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 Fish Academy

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Participants of the first ever REEF Fish Academy.

Where people get fish smarts! Over the weekend of October 12, six REEF Level 1 & 2 surveyors got a chance to become Level 3 Advanced surveyors and increase our fish smarts with Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach and Lad Akins. I personally became a REEF customer for this event and participated in the classroom, the fun, hanging out with Paul, Ned and Anna at the cookout, diving with Lad as he found new (for us) exciting additions to our life list and took the 100 Fish - Level 3 test (good thing I passed).

As part of the event, the first of its kind, we invited surveyors who had submitted 25 or more surveys but were still rated Introductory/Novice. Linda Crouse, Kelly Drinnen, Lureen Ferretti, Karen Hausheer and Dawn Vigo were the very fist participants in REEF Fish Academy. The weekend included classroom sessions, survey dives, and evening socials. Anna DeLoach shared REEF’s vision for this new training program with our participants, “We are looking to provide our enthusiastic REEF members with a way to share their passion and knowledge for Fish Watching. REEF Fish Academy is designed to tap into this enthusiasm and provide our members a way to become mentors for others, spreading the word about fish watching and surveying. REEF Fish Academy graduates are ready share the fun and excitement of fish ID and show people what fish surveying and contributing to REEF’s database is all about - making dives that count”.

The diving and a cookout were provided by Horizon Divers, one of REEF’s valued partners here in the local community. We had two great days of diving and over 80 species of fish sighted during the intensively fish orientated weekend. We are already planning for our next REEF Fish Academy, so keep an eye out for your invitation – coming soon.

Congratulation to Lureen Ferretti – who even passed her Level 4 Fish Test during the weekend and is now an Expert Surveyor. Special thanks to the participants for their support, coming to Key Largo to dive with us, their enthusiasm and all the great feedback and suggestions. It was a fantastic weekend.  Click here to find out more about REEF's Experience Levels.

First Bahamas Lionfish Derby Huge Success: 1,408 lionfish in 1 day!

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Thomas Roberts (left), with his family, Lad Akins, and Bobbie Lindsay (right, event organizer), won first place in the derby. Mr. Roberts brought in 289 lionfish during the one day event.
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Lionfish have proven to be a dangerous invader to Bahamian and Caribbean reefs. Photo by Lenny Zwik.

The first Bahamas Lionfish Derby, held on June 6 at the Green Turtle Club in Abaco, was a great success on many fronts. This test case for the Bahamas government was the first to allow (by special permit) the use of compressed air and spearing to remove lionfish in a derby type event. Organized by Abaco and Palm Beach resident Bobbie Lindsay and REEF, the one-day event drew 26 registered teams and brought in 1, 408 lionfish. Over $5,000 in prize money was awarded including $2,000 for the most fish by any team – 289 by team White Roach from Abaco. The largest fish award went to Team Panga with a 349mm fish and the smallest fish was brought in by Big T with a 57mm juvenile. Pre-event talks, including a school wide talk to the Amy Roberts elementary school, were well attended and generated significant awareness of the lionfish issue. Over 200 participants, residents and visitors attended the scoring and awards banquet and were treated to a lionfish tasting as well.

This is the first large scale event aimed at controlling lionfish populations in the Caribbean. More events are currently being organized in other areas and dates are being set for next year’s 2nd annual Abaco Derby. Special thanks goes out to the Green Turtle Club, Brendal’s Dive Shop and all of the great teams and volunteers who participated in the event. A great time was had by all and the lionfish population around Abaco was dramatically reduced.

Derby results –

  • Most Lionfish – White Roach (289), Little Big Fish (234), Sweet Thing (173)
  • Largest Lionfish – Team Panga (349mm), White Roach (344mm), Team Pineapple (341)
  • Smallest Lionfish – Big T (57mm), Bolo Boys (81mm), Sweet Thing (82mm)
  • Special Dreamy Timber award for most frozen lionfish – Team Panga
  • Grouper Spawning Aggregation Research Continues in 2010

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    The Grouper Moon Project studies the spawning aggregations of the endangered Nassau grouper. Photo by Selina Heppell.
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    Over 3,000 Nassau grouper aggregate at a site off Little Cayman Island during winter full moons. Photo by Scott Heppell.

    Scientists and project volunteers from REEF and our partner institutions, the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment and Oregon State University, are getting ready for another year of the Grouper Moon Project. The team will be in the field for two weeks beginning on the full moon, January 30. Since 2001, REEF has led the Grouper Moon Project, a multi-faceted, collaborative research effort in the Cayman Islands aimed at better understanding Nassau grouper reproduction and the role that marine reserves can play in the long-term protection of this endangered species.

    In 2003 the Cayman Island Marine Conservation Board instituted an 8-year fishing ban on Nassau grouper at all historically known aggregation sites in the Cayman Islands. This followed the discovery by fisherman of 7,000 aggregating Nassau grouper on the west end of Little Cayman in 2001 and the subsequent harvest of 4,000 of those fish over two spawning seasons. At the time, all other known Nassau grouper aggregations in the Cayman Islands had become inactive due to over-harvest. Thanks to a three-year grant awarded in 2008 by the Lenfest Ocean Program of the Pew Charitable Trusts, REEF is conducting research through the Grouper Moon Project to evaluate the current status of the Cayman Islands spawning aggregations and the effect of these harvest protections -- “The reproductive biology of remnant Nassau grouper stocks: implications for Cayman Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA) management”.

    The broad goals for the 2010 spawning season are to continue monitoring recovery in the large spawning aggregation on Little Cayman, and to expand research into the fate of remnant spawning aggregations on Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman. Watch future issues of REEF-in-Brief for field season results and what's next for the protection of spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands as the current harvest ban is due to expire. To find out more about the Grouper Moon Project, visit the webpage http://www.reef.org/programs/grouper_moon

    REEF Annual Report 2009 Released

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    REEF Staff and Board members are proud to announce the release of our 2009 Annual Report. To view a PDF of the report online, click here. In this report, you will find updates on our membership, the Volunteer Fish Survey Project, regional activities, special projects (e.g. invasive lionfish and Grouper Moon), data use and publications, our upcoming plans, and finances. We are truly grateful for all your support that made 2009 such a success!

    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.

    Outstanding in their Field: Featured REEF Field Station, Aqua Safari

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

    Our outstanding Field Station this month is Aqua Safari in Cozumel. Aqua Safari has supported REEF since 2001. At that time, long-time REEF member and Cozumel local, Sheryl Shea, took the lead in promoting the Fish Survey program through teaching fish ID to both Aqua Safari staff and customers. That year, Aqua Safari hosted the first Cozumel Field Survey trip, with REEF surveyors and marine park staff submitting over 200 surveys in just a week! Today, REEF's database holds data for over 400 species and over 6,000 surveys from Cozumel. Aqua Safari currently offers several fish ID courses to the general public: A "dry" introduction to Fish ID for snorkelers and divers; the REEF Level 2 course; and Advanced Fishes. There are plans to add a course geared to the interests of underwater photographers and an in-water snorkeling course with surveying. The Level 3 and advanced-level surveyor exams are offered annually during REEF Week. The shop stocks REEF books -- including a reference set for its customers' use after diving -- and survey materials. And they continue to host an annual REEF Field Survey trip each December (see www.REEF.org/trips). Aqua Safari warmly welcomes REEF members whom, the staff says, are generally excellent and aware divers who never fail to educate others on their boats. Aqua Safari has been in operation since 1966, pioneering sport diving in Cozumel and serving the island as an advocate for conservation of its marine environment. During the 1990's, owner Bill Horn worked toward the establishment of Cozumel's marine park and has maintained his vigilance regarding park policies and use. Thank you, Aqua Safari!

    Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub