The Blue Heron Bridge -- A Dive Site to be Thankful For

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A school of cownose rays seen at the Blue Heron Bridge. Photo by Mike Phelan.
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Another great find at the bridge, a Northern Stargazer. Photo by Mike Phelan.

Some of the best dive sites for fishwatching are in the least obvious places. The Blue Heron Bridge in Palm Beach, Florida, is one such biological hotspot. This is a top dive destination for sighting unusual species that can be added to your lifelist. Mike Phelan, REEF Expert surveyor, and two other REEF members, often dive this site. The day before Thanksgiving, they were treated to quite a sight – a large school of Cownose Rays! This is a rare sighting in Florida, but it’s just another day at the Blue Heron Bridge. Some of the more unusual and recent sightings include the Blackwing Searobin, Roughtail Ray, Northern Stargazer, Orangespotted Blenny, Polkadot Batfish, and the Chain Pipefish. The bridge traverses a small island located in the inland waterway near the Lake Worth inlet. The dive sites consist of a variety of eco-niches such as sand, shell rubble, sea grass, algae hydroid fields, sailboat mooring lines and anchors and of course bridge pilings and concrete rubble. The Blue Heron Bridge has over 282 species recorded in the REEF database and the number is increasing monthly (click here to see the full list).

The actual dive site is a local county park named Phil Foster Park that is protected with a no-take ordinance. All dives are shore-based and must be timed with the high tide. The dive can be safely done by entering the water one hour before high tide and exiting one hour after high tide. Depths range from 8 -17 feet and the water is usually clear even if the off-shore ocean is rough. Remember to bring a dive flag. Many divers combine their Blue Heron trip with some local Jupiter off-shore diving to witness the Goliath grouper aggregations in August or September, Loggerhead, Green, and Leatherback turtle nesting during the spring or the Lemon shark aggregation in the winter. This is certainly a dive site to be thankful for!

Do you have a dive site story that you would like to share? Email us.

REEF in the Classroom

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We live in a small town called Nelson, in the mountains of British Columbia about 3 hours north of Spokane Washington. In the Fall I decided to take students to Belize to study reef systems and how they may be changing. The course is called "Coral Reef Studies in Belize " and 15 grade 11 & 12 high school students from LV Rogers Secondary signed up for the trip with the help of Island Expeditions from Vancouver. When I was researching the course objectives I came across REEF and realized it would be perfect to help us study the fish species that reside on reefs and indirectly gauge reef health. I also wanted students to be involved with some sort of real biological studies and contribute to science. When I first asked my "academic" students how many reef fish they knew the combined class came up with 5, with 2 species coming from the movie Nemo....

We used REEF website to get us acquainted with common fish ID and used the book series by Paul Humann for more in-depth work. By being able to download from the REEF website the highest frequency fish from exactly the area we were going everyone was motivated to learn. One assignment was to create a Fish ID tablet of Lighthouse and Half Moon Caye. One student created such a professional one that we laminated it and donated it the Belize Audubon society on the atoll for other amateur divers to use.

It amazed me that one day we were in snow to our knees and the next day kids were IDing fish and observing fish behviors on their first dive. From recognizing a measly 5 fish to closer to 50-70 species happened in just a few weeks, especially by using the quizzes on REEF.org. We worked with the Belize Audubon society and did surveys at some of their sites and everyone was really charged to complete and submit surveys..I was amazed that they even started to correct me daily on ID.

Endangered Nassau grouper in the Caymans will live to spawn another generation: an 11th hour ruling

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Findings from the Grouper Moon Project have led to an 11th hour ruling that will ensure continued protections for the endangered Nassau grouper. The seasonal fishing ban on Nassau grouper spawning aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands, which was set to expire in just a few days, has been extended for another eight years. The protections, which were initially enacted in 2003 and included an 8-year sunset clause, prohibit fishing for the species at spawning aggregation sites between November and March (the reproductive season). REEF has been working closely with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment (DoE) since 2001 as part of the Grouper Moon Project to study Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands and to determine how to best protect this iconic Caribbean reef species. Our research has focused on the west end aggregation site on Little Cayman, which supports one of the last great reproductive populations of this endangered species. REEF is extremely proud of our involvement in the Grouper Moon Project and we look forward to similar conservation victories in the years to come. Lessons learned in the Cayman Islands have benefited Nassau grouper conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean. Watch this 3-minute video to see spectacular footage of the aggregation and to learn more about the project.

