Every National Park unit I’ve visited so far has offered a distinctly unique experience. Just as each park has very different strengths, from the thriving tourism industry at Glen Canyon to the lonely beauty of the Channel Islands, each park faces equally unique challenges. Many visitors are drawn to the beautiful Biscayne National Park in South Florida for its boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing, as visitors might see manatees, sea turtles, rare birds, vibrant coral reefs, and tons of fish! Unfortunately, Biscayne’s reef communities and their coveted snorkeling/fishing opportunities face a threat that is unique to the Southeast US and Caribbean region: the invasive lionfish.
Lionfish were first seen in South Florida in the 1980s, the likely result of the improper release of the fish from an aquarium. Since then, they have begun to alter many native marine communities. The non-native lionfish has a voracious appetite for small fish, so it can dramatically decrease local fish populations. To top it all off, they’re covered by venomous barbs that can deter potential predators and occasionally hospitalize humans!
Much of my wonderful, diving-packed stay at Biscayne National Park was spent helping with the research and defensive measures that the park’s Resource Management Division is taking against the lionfish. Upon arrival, I met fish and wildlife biologist Vanessa McDonough, who studies and monitors many more species than just the troublesome lionfish. She introduced me to biologist and Park Dive Officer Shelby Moneysmith, archeologist Chuck Lawson, biological science technicians Katie Johnson, Amanda Lawrence, and Kara Wall, and University of Miami master’s students/Resource Management interns Ryan Fura and Christina Vilmar.
We all talked about the current lionfish studies that are conducted within Biscayne National Park and then quickly got to work on the problem. One lionfish study involves removing all lionfish from an isolated reef or shipwreck then recording how quickly they recolonize the area. We loaded many SCUBA tanks into their versatile 27 foot boat then motored out to the study sites. Regardless of lionfish, Biscayne National Park is absolutely beautiful! We passed uninhabited, mangrove-lined islands and crystal clear waters as we navigated the shallow waterways.
As I geared up for our first dive, I couldn’t shake the strong feeling that I was missing something important. It didn’t take me too long to realize what I thought I was missing – a wetsuit! For the first time in two years, I was able to dive in warm waters that allowed me to ditch my drysuit or thick wetsuit, which was a treat in itself. As we dropped down to our first study site, which was the wreckage of an old shrimp boat, I saw that I was in for more surprises. In addition to hundreds of beautifully-colored tropical fish and dozens of giant lobster, a six foot nurse shark was slowly swimming around the wreck! On later dives, I found myself face-to-face with a critically endangered goliath grouper that weighed at least two hundred pounds (they grow up to 800 pounds!), large stingrays, a sea turtle, and many more interesting fish. I didn’t really expect this abundance and diversity of marine life after hearing about the negative effects of the lionfish, but I was thrilled to see such a healthy-looking community.
I also had the opportunity to participate in some unusual maintenance dives at Biscayne. The park has a wealth of fragile underwater resources, including shipwrecks, coral reefs, and seagrass beds, which can all be easily damaged by careless boaters. Since boaters may inadvertently damage fragile sites with their anchors, we installed a mooring buoy at a popular shipwreck that allows boaters to secure themselves without having to drop anchor. To install the buoy’s anchor, we had to drill into solid rock using a massive drill while thirty feet underwater! Led by Terry Helmers, a volunteer-extraordinaire who has spent nearly thirty years improving Biscayne National Park, this labor-intensive process went very smoothly.
When we weren’t diving, I got a chance to participate in Biscayne’s sea turtle monitoring program. Endangered loggerhead sea turtles periodically nest in the outer beaches of the park, which gives the Resource Management team a chance to protect the local population. At sunrise, we would walk the beaches in search of disturbed sand that indicates a recent nest. When members of the team find a nest, they can protect the eggs from raccoons and other threats by covering the area with wire mesh. This method of protection has been hugely successful. Before the start of this protection method in 2000, up to 100% of the nests were disturbed by raccoons. Since then, predation has been reduced to almost 0%!
Another memorable aspect about this leg of the internship was that I finally got my hands on an underwater camera. I’m really excited at the chance to share some of the incredible things I’ve been seeing underwater – I only wish the camera arrived before I saw that massive goliath grouper! I owe a big thanks to Vanessa, Shelby, and the rest of the RM team for showing me their park’s workings and helping me with underwater photography, and another thanks to Kara for some photos!