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!
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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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
As we continue to showcase our valuable interns, I mentioned in last months newsletter that we would introduce our remaining fall intern. With that thought in mind please join REEF in welcoming Lauren Finan. Lauren is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, pursuing her studies in Environmental Policy which is why she was such a good candidate for our program. She has a strong passion for the quality of our reefs and the ocean and diligently championed for our last remaining fall intern slot. An avid diver since age 14, she became interested in the quality of our delicate ecosystem, however, due to her locale in Boulder, she was totally landlocked and did not have the ability to get out and dive, and she will be doing plenty of that now, along with working her way through the various levels of our Fish Identification Course. Lauren role here at REEF will be the coordination of our presence at DEMA this year, as well as maintaining our membership data updates and working on the improvement of our educational/outreach program. We're fortunate that both our fall interns will be with us until December.
Bonnie Greenberg recently joined REEF as the office manager. She brings with her more than 20 years of experience in non-profit management and entrepreneurship: including work with Marathon Community Theatre, Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys , director of marketing with a family business in Pennsylvania and a few years working as a journalist for local media. She likes to snorkel, sail, spend time with friends, read great books now and then, and create a good meal. Having said for years she was writing her own version of the Great American Novel - Bonnie spent the past two years as the front desk associate with a small Florida Keys Resort while she toiled at her story. She’s about half-way there. She holds a BFA from Emerson College. Bonnie resides in Key Largo, FL with her long-term boyfriend and 3 cats. Next time you find yourself in Key Largo, please swing by REEF HQ to meet Bonnie and the other REEF staff.
During the last week of April, divers from around the country gathered at Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo, Florida for a REEF Fish Behavior Tour hosted by Ned and Anna DeLoach. After making two morning dives each day, the group spent their late afternoons and early evenings attending entertaining talks about the myriad fish they encountered on the reef. Lad Akins, REEF’s Special Projects Director, dropped by to explain the science behind the recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish in the western Atlantic. But the highlight of the week was the rare opportunity for everyone to create their own coral garden.
Yes, you read it right: After being giving instructions by coral scientist Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation, participants headed out the following morning to Ken’s coral nursery located in Hawke Channel where they transplanted cuttings of staghorn coral from a mother colony onto a set of nursery blocks.
After watching 90 percent of the Keys’ staghorn coral die off from a variety of reasons over the past decades, Ken, an aquaculturist by trade, decided to do something about the disheartening problem. In the late 1990’s, he began nurturing small buds of rapidly growing staghorn that by chance settled on his underwater “live rock” farm. Following several years of trial and error, Ken pioneered the first successful method for cultivating and transplanting large quantities of coral. His current success rate hovers at an incredible 90 percent.
After the REEF divers carefully epoxyed their branches on numerically coded pedestals and recorded measurement data, the group headed off to a site on Molasses Reef where, in 1984 the M/V Wellwood, an ocean-going freighter, ran aground destroying 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Federal agencies began extensive restoration of the site in 2002 including emplacement of numerous high-profile limestone modules (click here to read about REEF's post-restoration monitoring of the fish populations on these modules). Unfortunately, to date, the new structures have had limited success recruiting new coral growth. However, the area has one extraordinary success story and the focus of our second dive: Ken’s rapidly growing staghorn coral garden – the two-year result of transplanting nursery grown corals to the grounding site.
Dates for next year’s 2nd Annual Key Largo REEF Fish Behavior Tour at Amoray are scheduled for May 29 to June 5, 2009. The popular fish behavior talks cover Reproductive Strategies, What Fish Eat, Cleaning Stations, Discovering the Night Reef, and Fish Life Cycles. Participants will once again establish their own coral colonies and transplant this year’s nursery crop onto the reef.
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 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!