Author Archives: Kara Hall

2015 REEF Intern, Kara Hall: Nests and Wrecks, 7/24/2015

The last couple of weeks at REEF have been filled with a lot of diving, volunteer days, and preparation for our Lionfish Derby Series beginning in July.

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Biscayne National Park with their sea turtle nest monitoring efforts.  After an hour drive north to the park, I met Kelsy and Tina – both University of Miami students leading the project for the day. After I arrived, I al1437590428413so found out that Pike, the Our-World Underwater National Park Service intern, was going to be with us for the day! It was great to meet Pike and hear about his adventures while traveling.  We loaded up into one of the National Park Service boats and took off across the bay to walk along the beaches in search of sea turtle nests.

Either Kelsy or Tina would drive the boat up to the shoreline until the water was about waist-deep. At this point, whoever was going to walk the beach jumps into the water and wades up to the beach. The beaches varied in both length and composition.  Most of the time, you had to wade through murky water filled with sargassum or other seaweeds to get to the shore. Dive booties were a must! Once on the shore, you start looking for the signs of a sea turtle nest: flipper indentations in the sand, an area where she laid her eggs, and then an exit route back to the water.  I don’t have much experience with sea turtle nests, so I relied on Kelsy and Tina to point these out to me.  Once finished walking the beach, you would simply wade back to the boat and hop back onboard!

After having walked several beaches, Tina and Pike found the markings of a nest! Kelsy and I anchored the boat, and waded ashore to have a look at it.  You could clearly see where the turtle crawled up onto the shore, created a depression in the sand where she laid her eggs, and then exited back into the ocean. We dug and dug into the sand looking for the eggs so we could correctly mark the eggs with a screen to protect them from predators.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t successfully locate the eggs and we had to place the screen at our best guess of where the eggs were located in the sand.


Lighthouse on Boca Chita Key

After the walking the last beach, Kelsy and Tina took us to Boca Chita Key to eat lunch. We were able to go to the top of the lighthouse and look out across Biscayne Bay.  The water in the bay was so clear that you could see stingrays and sea turtles swimming by.  I truly had a great time volunteering with Kelsy and Tina and I enjoyed learning about their sea turtle monitoring project. Thanks to the National Park Service and Biscayne National Park for letting me have this experience!


Diving the Spiegel Grove

One of the things that I have looked forward to the most about diving in the Florida Keys is the opportunities of diving on the wrecks. Last Tuesday, Abbey and I were able to dive on our first wreck of the summer, the Spiegel Grove! After descending about 60 feet on the lines, we came upon the bow of the ship. It was certainly the largest ship that I have seen underwater. We began our dive by swimming the width of the ship into the current and then down the starboard length of the ship.  I was attempting to complete a REEF survey but it was hard to focus on the fish while trying to comprehend the massive size of the ship.  One of our goals was to see the American flag that is on the deck. Abbey brought her GoPro so we were able to snap a few pictures with the flag before moving onto the port side of the ship. At this point, I nearly ran into three huge goliath groupers. These were the first goliath groupers that I got to mark on one of my REEF fish surveys! We swam the length of the ship back to the line and successfully completed our first dive on the Spiegel Grove!


Following the line to the Spiegel Grove


This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to go to Key West and dive on the Vandenberg to complete REEF surveys with the Advanced Assessment Team.  The Advanced Assessment Team are Level 4 and 5 REEF surveyors within a certain region and so they certainly know their fish! The Vandenberg is a 523 foot long steel-hulled ship that was intentionally sunk in 2009 and is the second largest artificial reef in the world.  REEF was contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to annually monitor pre- and post-deployment fish assemblages of the Vandenberg and nearby reef areas.


Diving the Vandenberg!