Normally solitary and territorial, during the winter full moons Nassau grouper travel and group together to spawn. Due to the reliable timing and location of the spawning aggregations, plus the ease with which these relative loners can be caught while congregating by the hundreds and thousands to spawn, most known Caribbean aggregation sites have been fished to exhaustion. The ground-breaking research conducted as part of the Grouper Moon Project by scientists and volunteers from REEF, the DoE, and Oregon State University, led the DoE to recommend a set of actions necessary to recover and protect the species throughout the Cayman Islands. Actions include: implementing a closed season for Nassau grouper in all Cayman waters from November through March, permanently closing the aggregation sites to fishing year round (because these special places host aggregations of dozens of species throughout the year), and modifying existing catch limits for the species during other times of the year. The Cayman Islands Cabinet is currently reviewing these recommendations. While all those involved in the Grouper Moon Project are pleased that the Marine Conservation Board was able to take action prior to the expiration of the current ban, we are hopeful that Cabinet will enact permanent protections to ensure that there are Nassau grouper on coral reefs for generations to come.

The Grouper Moon Project has been supported in part by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, the NOAA International Coral Reef Conservation Program, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort, Peter Hillenbrand, and REEF member contributions. We greatly appreciate all our members who have contributed financially to REEF to make this important work possible.

Great Annual Fish Count 2012

The 21st annual Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is rapidly approaching! Will you be participating? We encourage local shops, dive clubs, and other groups to organize an activity anytime during the month of July (and often training events in June). You can view events already scheduled, and add your own, by visiting www.fishcount.org.

The concept behind the GAFC is to not only accumulate large numbers of surveys during the month of July, but to introduce divers and snorkelers to Fishwatching and conducting REEF surveys. Interested groups can offer free fish ID classes, organize dive/snorkel days, and turn them into fun gatherings! To find out more, contact us at gafc@reef.org.

REEF Welcomes New Communications and Affiliate Program Manager

When University of Kansas graduate Keri Kenning joined REEF in August 2012 as a Marine Conservation Intern, Keys residents constantly reminded her, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” Five months, sixty dives, and zero lionfish stings later, Keri has abstained from clicking those ruby red heels together and returning to Kansas. She is staying at REEF headquarters in Key Largo as the new Communications and Affiliate Program Manager. Keri graduated in May 2012 from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology and University Honors. She began snorkeling at 10, diving at 14, and has been a bona fide Critterwatcher from the start. As an undergraduate she lived in the Turks and Caicos Islands for a semester researching invasive lionfish and marine ecosystems. The Marine Conservation Internship was the perfect introduction to REEF programs and the diving community. As the Communications and Affiliate Program Manager, Keri writes press releases, manages social media pages, recruits Field Stations, and leads community outreach and special events. Welcome to the REEF Team, Keri!

Support REEF and Your Donation Will Be Doubled

This summer, all donations made to REEF will be matched dollar for dollar by the Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation. If you have already taken advantage of this opportunity, thank you! If not, please consider doubling your investment in our ocean ecosystems and healthy reefs worldwide by donating online at www.REEF.org/contribute. REEF has been cited as one of the most effective conservation organizations working on ocean issues today. Our grass-roots efforts are made possible thanks in large part to our supporting members. Now is a great time to help ensure our continued success.

Reflecting on these last two decades, we are proud of the role REEF’s programs have played in ocean conservation. We have dedicated ourselves to making the Volunteer Fish Survey Project a successful citizen science program. For the past twenty years, thousands of REEF surveyors have volunteered their time so that scientists and policymakers have access to quality data to make informed decisions and further our understanding of the marine environment. Rest assured that your donation to REEF is an investment that will have a lasting impact on the health of our oceans.

In addition to donating securely online, you can also mail your check to REEF, PO Box 246, Key Largo, FL 33037, or call us at 305-852-0030. As a US 501(c)(3) charity, all donations are fully tax-deductable. And please remember to check with your employer to see if they offer a matching donation plan! Many companies do and it's an easy way to maximize the impact of your gift.

The Faces of REEF: 2013 Volunteers of the Year, Carlos and Allison Estapé

Allison swimming with a Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Photo by Carlos Estapé.
A camera is a great fish watchers tool. Check out this photo that Allison took of a Colon Goby, only to later notice on the computer screen a Saddled Stargazer hiding in the sand. Photo by Allison Estapé.

We are proud to announce our 2013 Volunteers of the Year, Carlos and Allison Estapé. Carlos and Allison joined REEF in 2008, and collectively, they have conducted 108 surveys. They call the Florida Keys home. As Tropical Western Atlantic REEF Advanced Assessment Team members, skilled lionfish hunters, expert underwater photographers, and PADI Open Water Scuba Instructors, this diving duo is instrumental to REEF’s fieldwork conducted in the Upper Florida Keys and they are avid REEF ambassadors. Most recently, they have raised interest in the 100 Fish ID Challenge, or "Century Dive", in the Keys, whereby a REEF surveyor finds at least 100 species of fish on one dive (their quest even ended up in the Miami Herald newspaper). Here's what Carlos and Allison had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?

In 2008, we moved to the Keys permanently and we were looking for people with similar interests. What a great find! We started attending the monthly REEF Fish and Friends lectures and participated in REEF Lionfish Derbies. From there, our participation continued to grow as we got involved with the interns and the 100 Fish Challenge.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

Carlos- "For me, surveys have evolved into an underwater treasure hunt. There is a great quote that says “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder” R.W. Sockman. And this directly applies to fish surveys. When all you know are 100 species you try to pigeonhole everything you see into that knowledge base, but as I have delved deeper into all the real possibilities I question even what appears to be obvious. A few days ago, Allison pointed out a solitary fish on a deep mooring line. It appeared to me to be an Orange filefish, a species I only see on rare occasions and needed a better photograph of. Only after seeing the image on the computer back at home did I realize I had just photographed the first and only Unicorn Filefish (Aluterus monoceros) I have ever seen!

Allison - "I completely agree with Carlos on the surveys being an underwater treasure hunt. It is always exciting when you identify a new fish and/or see a very rare fish. I’ve greatly enjoyed adding to the REEF database and expanding the number of species sighted on our favorite dive sites. When we realized that there was the possibility of seeing over 100 species of fish on one dive at Alligator Reef, that really motivated us to not only expand our ability to identify with certainty more fish species, but it also motivated us to get out and do 2 ½ hr dives to see just how many species we could identify on a dive. My personal best was 116 fish identified and we have had a great time taking the REEF Interns and other fish ID enthusiasts to Alligator Reef so they can attempt to identify over 100 species. So far, 12 divers have achieved the 100 Fish ID Challenge, and we are hoping that many more take up the challenge. Doing the 100 Fish ID Challenge has really taught me where to look for different species of fish, and has really re-invigorated my diving enthusiasm – I spend time in the grass flats, sand, and rubble areas looking for the small fish I never paid any attention to prior to doing the surveys.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

The camaraderie, hands down! We have especially enjoyed our time with the interns when we take them out on our boat and show them some of our favorite dive sites. The friendships we have made with the REEF team and members, the fun of diving with other fish enthusiasts, and the sense of excitement and accomplishment we achieve together when we do Field Surveys and attempt the 100 Fish ID Challenge, has made our participation in REEF one of our most satisfying experiences.

If you had to explain REEF to a friend in a couple of sentences, what would you tell them?

Carlos - "REEF is an organization of people driven by their passion of the sea with the goal to protect and document life in the oceans."

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

Carlos - "Education. You only love what you care about, only care about what you know and only know what you are taught.

Allison - "I also believe the scientific research and data that REEF volunteers collect is making a difference in the management of our marine ecosystems/fisheries. The Lionfish removal/derby data is enabling marine park managers to make scientific choices on how to manage the invasive species, and the REEF survey database allows non-scientists to participate in collecting data that scientists use.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?

We have the Florida reefs thirty minutes away by boat by design. I was certified in 1978 and my first dive was on Pickles reef. Recently we have been on a quest to photograph as many species as possible listed on a survey done by Dr. W. Starck back in the 1960’s. Over a period of ten years he found over 500 species in our own backyard! Over 300 of those are within the safe diving limits and so far we have photographed 225 of them including a few he never found!

Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

Islamorada Dive Center (IDC) out of Windley Key in Islamorada. Great attitude and service. They always put a dive guide in the water with you for no extra charge. We have become close friends with everyone there.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?

Carlos - "The one and only time I was in the water with a Whale shark in the Maldives. We had been motoring for hours looking for one without success and finally the crew gave up and put us in the water anyway. Within minutes a shadow blocked the sun and when I looked up there it was! A juvenile “only” about twenty-five feet long! We swam with it for a few minutes and then it was gone like it had never been there. When I dive I always try to remember to look up now and then."

Allison - "The time we found a 12ft sawfish while diving on the Eagle Wreck in the Florida Keys. The sawfish was laying on the sand in 110 ft of water and looked like a parked submarine. It was flanked by 2 large remora. When we approached it, it pushed up off the bottom in a big swirl of sand and slowly swam away. It was a spectacular sighting of a very rare animal. On that same dive we saw a spotted eagle ray, hawksbill turtle, and many schooling fish. That dive goes down in the memory books as one of our best."

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Carlos - "Take a camera with you and if you can afford it add an external strobe even to the simplest of point-and-shoot cameras. I cannot tell you the “finds” I have made once I have downloaded and reviewed the day’s photos. A great example of this was reviewing some of Allison's photos that she had taken at Alligator ledge of a Colon Goby. Lying next to the goby is a three inch Saddled stargazer! She didn’t realize it was there when she snapped the photo."

Allison - "A camera, or a buddy with a camera is a must. The more I learn, the less I “know”. You have such a short amount of time to ID fish and so many species are similar that having a camera really makes a difference in identifying an Almaco Jack vs a Lesser Amberjack, and when it comes to the tiny triplefins – a photo is the only way I know whether I got the ID right.

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.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub