Live From the Field Web Chats With the Grouper Moon Project

Live-feed webcast of Dr. Brice Semmens on the Little Cayman Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation. This year's broadcast is set for February 6th at 11:45am EST. Photo by Josh Stewart.
Grouper Education Program activities include scientific drawing, food web explorations, and more.
Grouper Moon educator, Todd Bohannon, teaching students at Little Cayman Primary School about components of the coral reef food web.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our parters at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are gearing up for the annual Grouper Moon Project. Scientists will be on the ground and in the water this coming Tuesday for the full moon. Since 2002, the group has conducted ground-breaking research to study the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. In 2011, with funding from Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, REEF launched an education program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting project brings the Nassau Grouper into elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field.

Three live-feed webcasts are planned over the next two weeks. While the students will be communicating directly with the Grouper Moon scientists, anyone can watch the feeds live or archived. The live-feed schedule is:

- Friday February 6th, from underwater at the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregation

- Monday February 9th, from the Grouper Moon base of operations on Little Cayman, featuring scientists explaining the research objectives, day-to-day activities, and research equipment used during the project.

- Wednesday February 11th, from underwater on the famous Blood Bay Wall.

All webcasts are planned to start at 11:45am EST and will last about 45 minutes. The live feeds stream through YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel. The first live feed, on February 6th, will be here. We will post URLs for the other feeds on REEF's Facebook page. The webcasts are archived online here.

Now in its fourth year, the Grouper Education Program presents students with a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper, in which students create their own understanding of this important species. Key curricular concepts include: the historical role of Nassau Grouper in the Caribbean, its role as a top predator and its positive impact on local reef health, and the conservation challenges facing the species. It is expected that fifteen classrooms at ten schools will participate in the program this year.

The work of the Grouper Moon research project – a collaboration between REEF and the Cayman Island Department of Environment has led to fishing restrictions at the aggregation sites and an increase in numbers of the endangered fish. To find out more, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject. The Grouper Education Program is supported by a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support is provided by Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Reef DiversCayman Airways, and LIME.

Recent Manta Ray Sightings in the Florida Keys

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Manta ray at French Reef. Photo courtesy of Mike Ryan.
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Coral spawning at French Reef. Photo courtesy of Mike Ryan.

In the first few weeks of July we have started receiving reports of several Manta ray sightings at French Reef, near Key Largo, Florida. Mantas are found in the temperate, tropical, and sub tropical waters world wide. However, sightings in Florida waters are uncommon. Some observers saw the mantas swimming in large vertical loops, leading them to think that these animals were coming into the shallow reefs to feed on coral spawn.

Mantas inhabit near-shore and pelagic waters, and can grow up to ~14ft in width. They are primarily filter feeders, using large cephalic fins located on the head to help 'funnel' plankton into their mouths.

So, if your diving in the Florida Keys keep an eye out for one of these magnificent animals swimming by - and be sure to record it on your survey!

Thanks for some REEF HQ Assistance

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Dog Snapper Eating Trumpetfish, See REEF Forum for more, Photo by Jessica Morris
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Red-tipped Sea Goddess, by Jessica Morris
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Octopus Eye, by Jessica Morris

As you can imagine, on any given day there is a lot that needs to get done at REEF HQ to keep all of our programs running. I want to take a moment to thank Jessica Morris for helping us out during October with miscellaneous,yet crucial tasks in the office.  Jessica is a local SCUBA instructor and is eager to help REEF and learn what we're all about.  She has already achieved her level 3 experience level and is ready to start surveying when she's not instructing. If any of our REEF members are down in the Key Largo area and in need of a SCUBA instructor or just want to dive with someone who is knowledgable about fish ID, you can reach Jessica at jessm82@hotmail.com.  She is also a budding photographer and took the pics of the Dog snapper eating the trumpetfish that is posted on our online forum page at http://www.reef.org/forum.  In the future, REEF hopes to provide opportunities for our members to assist us on various projects from their homes.  But for now, if you're in the area and want to help out, just let us know and/or stop into REEF HQ for a visit.  Meanwhile, we'll look for more surveys and great pics from Jessica this winter.

REEF Volunteers Honored for Their Service to the Florida Keys Community

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CFFK President Dianna Sutton, Audrey and Ken Smith and Leda Cunningham honor the Smiths' contributions to REEF and the Florida Keys community.

