Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 4

Thursday, May 22

6 p.m.

30-Keys diver
Captain Dave and crew from Keys Diver provided excellent service, having everything ready when we arrived at the dock.

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.

Pamela Hughes working on staging tree.

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.

32-Dry Rocks
Example of spur and groove formation at Dry Rocks. A very large brain coral obstructs one of the sandy grooves.

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.

Example of a fireworm. The cottony “tufts” are bundles of highly irritating (even painful) “bristles” used for defense. http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/image_library/inverts/iridescentfirewormgps.jpg

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.

Ken documents new outplantings and checks for stability.
A coral colony that has been ravaged by predatory snails.
A coral colony that has been ravaged by predatory snails.
Ken Nedimyer shows me predatory snails that he removed from young Elkhorn outplants.
Ken Nedimyer shows me predatory snails that he removed from young Elkhorn outplants.

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.

Christ of the Abyss at Dry Rocks
Christ of the Abyss at Dry Rocks

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.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:

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