 1996! After living on Little Cayman for years, Dottie moved to North Carolina a few years ago. During her time in the Cayman Islands, she was involved in REEF's Grouper Moon Project and she also found a possible new species of fish! Dottie has conducted 75 surveys and is a Level 5 Expert Surveyor in the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA). Here's what Dottie had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first hear about REEF? I first learned about REEF while working in Belize as a Dive Instructor and a REEF Field Survey was taking place at my place of work. Ned & Anna DeLoach were the presenters and I became fascinated with the names and behavior of all the little critters that I was seeing on a daily basis. I learned all kinds of fun facts and the fishy bug bit. Moving to Little Cayman – I had the pleasure of getting to know Judie Clee (1000+ surveys) and she reinforced my love of fishes and shared in my excitement at finding a tiny Goby or Blenny. She helped me achieve my Level 5 TWA rating and got me interested in teaching others about all the incredible diversity under the waves.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced? Living in Little Cayman for 18 years, I was honored to help with REEF's Grouper Moon Project and being able to swim with 3000+ groupers during their annual aggregate spawn is simply breath-taking. And your diving career is not complete until you have had the chance to rub the cheeks of a big old friendly Nassau Grouper. They are amazing creatures.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? I now live in North Carolina and dive & work at Olympus Dive Center… the fish are a little different, but once you know your fish families… you can figure out what you are looking at. The diversity here is amazing and there is always something cool to find… whether it be a few dozen Sand Tiger Sharks cruising by or an Ocellated Frogfish or a bevy of juvenile Cubbyu… I am never disappointed.

What is your most memorable fish find and why? Possibly discovering a new species of fish is my most memorable fish find. Swimming along the sheer wall of Little Cayman at about 90 feet and looking into a little alcove and seeing a jawfish (blue spotted at that!). I couldn’t find the fish in any ID book, and so I contacted REEF for some help… It's still being worked on, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that it is a new species that I will get to name. Dottie’s Jawfish has a nice ring…don’t you think? I have had the chance to meet some incredible people in my diving career and the fishy ones are the best!

Join Ned and Anna DeLoach in Brazil this Summer

The beautiful islands of Fernando de Noronha in Brazil.

We are excited to announce that seven spaces have just opened up on the previously sold out trip with Ned and Anna DeLoach to the islands of Fernando de Noronha in Brazil, August 4-13, 2018. This will be an amazing opportunity to dive and experience these isolated islands with two of the most renowned individuals in the field. Don’t miss this chance: after years of leading several REEF Field Survey trips annually, including the very first Field Survey in the summer of 1993, this will officially be Ned and Anna’s last year as REEF Field Survey trip leaders. They will continue to be active members of REEF’s Board of Trustees and will join in on special REEF Expeditions and other projects as their schedule allows, but they will no longer be on REEF’s annual Field Survey schedule.

Register today before this popular trip fills up again! Contact REEF at trips@REEF.org for more information, and view the trip webpage for details.

REEF Attends Vandenberg Event in Norfolk, VA

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Vandenberg as it was prior to recent preparations for deployment in May of 2008
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Chris Adryan from ReefmakersTM and Joe Cavanaugh at Visit Vandenberg Event

This past Columbus Day, I attended a special event in Norfolk, Virginia, where the ex-USAFS Vandenberg is in its final preparatory stages for deployment next spring, 6 miles off the coast of Key West. REEF will monitor the Vandenberg over the next 5 years in a similar monitoring and assessment project to the just completed 5-year Spiegel Grove assessment in Key Largo. The sinking of the Vandenberg is expected to add millions of dollars in diving/tourist related revenue to Monroe County. The hope is that the Vandenberg will not only add tourist revenue but also will reduce the diving pressure on the natural reefs in the area, “loving our reefs to death.”

