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!

Announcing the Next Generation of REEF.org

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The all new REEF.org.
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One of the many improved features of the new REEF.org - more flexibility in generating data reports, including exciting ways to view your own survey data.

REEF is excited to announce the launch of a completely redesigned REEF.org website! A unique look, enhanced features, and pages of fresh content ... the address is the same but almost everything else about the REEF website is new. Through enhanced technology and innovative tools, the new Website will enable REEF to more effectively recruit, train and engage divers and snorkelers in the Volunteer Survey Project and REEF’s larger conservation science program. The new REEF.org will also facilitate communication among the REEF community through Member Forums.

The new and very much improved REEF.org is the result of a grant from the Norcross Foundation and a huge amount of work and patience by Ben Weintraub. Ben, a University of Washington Computer Sciences student, created the new site, which includes several new interactive features and a member log-in as well as many of the existing content and features in an updated, easy to navigate and user-friendly site.

Just a few of the features that you will find are:

  • More ways to explore your own survey data, including a REEF Survey Log.
  • Interactive discussion boards, including “ID Central”, a place where you can post identification questions and images of unknown critters for others to comment on, and a “Trip Reports” forum.
  • A searchable map of REEF Field Stations.
  • A central REEF Events calendar, including information on upcoming REEF classes and organized survey dives hosted by Field Stations.
  • Learning resources including quizzes and galleries.
  • An improved REEF Store to order all of your identification resources and survey materials.
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  • And Coming Soon -- Online Data Entry for ALL of our Survey Regions. This long-awaited feature should be available by the end of this week!

     

    To get the most out of the new website, you will need to become a registered REEF.org user, so be sure to create a user login profile.

    The new REEF.org website will enable REEF to more effectively achieve it's mission to educate, enlist and enable divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active stewards and citizen scientists. The site will also facilitate collaboration with REEF’s existing and new partners and allow our programs to reach a broader audience.

    In the coming months, REEF will continue to add new content, and areas still under construction will be completed. All of the REEF staff appreciate your patience in advance as the transition to REEF’s new website is completed.

    This is the third major revision to the REEF website. REEF’s online home was originally launched ten years ago in 1997. REEF would like to extend a huge thank you to Ben Weintraub and the Norcross Foundation for making this new site possible, as well as Dr. Michael Coyne (REEF’s primary IT Support Volunteer and developer of the REEF database), and Brice Semmens and Ken Marks (the designers of the previous two versions of REEF.org).

  • DEMA 2007: New Partnerships Help REEF, Help Dive Industry

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    Fall Intern, Lauren Finan giving a certificate of appreciation to one of our volunteers James Brooke
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    Two of the raffle winners Cindy Whitaker and Catherine Whitaker with the photographer, Tom Isgar
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    DEMA 2007 Booth with Leda Cunningham, Executive Director and REEF volunteer Mike Phelan

    On October 31, while many of you donned witch's hats and goofy masks, the REEF team suited up in Diving That Counts! t-shirts and made the annual pilgrimage to DEMA Show 2007, the largest dive industry trade show. DEMA was again held in Orlando, Florida, allowing local volunteers Mike Phelan, Tom Isgar, Dave Grenda, Lillian Kenney, and Nancy Eickelmann to generously donate their time in helping at the REEF booth. Fall interns Catherine Whitaker and Lauren Finan were rock stars as REEF ambassadors at the show by promoting the Volunteer Survey Project among attendees, helping recruit new Field Stations and selling REEF merchandise. Many thanks to Tom Isgar for donating four marine life prints to a daily raffle at the REEF booth.

    One notable difference at DEMA this year was the undercurrent of environmental awareness among both exhibitors and attendees. REEF Executive Director, Leda Cunningham, co-led a workshop on using eco-activities (like the REEF Volunteer Survey Project) to increase diver acquisition with Project AWARE Director Jenny Miller-Garmendia. More than 12 organizations - non-profit, government, small business - have formed an alliance to serve as a resource for eco-activities and environmental education to the dive industry. We were honored to meet with White House representative, Gerhard Kuska, DEMA President, Tom Ingram and others with an interest in seeing this "Blue Diver Alliance" grow into active partnerships with the dive industry.

    From the dive industry's perspective, the environment sells. Recent market research shows that the target dive consumer is the baby-boomer, for whom the environment is an important factor in their consumption decisions, including whether and where to go diving. Many exhibitor-sponsored seminars focused on practical strategies for marketing to the eco-conscious customer; one even demonstrated ways that a dive shop might "green" itself by, for example, using bio-diesel in its boats or installing energy efficient appliances. REEF continues to work with dive industry members in promoting the Volunteer Survey Project as a way to recruit and retain divers while helping collect important underwater information to help preserve the marine life that divers want to see. REEF survey materials like Starter Kits and the new home study DVD course (read the press release here) and the Field Station program (visit www.REEF.org for more info) are tools REEF uses to provide incentives to dive shops and other industry members to get involved with REEF.

    REEF is excited to be working closely with the dive industry as DEMA launches its new "Be A Diver" campaign (January, 2008). We look forward to welcoming a new wave of environmentally engaged divers and training them to better understand and preserve marine life.

    REEF Attends 54th Boston Sea Rovers Clinic

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    54th Annual Underwater Clinic of Boston Sea Rovers
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    Boston Scene near Fairmont Hotel
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    Increasing awareness of REEF in the Northeast
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    Joe Cavanaugh and Holly Martel Bourbon
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    Foureye Butterflyfish seen with Cunner in Woods Hole. Photo: Alison Johnson

    REEF had the opportunity to attend the 54th Annual Underwater Clinic of Boston Sea Rovers, March 8-9th in Boston, MA. The Boston Sea Rovers has sponsored the “Longest Continuously Running Dive Show in the World.” Each annual clinic attracts as speakers, educators, explorers, scientists, divers and underwater photographers. The purpose of the lectures is to help Sea Rovers achieve the club mission “to educate the general public about the underwater world.” Since 1954, Sea Rovers has held an annual clinic in Boston for the purpose of raising the level of knowledge of the underwater world. Early members of the club invented the first underwater film show or clinic as it was known then and is still called such today. In addition to over 40 speakers this year and many booths at the show, there was the Saturday evening film event which is a must-see showcase of underwater photos and videos from renowned leaders in the field.

    Past speakers at the annual clinic include myriad famous names such as Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, Robert Ballard, George Bond, Peter Gimbel, Stan Waterman, Brian Skerry, Bob Talbot, David Doubilet, and many others.  Really, the Sea Rovers history mirrors that of SCUBA diving and the presenters have always been those same individuals who have been pioneers and innovators in diving, underwater science, marine conservation, underwater archaeology and discovery, and photography/videography.  I think if I were to describe the Sea Rovers in one sentence, it would be this: If every dive site in the world had 10' viz, 30 degree water temps, 1 fish and one moonsnail to see, it took the entire dive to find said fish and moonsnail, and you had to wear 40lbs in dive weight, there would still be an avid group of SCUBA enthusiasts in the Boston Sea Rovers! The annual event is really the last major dive show in America run solely by volunteers and proceeds from the event are used for scholarships, internships, in support of other non-profit organizations such as SeaMark and the Cotting School for Handicapped Children, and to continue to promote the goals of Sea Rovers.To learn more about the Sea Rovers, please visit http://www.bostonsearovers.com/BSRpublic/library

    I also spoke at the New England Aquarium as part of their Lowell Lecture Series and to the Aquarium Dive Club while visiting Boston.  The general motivation behind sending this native New Englander back home was to foster new and old liaisons in capacity building in the region.  Most people who attended my talks did not know that REEF conducts surveys or has a presence in New England.  Part of our goal in participating in the Clinic was to promote REEF programs such as the Great Annual Fish Count; increase our number of regional Field Stations; develop partnerships for utilizing the data that we hope to begin collecting in earnest in the coming year; create a regional list serve for interested individuals to connect on REEF programs; and develop a strategic plan for the region.  For our part, REEF is committed to creating a separate New England online data entry interface for our website in the coming month, revamping the NE fish ID curriculum, and hopefully adding invertebrates to this curriculum, developing a NE Advanced Assessment Team (AAT) program, then utilizing this AAT team for regional monitoring and ad hoc conservation efforts. Encouraging regional dive clubs to conduct surveys while on their winter trips in the Caribbean offers another way for NE members to get involved.  Stay tuned for more news from our NE partnerships and look to see the New England online data entry up and running very soon. Ultimately, nurturing REEF's survey efforts in New England will benefit many stakeholders just as these survey data currently inform marine management decisions in our other survey regions.

    There are a few people I would like to thank here for making this trip possible:  Vickie Cataldo (NEAQ Lowell Lecture Coordinator) for her generous travel support to REEF;  Dan Laughlin and Sarah Taylor at NEAQ; David Caldwell (Exhibitor/Coordinator of Sea Rovers); David Morton (President Sea Rovers); Bob Michelson for ongoing support of REEF; Terri Rioux (WHOI DSO); Al Bozza (NEAQ Dive Club); and especially Holly Bourbon Martel for arranging my Sea Rovers talk, co-presenting with me, and for taking on the role of Volunteer NE Regional Coordinator for REEF.  Also, thanks to The New England Aquarium in Boston and the Coastal Dive Center in Hingham, MA our regional REEF Field Stations. Cape Ann Divers in Gloucester and Divers Market in Plymouth also have recently assisted REEF.

    REEF Leads Non-Native Fish Workshop

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    Over 20 management agencies and organizations attended the non-native fish workshop hosted by REEF last month.
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    Indo-Pacific Lionfish are now omni-present throughout the Bahamas but have yet to be found south of Miami. A coordinated response plan to deal with any south Florida sightings was developed during the workshop.

    As part of REEF's continuing work on non-native species, particulary the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish, a multi-agency technical workshop was hosted by REEF, NOAA and the USGS to develop early detection and rapid response plans for Southeast Florida.  Over 20 different state, federal and organizational offices were represented at the 2-day workshop, which was held June 18th and 19th in Marathon, Florida.  Breakout seesions addressing early warning and notification, jursidictions and permitting, and rapid response led to a coordinated response plan outlining detection and response efforts from intitial sighting through removal and final reporting.  

    The workshop featured presentations by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's Scott Hardin, REEF's Lad Akins, the USGS's Pam Fuller and NOAA's James Morris.  In addition, REEF partners from Bermuda (Chris Flook), the Bahamas (Nicola Smith), Canada (Stephanie Green) and the National Aquarium in Washington DC (Andrew Pulver) provided critical examples of their work addressing the lionfish invasion.

    While lionfish are yet to be confirmed in the Southeast Florida region south of Miami, it is believed their arrival is eminent.  Plans developed as part of this workshop will be critical in helping minimize impacts of this invasive species as well as helping to prevent the establishment of other non-ative fish and invertebrates in Southeast waters.  The program, once groundtruthed, will provide an Early Detection/Rapid Response model for other areas of the US and Caribbean.  Funding for the workshop was provided by REEF, the Mote Protect Our Reefs fund, NOAA's Aquatic Invasive Species Program, the USGS, NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary System, and the Gulf and Atlantic States Regional Panel on Aquatic Invasive Species.

    Special thanks is due to USGS's Pam Schofield and NOAA's Tom Culliton for their work in organizing and conducting the workshop.

    To report sightings of any non-native species, go to www.reef.org/programs/exotic or call (305) 852-0030.

    REEF is a Platinum Organization

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    As Lad reported in an earlier article, DEMA was eventful and exciting. Beyond the networking and outreach about the lionfish invasion, REEF was proud to attend the SSI Platinum Pro Award ceremony. On Thursday October 23, Lad Akins and Anna DeLoach joined Paul Humann (1993) REEF Board of Trustees, Ned Deloach (1993) REEF Board of Trustees and Lisa Mitchell (1993) REEF Executive Director as proud recipients of the SSI Platinum Pro5000 Diver award. The SSI Platinum Pro5000 Diver card is the calling card of the world’s most elite water explorers. The list of cardholders is a “who’s who” of diving, containing the world’s most prominent dive leaders, scientists, photographers, manufacturers, retailers, and resort operators.

    What makes the SSI Platinum Pro5000 Diver award so special is that it’s all about diving. The unsung dive master on any island and Jacques Cousteau earned their cards the same way—by diving 5,000 times. Let’s put 5,000 dives into perspective. It takes 500 dives a year for 10 years, or 100 dives a year for 50 years! That’s a lifetime of dedication and commitment to the sport.

    Any other REEF Members out there that are SSI Platinum Pro5000 Diver, please e-mail us with your REEF number and the year you were inducted into this elite group.

    Great Annual Fish Count in the Northeast

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    There was a record turnout at the 7th annual Northeast GAFC event. 103 divers conducted fish surveys at 8 dive sites in 2 states. Photo courtesy Bob Michelson.
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    Olympus camera representative Andrew Bausk demonstrates new product to divers. Olympus sponsored the event by donating a digital camera and waterproof housing to the volunteer fish counters raffle. Photo courtesy Bob Michelson.

    The 18th Great Annual Fish Count (GAFC) is now in full swing. There are GAFC events being held around the country. One of the largest and longest running is held in the Northeast US. Over 100 divers are expected to converge at Stage Fort Park in Gloucester, MA, on July 25, for the 8th annual Northeast GAFC event. The celebration, hosted by The New England Aquarium Dive Club and REEF, will include survey dives, a picnic, free raffles and door prizes. GAFC dives are planned at seven shore locations around Cape Ann, along with dives at Nubble Light, York, ME. Every survey form submitted after each dive will count as an entry into the raffles for each diver.

    Begun in 1975, the New England Aquarium Dive Club, Inc. is one of the world's oldest, largest and most active aquarium affiliated dive clubs. We share the fun of diving, a love of the sea, a concern for diving safety, and a desire to learn more about the aquatic realm and to share that knowledge with others. The REEF Fish Survey Project allows volunteer SCUBA divers and snorkelers to collect and report information on marine fish populations. The data are collected using a fun and easy standardized method, and are housed in a publicly-accessible database on REEF's Website. These data are used by a variety of resource agencies and researchers. In 2001, the acclaimed REEF Fish Survey Project and the Great Annual Fish Count was introduced to New England's SCUBA-diving community.

    During our 7th Annual GAFC event held on July 18, 2008, 98 divers conducted 123 fish surveys at 7 locations around Cape Ann and southern Maine, making this the largest single day GAFC event held in the United States for an unprecedented seventh year in a row! Join us as our celebration continues with the New England Aquarium Dive Club, REEF and the Great Annual Fish Count.

    For more information, please contact: Bob Michelson, event coordinator for the New England Aquarium Dive Club at (781) 848-8870, or by e-mail, pbm.inc@verizon.net.

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub