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 also 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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!