Two and a half hours west of Key West by boat is lonely Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fort marooned in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and encrusted in coral reefs. Here the color of the water ranges from cerulean to toothpaste-aquamarine as magnificent frigatebirds, masked boobies, and sooty terns haunt the coral-white beaches of this unfinished garrison, a former prison for union army deserters.
One of seven islands that make up the Dry Tortugas (so named for their lack of water and wealth of turtles at the time of Ponce de Leon’s discovery in 1513) Fort Jefferson is a monument to the ingenuity and industry of engineers and masons who slogged bricks from as far as Brewer, Maine, to the middle of the ocean to construct a fort that has survived in the crosshairs of two centuries of hurricanes. Now, the park is also a monument to the scientific principles of ecosystem management, proof that protecting habitat benefits all—environmentalists and fishermen alike.
In 2001, over the objections of local fishermen, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would establish a 151-square nautical mile no-take zone in the area—the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. It was assumed that closing the well-known grouper and snapper spawning grounds of the Dry Tortugas to fishing would hurt the industry’s bottom line.
But that didn’t happen. The fish got bigger. And there were more of them.
In the latest update from the Latitude, Oceana scientist Jon Warrenchuk describes the ROV’s dive near Key West.
The underwater ridge looked promising: South of Key West, 10 miles offshore and 200 meters deep. The bathymetric lines piled up steeply on the chart, indicating some steep relief in some otherwise flat habitat. As far as I knew, no one had ever seen what the seafloor looked like in that area. We deployed the ROV some distance from the site, trying to take into account the drift of the boat.
Oceana marine scientist Jon Warrenchuk reports on yesterday’s expedition dive task in Key West: searching for lionfish.
After a bumpy nighttime transit, we’re now anchored off the lower keys of Key West.
I’ve asked the dive team to count the number of lionfish they see at the dive sites today. It’s easy to recognize lionfish, with their long fin rays and spines, and you’ve probably seen them in saltwater aquariums. Yep, that’s them, staked out in some preferential corner of the aquarium, looking all spiny and finny.
Even though they look cool, we really do not want to see lionfish at the reefs here in Key West. Lionfish are native to the waters around Australia and Indonesia, where they are regular denizens of the fish community there. In those waters, lionfish are bound with all those ecological checks and balances that come with living in their natural habitat; all their competitors and predators that have evolved in the same place have worked out their happy little evolutionary détente.
A few days ago, I posted a video of Oceana marine scientist Margot getting ready to test the waters of the Florida Keys looking for baby fish. Margot attached a small video camera to the microscope and then pulled the following still images from the video. Pretty cool, huh?
Margot was pleased to find a lot of healthy shellfish, including lobsters and crabs. The expedition crew plans to do similar testing near the oil spill site to see if these same species have been covered in oil.
Your daily expedition update from Oceana senior campaign communications manager Dustin Cranor:
The Oceana crew set off for their first dive operation at the Western Dry Rocks off the coast of Key West yesterday morning.
The diving conditions at this first location were far from ideal. Recent storms stirred up the water with sand and mud, leaving the divers with limited visibility of only three to nine feet. Support diver Soledad Esnaola described it as “like diving in milk.” The site was approximately 50 feet deep and a majority of the coral was covered in sediment. Despite the poor conditions, underwater videographer Enrique Talledo spotted a six-foot green moray eel.
The second dive took place at the Western Sambo Reef, which offered much better visibility of approximately 25 feet. After diving in many different environments all around the world, Oceana’s divers found the reefs to be mostly dead or dying, with little biodiversity, very few fish and no invertebrate life. It was far from what they expected to see on a Caribbean reef. They did catch sight of a 10-inch yellow stingray, a three-foot wide brain coral boulder, grey angel fish, yellowtail snapper, small sea fans and wrasse, small cigar shaped fish.
Here’s your expedition update for today, from senior campaigns communications manager, Dustin Cranor:
The Oceana Latitude is now anchored off the coast of Key West for the first leg of its two-month expedition.
On our long voyage from Fort Lauderdale, we spotted a lot of sargassum floating on the surface of the water. It’s sad to imagine that this floating seaweed is at risk in the Gulf of Mexico because it provides essential habitat for marine animals in the open ocean.
We also had our first interaction with something other than flying fish. As we made our way into shallow waters, dolphins begin surrounding the bow of the ship. They continued entertaining the crew by swimming and eating small fish around the boat for hours.
Oceana also took part in the first activity of the expedition, catching and examining small fish. After allowing the fish traps to soak in the water, Oceana marine scientist Margot Stiles quickly identified several small critters, including baby lobsters, shrimp, crabs and squid.
I’m happy to report that the Oceana Latitude officially set sail yesterday evening for the Gulf of Mexico out of Fort Lauderdale!
The first stop will be Key West, where the Oceana crew will work with the ROV and specialized divers to document bottom habitat and other marine life that could be in danger if oil is captured by sea currents and transported towards southern Florida or if another oil spill occurs in this area in the future.
Here’s Oceana chief scientist Mike Hirshfield: