A day with the Coral Restoration Foundation

On Friday, July 13th I spent the day as a volunteer for the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. I had done this once before back on Earth Day in 2011. I really believe that this organization is making a difference (perhaps small in the grand scheme of things) but at least they are taking direct action to change things.

During the morning the volunteers received the training necessary for the afternoon dives. As I would expect, there was a noticeable improvement in the morning training session since 2011.

Coral Nursery

For the first dive of the afternoon we went to the coral nursery off of Tavernier, Florida. For this particular trip the boat and dive guide service was provided by Rainbow Reef Dive Center.

As volunteers, our job was to clean algae, sponges and fire coral that was growing near the young coral fragments. Back in 2011 I also worked in the nursery. Our job then was to clean PVC pipe stands arranged on the ocean bottom on which the coral fragments were growing.

Pipe and Cap system

Since then they have changed most of the nursery to PVC pipe “trees” that are suspended in the water. They hang fragments of live coral from the branches of the trees. They found the fragments grow faster hanging on the trees than placed upright on a PVC pipe base like a plant.

CRF Nursery

However, using “trees” did not change the need to clean around the young coral so it does not get covered in algae, sponges and fire coral. Cleaning now takes a little more skill since you need to have good buoyancy control in order to hover beside the “tree” while gently scraping the thin “branches” of the “tree” clean of stubborn growth.

While we were cleaning the trees the CRF interns were collecting Elkhorn Coral fragments from another part of the nursery to “re-plant” on Pickles Reef.

“Planting” the Coral

The goal of our second tank dive was to “plant” the coral on Pickles Reef off of Key Largo. The process involves using a masonry hammer to scrape an area on the reef bottom free from algae for the new coral to be placed on. This allows the adhesive putty to bond to the reef base. We arrange the coral fragments in a circular group so they eventually grow together like a cluster of bushes. The underwater adhesive I mentioned is like a soft putty at this point. We have to use enough putty to secure the coral fragment enough to pass the wave test. We wave our hands over to coral to move the water enough and ensure the coral will stay firm in the adhesive putty long enough to harden despite any current and water movements that my occur.

I hope I can build on my experience, volunteer for them again and improve my skills.

Small Goliath Grouper on the Benwood

On July 12th I had the privilege to see a small Goliath Grouper on the wreck of the Benwood. The dive guides told us it had been hanging around near the bow of the ship so I was hoping for some good video footage.

The Goliath Grouper is one of my favorite fish. Ever since I watched them hunt using our dive lights back in 2014 I have a new appreciation of their intelligence. If you are interested in learning more about Goliath Groupers visit the links below.

Goliath Grouper Resources

 

 

Midnight Parrotfish on French Reef July 10 , 2018

I always enjoy watching the scene when a school of Midnight Parrotfish swim by. The school swoops down on a section of the reef, attacks the hell out a spot for a bit, then suddenly swim away at great speed, like they have a schedule to keep.

There does not seem to be an overabundance of online information resources about the Midnight Parrotfish. The best printed source I have found is in the book Reef Fish Behavior by Ned Deloach and Paul Humann.

Deloach and Humann tell us that Midnight Parrotfish “feed on filamentous Algae scraped from the reef base”. Although there are many natural patches on the reef, algae is also cultivated by Damselfish. What happens is a school of Midnight Parrotfish, “overwhelm the defenses of the damselfishes who have no trouble protecting their personal algae gardens from solitary herbivors, but have little chance fending off a swarm of feeding fishes.”  The books goes on to tell us that the have seen “distinct white bite marks on several egg patches on Sergent Majors egg patches. I would conclude that they eat eggs in addition to algae. I suspect that they overwhelm the Sergent Majors defending their eggs just like they do to damselfish defending their “farm”. This might explain one reason (I’m sure there are several) that Midnight Parrotfish school up and feed as shown in the video above.

Online Resources

 

Balloonfish on Molasses Reef

I always enjoy seeing a Balloonfish on the coral reef. 🙂

I’m back to quoting from the Florida Museum of Natural History website for species information. Their article about the balloon fish says,

This slow-moving fish has small fins for navigating the shallow reefs or sea grass beds it prefers. Its teeth are formed into a beak that can crush shells of the mollusks and crustaceans it hunts at night.

The article continues to say,

The body is covered in long, sharp spines that stick out when the fish inflates. The balloonfish inflates by taking water into its body when it is threatened. All members of the family Diodontidae are capable of inflation. Along with inflation, there may also be a color change due to the excitement.

I encourage visitors to go the website and read more.

Reef squid and Permit on the wreck of the City of Washington and Hanna M. Bell

On Monday, July 9th the afternoon dive was at Elbow Reef on a couple ship wreck named the City of Washington. and the Hanna M. Bell. The two best sighting of the dives include an encounter with some Caribbean Reef Squid and a close encounter with some small Permit.

City of Washington

The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary website tells us ,

the remains of the City of Washington lie on Elbow Reef. On July 10, 1917, while being towed by a tug, the City of Washington ran aground on and was a total loss within minutes.

The article goes on to say,

The Steam Ship City of Washington (SS City Washington), launched August 31, 1877, was an iron hulled steamer for use in passenger transport and the cargo trade between New York, Cuba, and Mexico.

Caribbean Reef Squid

Squid are always a treat to see and I love the way they change color. The Encyclopedia of Life website and Wikipedia explains,

Caribbean reef squid have been shown to communicate using a variety of color, shape, and texture changes. Squid are capable of rapid changes in skin color and pattern through nervous control of chromatophores.[2] In addition to camouflage and appearing larger in the face of a threat, squids use color, patterns, and flashing to communicate with one another in various courtship rituals.

Hanna M. Bell

The second tank dive was on the wreck of the Hanna M. Bell. For years the wreck was known as Mike’s Wreck. An article from the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary site explains how the true name of the wreck was discovered,

Information gathered by sanctuary staff and volunteers from the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) during a September 2012 field survey enabled maritime archaeologists to confirm the wreck’s origins.

Permits

The encounter with the “Permit” was a treat! I spotted them early in the dive but they were too far away for good video footage.I figured I lost my chance to get some video. I was happy to seem them again later on and to be able to get close video footage.

I must admit, I’m not 100% sure these fish are Permits. The dorsal fins are sloped like the Permit in the illustration below but the tail has what seems like a wide fork like the Pompano in the illustration below. The shape of the forehead looks more like a Permit than a Pompano. If the fish were larger (Pompano don’t grow as large as permits) then identification would be easy. At this size, they could be small Permit or large Pompano. I think the key is to line check the alignment between the dorsal fin and the anal fin. I have look at the video numerous times and am not sure. What do you think?

pompano-permit

Image from https://fishbites.com/identifying-permit-vs-pompano/

Shark sightings at the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary

In July of 2018 I was visiting Key Largo, Florida to dive at the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary and surrounding dive sites. Shark sightings are usually one of the highlights during a dive on the coral reef. I encountered many Nurse Sharks and a few Caribbean Reef Sharks. I put together a compilation video of the better video clips I was able to take during the trip.

I was sad to see that one of the Nurse Sharks had a large fishing lure in its mouth and another had a fish hook and leader hanging out of its mouth. 😦

Resource Links

Squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays

I had many fantastic wildlife encounters during my July 2018 trip to Key Largo, Florida. One of the best was the squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays that our diving group encountered near Permit Ledge on Molasses Reef.

Previous to this I had seen groups of 3 or 4 together but this was by far the largest squadron I have ever seen.

The Florida Museum of Natural History tells us,

The spotted eagle ray is commonly observed in bays and over coral reefs as well as the occasional foray into estuarine habitats. Although it occurs in inshore waters to depths of approximately 200 feet (60 m), the spotted eagle ray spends most of its time swimming in schools in open water. In open waters, spotted eagle rays often form large schools and swim close to the surface.

The Florida Museum of Natural History website article (quoted above) about the Spotted Eagle Ray is one of the better sources of information that I have found.

I made another edit of the video where I focused and zoomed in on the last two rays in the squadron since they were a little closer to me. Notice that the last Eagle Ray is missing its tail.