REEF’s role will be assessing the biological impact the Vandenberg has on the fish community in the vicinity of this new addition. We fully anticipate that the Vandenberg will add to the fish species richness of the area as fish pass through and eventually settle onto the site as residents; provide protected areas for protected IUCN listed species such as Goliath and Nassau groupers; and increase the fish biomass in the area as the fishes on the Vandenberg mature and then reproduce, in effect seeding the surrounding reefs. The Vandenberg will be deployed in approximately 140-ft of water, close to 540’ in length (just 30-ft longer than the Spiegel), but weighs almost 3 times as much as the Spiegel Grove at around 15,000 tons! REEFMAKERS™ is currently reducing the height of the ship and taking some of the towers and satellite dishes and strategically placing these structures onto the deck, adding a lot of complex structure that should be very attractive habitats for fishes. The aim is to sink the Vandenberg in less than 3 minutes, adding a dramatic crescendo onto a multi-year project in the making!

We are currently working out the final monitoring plan but we anticipate a pre-deployment event in the spring of 2008, followed by 3 additional monitoring events next year using our Advanced Assessment Team members. Similar to the Spiegel, REEF will monitor not only the Vandenberg itself but 7 surrounding reference sites over several days per event. REEF’s data analysis from our 5-year Spiegel project, once complete, will assist us in the Vandenberg project expectations. The sinking of the Vandenberg has been in the planning stages for several years and REEF will be working directly or indirectly with several partners on this project including:

REEFMAKERS™ in New Jersey and Artificial Reefs of the Keys (ARK) based in Key West will be responsible for sinking the Vandenberg, along with the direct support of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. REEF is excited to be a part of this project with all its intrinsic biological, socioeconomic and educational value.

Reefmakers website - http://www.reefmakers.org
ARK website http://www.bigshipwrecks.com
FWC - http://www.myfwc.com

New Learning Tool! REEF Launches Reef Fish Identification Home Study Course

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Reef Fish Identification DVD Home Study Course for Sale!

By popular demand, REEF has adapted its classrrom course into a home study DVD course package for beginning "fishwatchers" in the Caribbean, Florida and Bahamas. Click here to read the press release; click here to purchase the DVD course. This would make an ideal holiday gift for your favorite fishwatcher!

March 2008 Field Survey Update

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Male Quillfin Blenny. Photo by Paul Humann
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Female Quillfin Blenny. Photo by Paul Humann
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REEF survey diver

Only one space is open for the upcoming Turks and Caicos live-aboard Field Survey, April 19-26th aboard the Aggressor II. We have an ecclectic, well-rounded group of surveyors committed to making this a special trip. Time is running out to join. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Tami at Travel for You (1-888-363-3345) or Joe Cavanaugh at 305-852-0030.

Spaces are also available for the Paul Humann Discovery Tour this summer in Key Largo scheduled June 21-28, 2008.  This Field Survey provides a great opportunity for new and seasoned surveyors to interact with renowned marine life author, Paul Humann, and learn from his many years experience, photographing and surveying marine creatures worldwide.  Horizon Divers is the dive shop for this trip and also a REEF Field Station. Horizon Divers has worked with REEF on a number of projects over the past several years.  Your time on the Discovery Tour will be split between class-work with Paul Humann, learning fish and invertebrate species identification and behavior, and diving multiple sites in Key Largo.  Paul will review fish and invertebrate sightings from the dives and incorporate what you are seeing into his classes.  Summer diving in the Keys cannot be beat and all the dives will be less than 60 feet depth.  There will be opportunities for a night dive and ample time for touring many of the local attractions in the Keys. 

 If you are interested in Paul's Discovery Tour, please phone Dan Dawson at Horizon Divers (305) 453-3535 (email: info@horizondivers.com), or phone Joe Cavanaugh at (305) 852-0030 (joe@reef.org).

Lisa Mitchell Takes the Helm of REEF

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Captain Lisa Mitchell, new REEF Executive Director, returns from a survey dive.

June will mark a change at the helm for REEF. We would like to wish Leda Cunningham well in her future endeavors, and welcome Lisa Mitchell as our new Executive Director. Lisa is eager to bring her extensive experience in the dive industry to REEF, as well as her natural passion for ocean conservation.

Lisa’s involvement with REEF almost goes back to the organization’s inception when, in 1993, she was owner/manager of Baskin in the Sun in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. After participating in a REEF Field Survey she immediately went to work involving BVI dive operators in the new program. In fact, because of her enthusiasm, Tortola became the first destination where 100% of the island’s dive businesses became REEF Field Stations. The REEF staff and Board were so impressed that she was asked to bring her organizational expertise and energies to the Board of Trustees in 1995 where she served until leaving Tortola in 1998 to pursue an Executive MBA at the University of Central Florida.

Lisa is a diver’s diver whose life has evolved around the underwater world. She earned her first scuba certification at age 12 while attending Sea Camp in Big Pine Key, Florida where she later became Assistant Scuba Director. During the following years, while gaining experience working at dive resorts in the Florida Keys and with Peter Hughes in Bonaire, she became a Master Dive Instructor and ultimately an SSI Instructor Certifier, and holds a USCG 100 Ton Master’s License. In the process Lisa has made well over 8,000 dives. To honor her many accomplishments Lisa was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2001.

Most recently Lisa has worked as a marketing and business analysis consultant within the dive industry with clients such as Scuba Schools International (SSI), Expedition Fleet Liveaboards, and Dive Dominica.

It goes without saying the REEF staff and Board are delighted to have Lisa back in the fold, and look forward to many prosperous years with such a capable and energetic Captain at the helm.

REEF members and Lisa’s many friends are invited to join us for a “Welcome Back to REEF and the Keys” evening to be held in her honor at 7 PM June 21st, 2008 at the Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo.

REEF and Lionfish Do the DEMA Show

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Some of the REEF DEMA team pose at the REEF booth - Stephanie Green, Lad Akins, Andy Dehart, Chris Flook, Lisa Mitchell.
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A popular feature at DEMA this year was REEF's display of lionfish in an aquarium.
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This special edition Lionfish print by Rogest is available through the REEF store.

Earlier this month, the Dive Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) held its once a year industry-wide, international trade show in Las Vegas. As part of the show, which attracts over 10,000 industry professionals and businesses, DEMA recognized the importance of the recent lionfish invasion into the Atlantic and asked REEF to present four show-sponsored talks for attendees and members.  

DEMA organizers also provided premium space at the show for an aquarium display and informational exhibit on the issue. REEF responded by providing an all-star cast of speakers and experts including Lad Akins (REEF), Andy Dehart (National Aquarium in DC), Chris Flook (Bermuda Aquarium) and Stephanie Green (Simon Fraser University). The talks were very well attended and the response from industry leaders was extremely positive. Marine Life artist, Ron Steven - better known as Rogest, was also on hand to sign special edition lionfish prints that he donated in support of REEF's efforts. During one seminar, Ron stood up to say that he never thought he would be encouraging divers to remove fish from the environment he works so hard to protect, but based on what we are seeing we should get rid of all lionfish (in the Atlantic). Similar sentiments were expressed by all who attended the talks. In addition to the talks, the 250 gallon aquarium set-up donated by ATM Aquariums in Las Vegas was a big hit. Ten lionfish were on display and provided excellent opportunities for in-depth discussions at the booth.

Next steps for work within the dive industry as outlined at the DEMA show are to work with inland dive operators to organize educational and data gathering lionfish projects and to work with island governments and on-island dive operators to conduct week-long workshops including education/outreach, monitoring, collecting/handling techniques and market development themes.

REEF will be leading its next week long in-country workshop in the Turks and Caicos in November and the next diver oriented project with Dive Provo January 17-24. For more information on how to organize a REEF-led lionfish project or to host a REEF workshop, please contact Lad Akins, Director of Special Projects, Lad@reef.org, (305) 852-0030.  To sign up for the Turks and Caicos project with Dive Provo call our REEF travel specialist at 877-295-REEF.  To find out more about REEF's efforts on lionfish, visit the REEF Lionfish Research page. 

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub