Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 2

Tuesday, May 20

11 a.m.

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.

Example of materials used to make tags for coral colonies.
Example of materials used to make tags for coral colonies.

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.

 

An example of a foam board tag. This tag signifies that these Corals are sponsored by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), they are planted at Dry Rocks reef (DR), their genetic code is U72 and they are numbered Cluster 1 (C1). Tags are epoxied around the cluster and allow for easy monitoring.
An example of a foam board tag. This tag signifies that these Corals are sponsored by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC), they are planted at Dry Rocks reef (DR), their genetic code is U72 and they are numbered Cluster 1 (C1). Tags are epoxied around the cluster and allow for easy monitoring.

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.

Transport box housing coral fragments for outplanting. Foam tags are visible.
Transport box housing coral fragments for outplanting. Foam tags are visible.
Keys Diver crew assisting with onboarding transport boxes containing fragments from the nursery.
Keys Diver crew assisting with onboarding transport boxes containing fragments from the nursery.

4 p.m.

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!

Encrusting fire coral on bottle. http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/bioinformatics/dfm/metas/view/31081
Encrusting fire coral on bottle. http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/bioinformatics/dfm/metas/view/31081

(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.

Working on coral trees in the Tavernier nursery on a much calmer day.
Working on coral trees in the Tavernier nursery on a much calmer day.

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…

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:



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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

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