Last year, our aquarium supervisor Mike Concannon embarked on a trip to Key Largo, Florida as part of the Staff Conservation Fund to assist in conservation and restoration for endangered and threatened coral species in the Florida Keys, established by the Coral Restoration Foundation. Since it is the Houston Zoo’s mission to bring conservation and awareness for all the species living here, this daily blog series highlights his journal entries detailing his trip.
The following series of posts is a recount of a trip I took in May of this year which was made possible by the Houston Zoo’s Staff Conservation Fund. For those who are unaware of this program, it allows staff members to apply for internal grants that are used to fund conservation activities around the globe. Proposals are reviewed by a diverse selection committee who makes decisions on funding every quarter. Every HZI employee is eligible for such a grant regardless of Department.
The most impressive thing about this program is that it relies upon the financial contributions of staff members to function. This says a great deal about the commitment of our staff as a whole. My work would not be possible without all of their support.
My project is an enhancement to an existing conservation effort being undertaken by the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, Florida. Their focus is the restoration of two severely threatened coral species in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. Due to a number of factors, staghorn and elkhorn corals have undergone declines approaching 98 per cent in most areas.
Prior to arrival in the Keys, a lot of the details of my trip were worked out by Dive Operations Manager Pamela Hughes. She was very accommodating and professional. I can’t begin to express how easy she made this endeavor.
Monday, May 19 2014
In speaking with Pamela Hughes of Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) yesterday, diving today is not likely. On land, wind gusts approaching 25 mph make for very poor conditions on the water. I will be meeting with her at Coral Restoration Foundation’s new Education Center, located at the Pilot House Marina at 10 a.m. to get oriented to the program. Hopefully, the winds die down soon so we can get in the water.
The Education Center was quite nice and well put together, with lots of large graphics and hands-on displays. They even have a newly set up marine aquarium which will eventually house fragments of corals from the nursery.
I had the pleasure of meeting CRF staff members Pamela, Ken, Kayla, and Jessica and they were all optimistic about being able to dive by tomorrow. Pamela showed me around the Education Center and did some hands-on training for the work we would be doing in the nursery and outplant sites. We pretended to fragment (break), hang (with monofiliament line and double barreled crimps), bundle, tag and plant coral fragments using painted skeletons and play-do standing in for epoxy. She also stressed that it was important to scrape and hammer all living material from the immediate area where the epoxy is to be applied to the reef. Though I’ve used plenty of epoxy in my career to attach corals to live rock, I can’t say I’ve ever strung them from monofilament line. It takes a bit of practice, and was sure to be more difficult underwater. Luckily, the “dry run” is well organized and effective. It’s not easy to communicate complex thoughts underwater with a regulator in your mouth. You really need to have a good grasp on what you are expected to do before you get in the water.
Pamela explains that there are a number of different experimental rigs at the nursery site. CRF continuously tries to improve their technique, but it seems that coral trees are the most effective way for now. She suggests that they are abandoning the idea of the line nurseries. Though they are very effective, strong storms leave the corals hopelessly entangled with one another. And though there have been no incidents, there is some concern that animals like turtles might become entangled.
Since diving was not a possibility for today, they asked me to show up at their lab on Tavernier Key in the morning to make coral tags and transport containers. Hopefully, the winds will die down and we’ll be able to dive tomorrow afternoon.
I’m free for the rest of the day, so I figure I’ll do some exploring. I spent the summer of 1996 in the Middle Keys volunteering for the Dolphin Research Center and am anxious to see how things have changed.
I stopped by the Dolphin Research Center and it has changed a LOT since I volunteered there in 1998. I also stopped by the Sea Turtle Hospital as well. Both are great facilities that are worthy of your time if you are ever in the area. After a quick trip to Seven Mile Bridge, I headed back north where I stumbled upon Windley Key State Geological Park. Surprisingly, it was the highlight of the day.
Click here to learn more about my visit at Windley Key State Geological Park!
I wanted to make sure I caught the sunset, so I headed to Marker 88 Restaurant to grab a tasty Cuban sandwich for dinner. The service and the view were top notch. Restaurants facing bayside are few and far between in the Upper Keys, so I was happy to find this one nearby. It is tradition in the Keys (and I’m sure in many other island communities) to clap for the Sun when it sets, to make sure it reappears tomorrow. Spoiler alert: It did.
The winds have died down quite a bit, so I have my fingers crossed that diving will be a possibility tomorrow!
Windley Key State Park has great historical, cultural, geological, and biological significance to the area. It is the site of a 20th century quarry for Key Largo limestone, which was used to build the Overseas Railroad. Completed in 1912, the Overseas Railroad was the first terrestrial connection between the mainland of Florida and Key West. After being largely destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the rail line was abandoned and the remaining infrastructure was sold to the State of Florida. Utilizing surviving supports, the state converted them to the highway known as U.S. 1 in 1938. This highway was utilized until the early 1980s, when a new highway was constructed beside it. The most impressive part of the construction is a bridge that extends all the way from Marathon to Little Duck Key, a seven mile stretch! The original stretch of the aptly named “Seven Mile Bridge” is accessible by foot and is worth a visit.
Even after the railroad was completed in 1912, quarrying continued for the highly decorative Key Largo limestone that can be found in some of the older architecture of the area. Though the quarry is now defunct, examples of quarry equipment remain on the land today for visitors to view.
From a geological and biological standpoint, the Windley Key site offers exciting clues to the natural history of the region. The highest elevation in the entire Keys (16 feet) occurs within the Park, the remains of an ancient reef that flourished here tens of thousands of years ago.
Though initial sedimentation began millions of years ago, the uppermost limestone formations found here are the result of an ancient reef that reached its peak around 100,000 years ago, when sea levels were 25 feet higher than they currently are. At that time, this ancient reef was under 10 or more feet of water. A modern reef flourished at this time and it teemed with life.
Later, at the height of glaciation (26,000 ybp), sea levels dropped 350 feet below current levels and these reefs were exposed as land…the predecessors of the current island chain. As water receded, the life on the former reefs were compacted and fossilized into what is called Key Largo Limestone. It contains a countless number of marine organisms, cemented together with calcareous sediment and is prized for its aesthetic appeal. This Key Largo limestone differs from Miami Limestone (which is found in Miami and the Lower Keys) in this respect. Miami limestone is composed mainly of smaller sediments, while Key Largo limestone has numerous inclusions of large marine fossils…a result of being a massive ancient reef.
As the last glacial period came to a close, melting glaciers began to refill the oceans. By about 6,000 years ago sea level had risen to about its current level, leaving the chain of small islands now known as the Florida Keys. During the sea level rise, as water spilled over the continental shelf, it cut passes between the limestone structures, creating the individual islands of the Keys. The larger masses in the Upper Keys were able to withstand a lot more flow without channeling and now are able to shield shallow, eastward reefs from the influx of water from the Florida Bay. Ancient, highly fossilized limestone is preserved near the surface in these areas. The Lower Keys were more diminutive, so more channeling occurred. They do not offer such protection to the eastern/southern side, so developed shallow reefs are sparse there. Miami limestone dominates the upper layers of rock in the south because large amounts of precipitated calcareous sediment have accumulated on top of the lower-lying Key Largo limestone as a result of the influx of warmer, more saline and nutrient rich waters from the Florida Bay.
Looking at a map of the Florida Keys, it is possible to see the difference between these areas visually. The Upper Keys (north of Big Pine Key) are much longer on an east-west axis than their Lower Keys counterparts. The Lower Keys have a longer north-south dimension to them, riddled with numerous passes from the Florida Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.
A thin layer of rich soil developed on the islands, allowing for vegetative growth. The culmination of the events that created Windley Key provide for a very diverse assemblage of trees on the Island. The park offers five different hiking trails to explore the habitat, highlighting over 40 species of native trees and plants in the tropical hardwood hammock forest. Visitors are likely to see many birds, insects and small reptiles, but mammals are sparse in this island forest community.
At the end of the trails, an education center helps to fill in where the trail guidebook leaves off. Displays help to demonstrate the formation of coral reefs and island forest communities. Information is presented on a level that appeals both to serious scientists and curious children.
Windley Key State Park is a must see for visitors in my opinion. If you enjoy birds, reptiles, trees, plants, hiking or history…you won’t be disappointed.
I headed over to the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) Laboratory around 9 a.m. to do some prep work for our dives. The CRF “Laboratory” is actually Ken’s former house. It’s a bright two story building with a spawning laboratory on the first floor that is maintained by the Florida Aquarium. In the adjacent room, an air compressor allows SCUBA cylinders to be filled. Upstairs is mainly equipment storage and workshop space, with a small apartment included for visiting researchers.
I met a few new people in the parking lot. My trip coincides with that of a group from the Georgia Aquarium, so we hope to get a lot accomplished this week. The weather has improved over night and we will definitely be diving on the nursery today.
Jessica set me up with the materials to create “Coral Tags”. These are embossed metal and foam board tags which serve to identify different genetic strains of corals, groups within those strains and the site at which they are planted. Creating the tags involves imprinting the metal and foam board tags by pounding on the stamps with a heavy hammer. Then, the letters and numbers are traced with magic marker to make them easier to read. It’s a lot more meticulous than it sounds. I was set up on the hot concrete driveway and produced around 100 tags in 45 minutes or so while being chewed on by fire ants. Unfortunately, because of the size of the tags, you couldn’t stack the stamps up and hammer several figures at once. There wasn’t enough space, so each figure had to be embossed individually.
After I finished with the tags, Kayla took me upstairs and showed me how to rig up some low tech coral transport boxes. Basically, they are standard milk crates with lead weights zip-tied to the bottom on each side. The weights are inside of the crate so they don’t affect stability. These crates obviously don’t hold water but they are placed inside of large plastic tubs that do hold water on the boat. More importantly, they make transporting fragments around the nursery much easier, so you don’t have to return to the boat as often. I made these until I ran out of weights.
I grabbed a quick lunch and headed to the Pilot House.
Though the winds have diminished since yesterday, the water was still really rough. I’m pretty exhausted and have to admit to a brief bout of seasickness on the way back to the marina. Think I’ll stick to fruit and crackers for the remainder of the week before diving.
Through the generosity of the Georgia Aquarium, CRF is using a charter boat for the week ahead. Capt. Dave Montgomery of Keys Diver had the boat and SCUBA cylinders ready to go when I arrived. The Captain and Crew was top notch, both personally and professionally. Normally, CRF utilizes its own, smaller vessels but our current crew is too large to be accommodated.
We completed two hour-long dives in the nursery with a brief break in between to switch out SCUBA cylinders. Visibility was relatively poor (10-15 feet) due to the strong surge, but the Tavernier Nursery was still quite impressive. I buddied up with Jonathon Cole, a long-time CRF volunteer diver, University of Miami student and professional diver.
The first dive focused on removing encrusting fire coral (Millepora spp.) from the coral tree branches, fragging larger fragments and rehanging smaller fragments. Once larger fragments were cut down from the tree branches, we used heavy duty grout brushes to remove the encrusted fire coral. Since this type of work requires a lot of hand dexterity, gloves are largely counterproductive. Unfortunately, that means that your bare skin is exposed to the powerful sting of the fire corals. Luckily, I’m not as sensitive to it as others, but still don’t consider it a pleasant experience. When working on the lower parts of the coral trees, you always need to be aware of which way the current is flowing. If you happen to be downstream (or underneath) where someone is scrubbing you are likely to get a faceful of fire coral dust!
(Special note: I don’t want to give fire coral a bad name. The heavy branching forms are quite important, as they help protect inner reef areas from surge. CRF even has a small section of the nursery dedicated to this growth form of Millepora.)
The strong surge really made these tasks quite difficult. Trees are only spaced a few feet apart in places and it was difficult to avoid drifting into an adjacent tree while working on them. Trying to maintain neutral buoyancy a few feet above the bottom while threading monofilament through tiny holes in the fiberglass rods felt near impossible at times. Often, I would grab on to a tree limb to steady myself only to find a fistful of fire coral! I didn’t feel I was doing a very efficient job on this first dive.
After about 50 minutes on the first dive, I headed back to the boat to switch out tanks. Working hard against the surge depleted my air faster than I’d hoped. The surface swells were pretty big, making boarding a more difficult task. I decided to add a couple more pounds of weight to my trim pockets to help against the surge.
Adding those two pounds made all the difference in the world! I felt much more comfortable and effective on the second dive. I focused largely on prepping new fragments for hanging, which meant I could work on the bottom rather than mid-water column. The extra weight allowed me to do this with relative ease. Jonathan broke up older, larger fragments into many more new ones while I attached monofilament line to them with double-barreled crimps. We hung them back on the tree together. Things were calming down (or maybe I was just getting used to it) and I observed a fair number of hogfish, angelfish and filefish amongst the trees.
After another 50 minutes, we were both low on air and surfaced. The surge was even worse than before, making for a difficult exit once again.
The ride back was a rough one, but conditions are supposed to improve tomorrow. I’m really appreciative of Keys Diver allowing us to stow our equipment at the dock overnight. Food and sleep…
We set out much earlier and made a stop at the Tavernier Nursery. Corals had been staged the day before while I was fragging and cleaning. This means they were either placed loose into the milk crate containers I constructed yesterday or were strung on staging trees in bundles of ten on monofilament line. The milk crates can sit on the substrate but the bundles were hung on special coral trees and ready to go. In the interest of saving time, only Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) employees jumped in to retrieve corals for outplanting. I stayed on board with the Georgia Aquarium staff and crew. It didn’t take long. In 20 minutes or so we had all of our corals on board and ready to go.
Our first two dives at Snapper Ledge focused on planting the Staghorn corals. Breaking up into groups of 4, we were each given areas to plant clusters (close groupings of 10) on the reef. For each site, we were given 10 fragments, a fistful of mixed epoxy and a hammer.
The two part epoxy is mixed immediately upon entering the water so that it will be the proper consistency when securing corals. There seems to be a “goldilocks period” about 20 minutes after mixing where it works best. Earlier than that and it is a bit soft and later it begins to harden.
The large, branched Acropora cervicornis fragments are laid out on circular area no larger than a hula hoop…usually closer. By keeping them close together, it increases the chance of adjacent colonies fusing together to make a larger colony. Three contact points with the substrate is desired because it minimizes the chance of a coral being “rocked” free by the surge. After contact points are determined, a heavy hammer is used to chip away the biofilm at the crust of the rock at these locations. Any offending organisms in the immediate area (fire coral or gorgonians usually) are removed. The encrusting biofilm around the contact points is cleaned down to bare white to allow for maximum bonding strength. Then, a grape sized daub of epoxy is applied to these areas and the coral is pressed into it. Oftentimes, after setting the coral aside to apply epoxy, I completely forgot what orientation I had the coral in and had to start over. Very frustrating!
Excess epoxy is pulled up over the coral tissue around the points of contact. Then, the strength of the bond is checked (scientifically) by waving your hands furiously around the new outplant. If it stays put, you can move on, but if it wiggles even just a little bit you have to start over. That also helps to clear any debris out of the area. CRF staff applies tags to the substrate with epoxy once each cluster is finished.
Between the four divers in my group, we planted around a dozen clusters before doing a quick maintenance run on established colonies. Basically, diseased or damaged areas of the corals are removed and any broken pieces are reattached. Offending organisms, including predators and encroachers are removed from the site. Growth of planted colonies in the area is impressive and many have fused together to make a larger colony. We headed back to the boat.
After boarding, the most exciting development was the announcement that we would be planting some Elkhorn fragments (Acropora palmata)along with the Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) we’d been working on all morning! CRF staff had picked up some fragments from the nursery at Snapper Ledge while we were planting Staghorn corals.
Acropora palmata has only been farmed in the nurseries since 2009, and it is much more difficult to farm and outplant efficiently. In 2012, CRF performed the first ever outplanting of farmed Elkhorn Corals in the United States. Staghorn branches like a tree, making it easy to find three small points for attachment to the substrate. In contrast, the smaller Elkhorn fragments are generally squarish blobs of dense coral growth. This requires epoxy to be applied around all of the edges of the piece. It requires a lot more epoxy to attach a much smaller fragment of Staghorn. Also, since there is no real balance point, it is difficult to position it naturally. In terms of farming, the Staghorn is not as easily maintained in a tree setup and are sometimes still grown on blocks and disks.
We moved on to Pickles Reef to plant the Elkhorn. This final dive of the day involved fewer corals but was much more difficult. Surge was extremely heavy in this area and at times you were forced to hang on to the bottom just to stay in place. Forests of gorgonians swayed back and forth violently with the surge. Fragments of Elkhorn coral were much harder to secure than the Stagohorn. Acropora palmata is planted in clusters of 3, spaced no further out than the diameter of a basketball. I have to admit that the end result of these plantings is not as aesthetically gratifying as the Staghorn, but perhaps more important to the ecosystem. I’m very proud to have played a part in this important process.
Acropora palmata in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic serves the same function as barrier islands in the Mid Atlantic states. It serves as a buffer against storm surge on the mainland. Historically, massive stands of Elkhorn covered shallow water flats. This causes large swells to break and dissipate energy that otherwise would be borne by the coastline. It is estimated that the reef crest dissipates around 90% of wave energy that is otherwise destined for the shoreline. When combined with intact mangrove banks on the islands themselves, erosion is held in check. Development of the shorelines and damage to the reef compromises this natural protection, however, and more damage is incurred during storms.
By dissipating this energy and creating a barrier, the Elkhorn corals can also create refuge for many organisms that are not tolerant of such strong surge. Indeed, it is clear that even fish diversity is higher close to restoration sites.
It was quite challenging, but we finally got all of the fragments planted and headed back to the boat. I am exhausted from fighting the surge on that last dive, not to mention spending almost 4 hours in the water today.
After cleaning up, I met with the Georgia Aquarium crew, Ken and his wife at a deli/pizza place just down the road. Ken is quite charismatic and very good about making sure he spends an adequate amount of time with each of his volunteers, which is important. It makes you feel valued and he’s very genuine. That’s a very attractive and useful quality, especially for someone who gets his funding through grants and donations!
Time for some sleep…four more dives planned for tomorrow.
We met up early again for a full day of diving. Winds had died down quite a bit and the water was quite calm for the trip to the nursery. Visibility was much improved and fish were everywhere. I was finally able to take in the entire scene. Countless coral trees floated in the distance and hogfish swarmed among the live rock farm.
Given the improved conditions, along with a little experience, I was much more efficient on this dive. I partnered up with Pamela Hughes from Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) for the first two dives. The first dive centered on bundling corals for transport and outplanting. Pamela would remove large colonies from the upper limbs of the tree and break them into several large fragments. Then, I would string, bundle and tag each cluster of ten.
After several bundles were completed, we swam them to the edge of the nursery where they were hung on “staging” trees. On these specialized trees, bundles are simply slipped over the arms for short term staging.
After resupplying our air, we headed back down to restock the tree we had been working on. Smaller fragments were made, strung and hung back on the bare limbs to start the process over again. In 8-12 months, those small fragments will be ready to be fragged and outplanted themselves.
On the way back to the surface, we grabbed our bundles from the coral tree and headed to the boat. After submerging all of our corals, we headed to Dry Rocks for outplanting. On the way to Dry Rocks, Ken said he estimated we had over 200 corals on board for planting. I would be buddying up with him for our last two dives.
Our first dive at Dry Rocks focused on planting Staghorn corals on ledges. This site was much different than the others we had worked on, which had relatively flat bottom contour with a few outcroppings of rock or isolated ledges. Dry Rocks is largely spur – and – groove formations separated by white sandy bottom. Since the walls of the canyon were relatively tall, this meant that you could not “lay on the bottom” while epoxying corals…you had to remain floating. That made it a bit more difficult to get the job done, but a much more interesting dive.
While hammering rock to secure my fragments, I encountered one of the pesky predators of Acroporid corals. The bearded fireworm emerged from a hole in the rock as soon as it sensed the fragments nearby. These animals are capable of engulfing the branch tips of Acropora cervicornis and eating the live tissue. Affected colonies can be recognized by tissue recession at the tips. These denuded branches can allow algae to colonies the skeleton and wipe out the rest of the colony. In other words, they are unwelcome in outplanting sites. Since my cluster was about 10 feet above the groove, I simply swept it over the side. Hopefully it was a tasty meal for a properly equipped predator.
We finished our outplanting, switched out air cylinders at the boat and headed back down for maintenance and documentation of the site. Ken led me along the grooves to photograph, film and maintain previously planted colonies as well as the ones we had just planted. It seemed like we were stopping every few feet to document growth, predation and disease in a different colony. This is a testament to the amount of work that Ken and his team have done over the past few years. I didn’t see any natural colonies of either species at Dry Rocks, only the ones CRF had planted, and they were numerous. Several colonies showed signs of damage from cryptic predatory snails that Ken dispatched whenever spotted. The fishes seemed to enjoy the escargot treat that resulted. This type of maintenance and documentation continues for several years after outplanting.
While surveying colonies, we eventually made our way to the attraction that most divers and snorkelers remember about this site, Christ of the Abyss. “Il Christo degli Abissi” is one of three bronze statues Italian artist Guido Galletti created for underwater display. Placed at the site in 1965, it stands about 8 feet tall and is quite impressive. Corals have been allowed to encrust certain parts of the statue and Ken has plantings directly behind it. It is one of the most photographed underwater scenes in the world and is far more accessible to tourists than the Christ statues off of Italy and Grenada.
We continued on with maintenance and documentation but all too soon, we were running low on air and resurfaced. Though I will be diving again tomorrow with the crew from Georgia Aquarium to do some maintenance work, this is was my last dive with the CRF staff.
The Georgia Aquarium crew made an early trip to make a deep dive on a nearby wreck, while I stayed behind to make some coral trees. The workshop is set up on Ken Nedimyer’s home property and consists of a couple of drill presses beneath sunshades. Volunteer Jonathon Cole, and later Ken, tutored me on construction of the structures. They need to be very precise in order to maintain rigidity. The cross (horizontal) beams are fashioned from fiberglass rod while the central (vertical) structure is PVC piping. Ken has constructed very simple but effective wooden guides to help keep everything straight. Slots for the horizontal rods are drilled at alternating 90 degree angles to one another to maximize the amount of corals that can be hung on a single tree. A total of ten holes are drilled in each set of horizontal arms, from which corals are suspended with monofilament line. In the past, they had as many as 16 holes but that caused too much crowding with rapid coral growth. A modern coral tree holds 100 fragments in total.
Once everything is drilled, the horizontal arms are inserted through the PVC “trunk” and epoxied in place. By the time 1130 rolled around, I had finished two trees. I wanted to do more, but needed to meet up at the Marina for my last two dives of the trip.
The Georgia Aquarium sponsors an outplanting site at Molasses Reef. We made our way there to do some maintenance work on Staghorn Coral clusters that had been planted previously. Without the guidance of CRF staff, it felt a little bit disorganized and overwhelming at first but we quickly got accustomed to our surroundings and got started.
Though most clusters were pretty healthy and exhibited good growth, many had broken free from their epoxy anchors. This site is located in a relatively shallow area with a fairly flat bottom. Lack of three dimensional structure allowed for stronger surge and made attachment more difficult.
After an hour of maintenance work, we returned to the boat to resupply on air. Our last dive would be purely for enjoyment!
The second dive was excellent. Molasses Reef has a lot of variability in structure and marine life. We spent the majority of our time working through the spur-and-groove formations, which where riddled with numerous caves. It was teeming with life. We saw both hawksbill and green sea turtles, green moray eels, a huge school of midnight parrotfish crunching away at the reef, nurse sharks and a seemingly endless number of various colorful reef fishes. Unfortunately, in an hour of exploring I only spotted two natural colonies of Elkhorn coral. Hopefully, within a few years, they will return to prominence due to the hard work of the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) staff.
Luckily, I’ll be returning again later in the year. This has been an amazing experience with an even more amazing organization. Stay tuned for my next round of blogs!
Special thanks to Ken Nedimyer, Pam Hughes, Jessica Levy, Jonathon Cole and Kayla Ripple of the Coral Restoration Foundation. I am very grateful to my Curator, George Brandy III for suggesting this project in the first place. Without his guidance, I likely would have never gotten involved with such an amazing project. I am also very appreciative to the media-related support given to me by Ryan Draper of the HZI Graphics Department and logistical support provided by the Conservation Department. Lastly, I would like to again thank everyone who helped to fund this project through the Staff Conservation Fund.