We just returned from a trip to the Florida Keys to conduct coral surveys for Coral Watch and a fish survey for REEF. Its basically “citizen science” where we are showing the kids how exciting the world of science can be. They learn basic concepts like measurement, data recording and observation skills, all while using their new scuba training. For the fish survey, we chose the deep Spiegel Grove wreck site off Key Largo. The Spiegel Grove was a US Navy amphibious support ship that was sunk as an artificial reef after it was decommissioned. It’s a huge wreck and is a very popular dive site. It has its challenges, its deep and usually has a strong current. The dive team from AMIkids Panama City Marine Institute was well prepared and had practiced diving in a current the day before so they would be ready. The survey showed a wide variety of fish spread out on the parts of the wreck that we observed. The data will be uploaded to the REEF website and kept in their data base for researchers to reference.
Next we started a new coral survey. Since this is the first time for us in this new location, we needed to select new corals for a long term study. We chose French Reef as the site and the location is relatively shallow in 27 feet of water. We picked 4 different types of coral; stag horn (pictured), brain, a shelf coral and a whip coral. To help protect the coral, the Keys utilize an extensive system of mooring buoys, which are permanently anchored to the bottom so they make great reference points where we can return every year to the same exact spot. From the block on the bottom, we then use a magnetic compass bearing and a tape measure to swim out to a specific coral that we wish to study. For instance, if we want to look at the brain coral next year, we will go back to that mooring buoy and at the bottom, travel 26 feet at 160 degrees magnetic and right there will be the brain coral, which we took a picture of and we will recognize it. We will take all new measurements and over time we will be able to see if it grows and thrives. In the last series we watched an Elkhorn coral grow over 5 years and in the 6th year it was totally gone, probably wiped out by a storm. It was traumatic, like losing a friend.
In the picture you can see Jordan measuring the density of the symbiotic algae that resides in the coral. Although it looks like a plant, corals are actually animals which like plants that have chloroplasts inside of them that convert solar energy into basic sugars, the algae do the same thing, convert sunlight into basic sugars used by both the coral and the algae. When the coral host is under stress, it ejects the algae and attempts to feed itself by just grabbing small particles of food floating by. Corals have tentacles like sea anemones and jelly fish, which they are related to, which can grab and sting their microscopic prey. Normally they live off of both the food they take from the water, mostly at night, and the sugars created by the algae during the day. It’s the algae which gives the coral its brilliant colors. When the algae is ejected, the coral turns white in a process called bleaching. Documenting the coloring and the extent of bleaching is a way to measure the health of the coral.
“Learning to dive was great but I really enjoyed doing the coral survey. It was like being a scientist!” said Jordan who has become so fascinated with the undersea world that for fun he goes down to the salt water aquarium shop on Harrison avenue and learns all of the names of the fish and anemones.
The student divers all did great with super buoyancy skills that allowed them to hover above the delicate coral without bumping into them and breaking them. The data gathered on the corals will be uploaded to Coral Watch for them to use in their studies.