Abbey and I left very, very early in the morning to make a check-in at 8 in the morning at Key Dives in Key West. Our dive group comprised of REEF staff, interns, and volunteers, as well as Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission employees.  It was short boat ride out to the Vandenberg while Abbey and I listened to dive briefings of what we should expect down on the wreck.  Both of us were armed with our REEF fish survey underwater papers and our GoPros.  The line system was very similar to the Spiegel Grove and in no time, we were swimming next to the Vandenberg! The visibility was not very clear but the view was still breathtaking! This time, our dive began on the stern of the ship and we began by swimming along the port side of the ship.  Again, I desperately tried to focus on my fish survey but my attention was captivated by the ship.  It was an eerie feeling to swim next to dark doorways and stairways leading down into the vessel.

We reached a flat part of the deck when allof the sudden a heard a “poof” and then a steady stream of air behind me.  Realizing that I had a problem with my first stage, I got Abbey’s attention and she tried adjusting my first stage and take valve.  I looked down at my gauge and watched the needle slowly move down and I lost about 500 psi in no time. Unable to stop the continuous stream of air escaping from my tank, we had to ascend and end our dive early.  I was losing the air in my tank so quickly, I had to take Abbey’s alternate air source in the middle of our safety stop so we could finish it.  When we surfaced, we were far from our dive boat so the captain on a nearby boat graciously let us on his boat until everyone returned to our boat and it came over to pick us up.  After removing the first stage of my regulator, the o-ring in the tank valve was coming out and pieces were flaking off of it.  It was certainly an odd situation to be in and Abbey and I handled it well, but we were both more disappointed that our dive was cut in half!


Joe’s Tug

Our second dive was at Joe’s Tug which is a shallower site very near the Vandenberg. Of course, we had to have a competition of who would see the greatest number of species on the dive. Although I knew I didn’t have a chance against the AAT, I definitely challenged myself on my fish identification skills. Down in a sandy area, Carlos, one of the AAT members, pointed out lancer dragonets and chalk bass.  It was the first time I could mark those on a REEF fish survey! Everyone enjoyed the biodiversity of Joe’s Tug and we were a happy bunch on the boat ride back to Key West.

The REEF Lionfish Derby Series begins in July with our first derby in Fort Lauderdale.  Also, the next session of Ocean Explorers summer camp begins this week.  We will be keeping busy around the REEF office!

Whale wishes!



Of(fish)ally a Fish Surveyor!

Greetings from Key Largo! I feel as though I have finally settled in and I have certainly been kept busy the last couple weeks at REEF! I have already learned so much and have met so many new people, it is almost impossible to summarize it all up into one blog post – but I am going to try!

One of REEF’s citizen scientist programs is the Volunteer Fish Survey Project.  The goal is to educate recreational divers how to correctly identify reef fish.  REEF provboatingides many resources to get started with fish identification.  We sell starter kits, identification books, and provide fish identification lectures that are open to the public.  Divers can use underwater paper and slates to record their data during their dives.  Not only is it important to properly identify the fish, but part of the survey is recording the abundance of each species.  Divers assign an abundance category to each species: single (1), few (2-10), many (11-100), or abundant (101+). They can complete these fish surveys while diving and report the data back to REEF.  Over time, this has created the world’s largest fish sightings database!

In our first week, Ellie, the Education Program Manager, gave us a fish identification lecture with the most commonly sighted fish in the Tropical Western Atlantic.  After this lecture, we were ready to begin surveying! Since then, I have completed 15 surveys and have been challenged to keep learning new fish IDs1433713788342.  It is so rewarding to learn all the names of the fish topside and then be able to correctly identify them underwater! Although we do like to see the large fish of the reef, like sharks and rays, we usually get more excited when we spot an elusive, small fish that we have been searching for.  For instance, it has been exciting to begin learning goby species and find them darting across the sand.  In many cases, you have to get really close to see the identifying markings.  Dive after dive, I am slowly learning to identify more and more fish!

This past week has been incredibly busy with REEF’s first summer camp, Ocean Explorer’s! The camp is held at the John Pennekamp State Park andI was able to participate in three of the days’ activities.  On Monday, we were visited by a park ranger (former REEF intern, Colin Howe) and were given a brief orientation of the park.  After visiting the aquarium, the kids had some time to snorkel at the beach.  In the afternoon, we all loaded up in tandem kayaks and pakayakingddled our way through the mangrove trails.  Nobody fell in, but some of the kids decided it was too hot and needed to cool off in the water.  All of them had a great time naming fish that they had just learned and exploring the mangrove ecosystem.  On Wednesday, Abbey and I helped taking the group on a glass-bottom boat tour.  Thankfully, no one got seasick and we had a great view of one of the coral reefs, including two nurse sharks! That afternoon, the Florida Exotic Bird Sanctuary brought in a rescued owl and gave a short presentation on the effects of bioaccumulation in an ecosystem.  We finished the day by letting the kids tye-dye their camp shirts. We began the last day of camp by taking a boat out to Grecian Rocks and snorkeling on the coral reef.  Many of the kids were able to correctly identify fish species and were enthusiastic about what they saw underwater.  I would have loved to have gone to the Ocean Explorers camp when I was younger!

When we haven’t been counting fish or adventuring with the Ocean Explorers, the other interns and I have had a great time discovering Key Largo.  We have challenged ourselves with eating as many tacos as possible at Senor Frijoles and deciding which pizza is better between Upper Crust and Tower of Pizza (still a toss-up). We have many events, including lionfish derbies and fish identification lectures, coming up in July and I am sure it will keep us busy!

Best fishes!




Greetings from Key Largo!

Hi everyone!

My name is Kara Hall and I have been given the great opportunity of serving as an intern with REEF in Key Largo for this summer! I am currently a student at Indiana University and after this upcoming year, I will have completed a degree in Environmental Management as well as a certificate in Underwater Resource Management. In addition to my love for diving, I also immensely enjoy backpacking, hiking, reading, and watching baseball (Go Cardinals!).

I am honored to be supported by the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society and I greatly appreciate the funding that they have provided that allows me to travel to and live in Key Largo for the summer. Additionally, I am incredibly grateful to REEF in that they are allowing me to come and work closely with them for the summer. I also appreciate the support shown to me by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, but even more so, the Office of Underwater Science at Indiana University. It is somewhat difficult to study and explore the field of marine conservation in Indiana, but the professors and staff at IU have shown me incredible support and have greatly encouraged my interest in this field.

On Wednesday evening, my mom and I arrived in the Keys after driving about 20 hours from Fort Wayne, Indiana. After spending the night in Islamorada, we continued to drive south and explored Key West. Along the way, we stopped at Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key. After hearing that this is one of the best beaches in South Florida, we wanted to walk along the shoreline and enjoy the beautiful, sunny weather. After visiting Key West, we stopped at Bahia Honda on the way back to do some snorkeling before sunset. In one shallow area, we saw juvenile sergeant majors and several porkfish that had taken refuge underneath a fallen tree near the beach. The first of many fish sightings!


We stopped by the REEF office on Thursday morning and met Lad, Martha, and Amy. We received a short tour of the office and I enjoyed finally seeing the office and meeting them. I am really looking forward to working there! The intern house provided by REEF is just blocks away from the John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. So after visiting the office, we decided to go snorkeling at the beaches at Pennekamp. Most of the area is seagrass beds and the shores are lined with mangroves. I had never been snorkeling in the mangroves before! We saw several different type of grunts and parrotfish throughout the area and I loved watching the upside-down jellyfish pulsating amongst the seagrass beds. There were several barracuda in among the mangroves, but the largest fish that we saw were tarpon that were hanging out near a drop-off.



Throughout the weekend, the other three interns also moved into the house. Each one is very excited to be here and enthusiastic about exploring the ocean with REEF this summer. Monday is our first day in the office and we are anxiously waiting to know about all the amazing adventures that we will have in the next few months. I am sure we will make life-long memories with all of the opportunities that we will be given this summer.