On Friday, February 1, the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys honored REEF HQ volunteers Audrey and Ken Smith at the 2008 Volunteer of the Year/Unsung Heroes Awards Luncheon in Key West, Florida. Ken and Audrey have been the backbone of REEF HQ in Key Largo for ten years. Their quiet, constant and cheerful help with the unglamorous tasks of building maintenance, data management and administrative work has consistently supported REEF in its mission to actively engage divers and snorkelers in marine conservation. The Ken (“Smitty”) and Audrey team focus on outdoor upkeep and office assistance respectively, contributing their sense of humor and selfless giving to the REEF family and making REEF HQ an inspiring place to work. REEF is grateful and honored to have the Smiths working at REEF HQ. If your travels bring you to the Keys, please drop by and say hi to these important members of the REEF team.

Two REEFers Survey the Galapagos Islands

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Whale Shark encounter
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True poetry in motion, squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays

My dive partner and I, both celebrating significant birthdays this year, decided to give ourselves the best gift of all, a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the world's largest, covers approximately 138,000 square kilometers (53,282 square miles). On May 8, 2008, supplied with Paul Humann's Galapagos Fish Identification book and REEF fish survey forms, we set off aboard the Aggressor II for an eleven-day adventure. Our itinerary included diving seven islands (among them Wolf and Darwin), as well as four land excursions, one of them a visit to the famed Darwin Research Station.  Fifty-three surveys later, we had identified well over a hundred species, will have to wait for the data report to know just how many species we surveyed. We were lucky enough to see four whale sharks, and an Ocean sunfish.  Appearing almost daily were schools of Hammerhead sharks, as well as Galapagos, White-tip, Silky and Reef sharks. Green turtles, three to four feet in diameter often accompanied us and allowed the divers to swim alongside them. In addition, Manta Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Mobula, Devil and Golden Cowrays, would suddenly appear from the deep blue below us. We had to be careful when holding onto the rocks in the strong currents not to grab onto one of the well-camouflaged Stone Scorpionfish. A special 110-feet deep dive was made to a cave to find three Red Lipped Batfish, thought to be endemic to the area. Schools of Bottlenose dolphins followed our boat and dove with us often, as did the playful Fur Sealions which would pull on the fins, swim circles around us and come right up to our masks to say “hello!” Flightless cormorants, penguins or marine iguanas would occasionally startle us when least expected under water. We were surprised by the abundances and larger sizes of several fish species. At times, it seemed like we were behind a moving curtain of fish.

Since both of us were fairly new to Pacific diving, we were thrilled even to watch commonly seen fish, such as King Angelfish, Leather Bass, Moorish Idols, Giant Damselfish, Barberfish, Burrito Grunts and the most common of all, the ubiquitous Pacific Creole Fish. The parrotfish and wrasses were also a treat to see; Blue-chins and Bicolor Parrotfish were common and the Harlequin Wrasses, with their distinctive bump on the forehead, seemed to compete for the award in the most original in “pattern and color” combination category. Even though Galapagos diving is best suited for large fish observation, it is also home to many smaller species, among them the endemic Galapagos Triplefin Blennies, Marbled Gobies and Galapagos Pike Blennies, as well as Blue-banded Gobies, Bravo Clinids. Nooks and crannies in the rock walls hid colorful seahorses and even a frogfish. Yellowfin tuna, while not abundant, were seen on many dives and averaged about 3-4 feet long. Unfortunately, their size and market value encourage illegal fishing, since they fetch a high price on some Pacific Rim markets. The land and sea environment of Galapagos is unique, consisting of volcanic islands of varying sizes; consequently, the ocean floor is made up of lava boulders with very little coral. Black coral (golden green in color) was found on some sites. Near shore, most islands had a good amount of green algae, a good source of food for the marine iguanas and green turtles. Galapagos diving is truly unique; its strong, converging currents bring abundant and rich nutrients, providing a perfect environment for the pelagics. We urge you to go see this wonder for yourselves!  The Galapagos Islands are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Located approximately 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast, within the confluence of three ocean currents, most of the marine and terrestrial fauna is truly unique. Recent efforts at education and outreach to the Ecuadorian community are in direct response to increased illegal poaching within the Marine Reserve that has included shark finning, increased squatting from migrants from the mainland, and an increase in non-indigenous species. such as goats.   A recent response from the Ecuadorian Government has enacted a Special Law for protection of the Galapagos Islands.  This Special Law provides stricter control over immigration, a quarantine system for combating invasive species, extending the boundary of protection around the islands, limiting property rights and economic activity, and increased national funding for conservation and enforcement - all of which are needed to maintain this unique biosphere for our collective future.  Photo credits for this article -  Dusan Richtarik and Barbara Anderson

REEF Surveyor Notes a Rare Find

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A mystery fish, captured on film by REEF surveyor Rob McCall.
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The mystery fish turned out to be the rarely seen Pugjaw Wormfish.
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The swimming motion was sinuous, much like an eel.
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The wormfish shared a burrow with a yellowhead jawfish.

REEF TWA Advanced Assessment Team member, Rob McCall, has over 625 surveys under his belt and 281 fish species on his lifelist. But earlier this summer, during a dive in the Florida Keys, he found something that surprised him - the extremely rare Pugjaw Wormfish (Cerdale floridana). Here is his story -- Last June, while diving at Rock Key off Key West, I noticed a very slender (about the diameter of thin drinking straw) white fish about 6 cm long. I could see the fish had a rounded head but could not see dorsal or tail fins. The fish swam with a sinuous movement, much like an eel or worm, and dove into a burrow when it saw me. It did not immediately reappear and I soon swam off in search of other fish. That night I attempted to identify the mystery fish in my reference books, but was unable to get even a rough idea of what it might be.

Subsequent to the first sighting, I saw a similar fish on two other occasions at Rock Key. All sightings were within an area about 8 x 4 meters, with sand bottom bordered by high profile reef. On the second sighting, the fish dove into a burrow and did not reappear. On the third sighting, the fish immediately dove into a Yellowhead Jawfish burrow (the normal occupant was a male Yellowhead Jawfish who happened to be mouth-brooding eggs at the time; the jawfish was hovering above the burrow and did not seem particularly upset that the mystery fish “borrowed” his home.) The mystery fish did not reappear during the ten minutes or so I spent photographing the jawfish.

I stopped by REEF Headquarters in early August and asked Lad Akins, REEF Director of Special Projects, if he had any ideas to help me identify the fish. Based on my hazy description, Lad thought it might be a type of worm-eel. But when I researched online, it did not seem to be a good fit.

On August 22, while diving at Nine Foot Stake off Key West (and armed with my camera set up for macro) I came across one of the mystery fish – truly a case of me being in the right place at the right time. The fish was out in the open but dove into a nearby burrow – I don’t know if it was his or a “borrowed” one – when he saw me. I decided to wait a couple of minutes to see if it would reappear, and within a minute or two, it stuck its head back out. Over the next ten minutes it made several darting forays from the burrow, getting a little more used to me, or perhaps a little more desperate to get home. This fish seemed longer than the one(s) at Rock Key – perhaps 8 cm or so.

The four sightings shared some common features. All were at 20-24 ft. depth with sand bottom. Three of the four burrows were within 5-10 cm of small coral heads or rubble clumps. Dorsal and tail fins are visible in the photos; the fish is not actually as slender as it appears to the naked eye.

I was pretty well stumped over identifying what the fish was, even with photos, until one night I was re-reading Ned DeLoach and Paul Humman’s Reef Fish Behavior and under the article on Yellowhead Jawfish, I noticed a reference to Pugjaw Wormfish sharing a burrow with the jawfish. The next morning I researched it online and found a photo which appeared to be a very good match for my mystery fish.

We don’t know how rare the Pugjaw Wormfish might be, but according to the REEF database, they have been reported only five other times: one in Florida, one in Cuba and three in Bonaire. Convinced there are more Pugjaw’s waiting to make an appearance here in Key West, I’ve got the other instructors on our dive boat keeping their eyes open in the hopes that one of us will once again be in the right place at the right time.

Rob McCall is a scuba instructor in Key West and has been a REEF member and surveyor since 2000.

REEF Hits the Dive Shows!

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REEF Volunteers, April and Ron Theod talk REEF with a fellow diver while Tatum Semmens looks on.

REEF is taking our message on the road this spring and summer to a few of the regional dive shows. Last month, several volunteers and REEF Director of Science, Christy Pattengill-Semmens, greeted visitors at the Northwest Dive and Travel Show in Tacoma, WA. The REEF booth provides an opportunity to spread the word about the fun of conducting marine life surveys and the valuable role that citizen science data can have in marine conservation and management. Our next stop is SCUBA Show 2009 in Long Beach, May 30 and 31. Come by and visit us at the booth!

REEF Trains Over 100 Divers in the Florida Keys As Permitted Lionfish Collectors

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Lad Akins demonstrates safe collection technique of the venomous lionfish during a workshop in the Florida Keys. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.
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Over 100 on-the-water professionals attended information sessions and training on the lionfish invasion. Photo by Karrie Carnes/FKNMS.

REEF is working in close partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) to diligently track lionfish reports and initiate removal efforts in South Florida. The first confirmed lionfish in the Florida Keys was reported and captured within 24 hours in January 2009 (see previous enews article). Subsequent early reports in March-June were met with successful rapid response. However, beginning in July, reports began to increase beyond the capacity and range of available trained responders. To help combat the growing problem, REEF introduced over 100 on-the-water professionals to the latest lionfish information and collecting and handling techniques during workshops held in Key Largo, Marathon and Key West earlier this Fall. The workshops were funded by the NOAA Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

Because most Florida Keys reefs are managed under the guidance of the FKNMS and some of the most visited sites are no-take Sanctuary Protected Areas, special protocols and permits were developed to allow removal of lionfish in safe, effective and environmentally considerate manners. The goal of the program is to continue to track sightings and remove lionfish as soon as they are sighted to minimize impacts on key reef areas. Successful control of invasive lionfish requires adaptive management to include involving the general public and REEF is proud to be a part of this effort. With a large corps of dive professionals trained and additional workshops planned for early next year, the Keys are working to stay ahead of the invasion through early detection and rapid response. To report a lionfish sighting, visit REEF's Exotic Species Sighting Form -- http://www.reef.org/programs/exotic/report For more information on the program or to join in future workshops, contact Lad Akins at Lad@reef.org or call REEF HQ at (305) 852-0030.

News Tidbits

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REEF Field Surveys - Take a dive vacation that counts! There's still some space left on a few of the Field Surveys in 2010. Destinations include Cozumel with Sheryl Shea, Key Largo with Ned and Anna DeLoach, Bonaire with Jessie Armacost, and Grand Cayman with Lad Akins. These trips all offer unique treasures and are sure to please every level of diver as well as beauty above water for your non-diving companions. Join us on one of these exciting weeks full of fish ID, friendship, new discoveries and great memories! Our full field survey schedule, trip details, and sign up information can be found here.

New Field Stations - Welcome to our newest Field Stations who have joined us in the last month. Field Stations are shops, charters, instructors and organizations that support REEF in many ways - offering classes, REEF survey opportunities, stocking survey supplies, etc. For more information and to check out the other 170+ REEF Field Stations, go to the Field Station page on the REEF website.

  • Pacific Adventure Charters - Hood Canal, WA
  • Rendezvous Dive Adventures - Barkley Sound, BC Canada
  • DiveSafe International - Campbell River, BC Canada
  • Thunder Reef Divers - Vancouver, WA
  • Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station

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    REEF is proud to partner with over 130 dive shops, dive clubs, individuals and other organizations as REEF Field Stations.

    This month we feature Naknek Charters and Diving, based in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington State. They became a REEF Field Station in October of 2008. Owners Kurt and Peggy Long first got involved with REEF about 10 years ago when they were on a liveaboard dive charter in the British Virgin Islands, and took an onboard REEF Fish ID class. Since then, Kurt has gone on to submit many surveys and has advanced up to REEF Level 5, and is now on the Pacific NW Advanced Assessment Team. One of the reasons that they became a Field Station was because they were very interested in educating divers and the public in general about the wonderful critters that live under the water. Peggy writes, “We live in a beautiful area with an abundance of wildlife. We want the public to realize that the beauty extends to the underwater world. This is America’s best year-round cold water diving destination - we have walls, current, fish life. In other words we have it all!”

    So what Field Station activities have they chosen to put into action? “Our goal is to hold a REEF weekend at least twice a year. This involves a Saturday morning class with a two-tank boat dive in the afternoon. We also offer an optional two-tank dive on Sunday. This is a great way for divers to learn about fish ID and helps them put that knowledge into practice. We sell REEF slates in our shop and our boat is identified with REEF decals.” Peggy and Kurt have a 45' charter boat that can hold 14 divers and they run charters year round.

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub