Beneath South Florida Waters

Latest update October 26, 2020 Started on May 1, 2013

South Florida possesses a remarkable wealth of diverse marine and freshwater ecosystems. Our volunteer team of both professional and citizen scientists explores these waters.

May 1, 2013
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In The Field

Long-Term Monitoring Site Studies Resume, Palm Beach, Florida

For our first-of-the-year 2020 monitoring survey at the long-term research site, we had a 4-person team made up of myself, Dr. Witmer, Katie S., and Antonio.

The public beach directly in front of the research site completed a new sand renourishment in early May. Periodic sand renourishment is required at many beaches nowadays to prevent coastline erosion. The process is viewed by most in the scientific community as an effective alternative to constructing defensive seawalls. However, renourishment has the tendency to temporarily increase nearshore sedimentation and reduce water clarity. This can be a problem for both hardbottom and coralgal communities. Hardbottom can be smothered in sand or even buried, disrupting or even killing wildlife. Lower water clarity can reduce sunlight from reaching marine algae and zooxanthellate corals, hindering their growth. Today, we observed a LOT of sedimentation on top of the natural hardbottom seafloor. Almost everywhere we looked we saw a landscape devoid of any color but white. Much of the rock was either dusted over or completely buried in sand. Turf algae and sponges in many areas were covered over. Worm rock was conspicuously absent (see the June 26, 2019 Field Notes log to get a good look at worm rock). Fish abundance and diversity were both unusually low for the area. Large and medium-sized fishes were particularly absent.

Our hypothesis is that the heavy sedimentation of the local hardbottom has caused many fishes to leave or not visit. With much of the live hardbottom covered over, there is less shelter for fishes, and less available food for herbivores and other benthic grazers. Covering the hardbottom with a thin layer of sand not only excluded many hardbottom fishes, but also appeared to exclude sandy bottom fishes (e.g. mojarras). It might be that sandy bottom fishes were aware that hardbottom was directly less than a centimeter underneath the sand and therefore inadequate for maintaining either sufficient sandy prey infauna or adequate burrowing shelter.

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Nearshore BUVC deployments, Palm Beach, Florida

Today we deployed the “nearshore sandy bottom” BUVC series. Five camera systems were dropped for an hour and then retrieved. Due to the proximity to shore, water turbidity was very high (see photo). So much sand had recently eroded off the beach that an enormous sandbar projected well into the BUVC deployment area. With water depth being less than 1.5 meters, we could hand-carry each BUVC to its drop location. Shout outs to our field assistants Antonio and Kayla!

Our BUVC deployments are now completed for the year. The raw camera footage is currently being analyzed by Amberlyn. Expect a future update on what we find!

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Year 2 of Baited Underwater Video Camera Study, Palm Beach, Florida

The 2020 field season kicked off late this year. Spates of poor weather, combined with state-mandated coronavirus beach closures, stymied multiple planned excursions. The beach in front of our primary research area was one of the last ones to be reopened on May 26. With access to our field site now available, science can commence! Continuing our subtidal fishes study that we initiated in 2019, All ten of our custom-built, ultra-lightweight, Baited Underwater Camera Systems (BUVC’s) were restored to working order. See the May 9, 2019 Field Notes log for more information on their design.

Two lines of BUVC’s were kayak-dropped in the same locations as last year. Antonio and I operated the kayak, while Dr. Witmer and Denise radioed each BUVC’s specific drop locations from pre-measured shore markers. All of the camera systems properly activated and recorded seafloor video within expected parameters. Only five BUVC’s could be easily transported at a time on the kayak. A resupply stop was needed at the halfway point for both camera deployments and camera retrievals. Local surf conditions precluded our ability to safely beach the kayak for equipment change-out. We’d already flipped the boat over once while pushing off from shore (very nearly losing the bait in one of the BUVC’s), and we were not eager for more mishaps. Fortunately, Denise was able to carry/swim equipment to us from beyond the shore breakers (see photos).

We’d like to thank local outfitter Visit Palm Beach for the gracious loan of a 2-person kayak.

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First Trident ROV Field Test

Today’s ROV testing team consisted of Pete, Katie, Savannah, Amberlyn, and Sierra. We selected a protected spot at Phil Foster Park near the fishing pier for Trident deployment. With tether handlers on land and ROV wranglers in the water, there was no shortage of manpower to run the Trident through its paces. We even brought the CryptoCam along to take underwater video of the Trident in action.

Despite having a spring high tide, underwater visibility was extremely poor (~ 1 meter). Hurricane Dorian had passed through the region only ten days before, and Tropical Storm Humberto is 300 km to the east. Both of these tropical cyclones have stirred up waves, disturbed bottom sediments, and brought winds and rains. Although Phil Foster Park is well shielded from offshore waves and winds, it is vulnerable to storm-related turbidity. With water clarity being so low, operating the Trident was difficult. No one could see it from the surface once it submerged. The in-water wranglers similarly had trouble seeing the Trident. Video footage from both the Trident and the CryptoCam show murky waters where objects disappear no more than a meter away.

Not everything was a bust today. The 100-meter tether was used for the first time and it worked well. We also got to practice equipment deployment and retrieval, and try out our new doggie pool portable rinse station. And Savannah had an exciting encounter with a jellyfish.

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Prepping Trident for First Saltwater Test Dive

With pool tests complete, we are confident in taking our Trident ROV into the field. Our first saltwater trials will be at Blue Heron Bridge. A prospective deployment site was earlier identified at the park. We are thrilled to have a sizable volunteer team of “robot wranglers” standing by to assist with field testing.

We are taking everything including the kitchen sink with us! Following advice and suggestions from other Trident ROV operators, we have modified our “field kit” with all sorts of accessories. A safety lanyard affixed to the remote controller. A sunshade for the remote controller and a spare towel for the “towel over the head” glare prevention technique. A storage bucket to double-duty as a piloting stool. The 100-meter Kevlar-reinforced tether for improved dive operations. There’s even a “Trident-certified” portable doggie pool to use for freshwater rinsing immediately after the dive.

Part of our first field prepping includes documenting the process itself. This is important as we will need to construct an equipment and procedures checklist. In science, we are trained to be methodical and thorough. Careful planning is extremely important for field work. Project failure can occur if even one small thing is overlooked, like a battery charge, broken pencils, or even having the right kind of screwdriver. I very nearly made such a mission-fatal error with today’s preparations. While gathering all of the equipment together, I neglected to transfer the wireless transmitter buoy over to the 100-meter tether (it has previously been attached to a smaller 25-meter tether for pool tests). Without that buoy, the Trident cannot communicate to the remote controller. Our first field trial would have been failure.

Fortunately, I caught this while performing battery checks on the Trident. In order for the ROV’s charge lights to turn on, the ROV must be both attached to a tether and the tether must be attached on the opposite end to the wireless buoy (see attached photo).

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Trident ROV Pool Testing

Over the last few weeks we have been inspecting our new Trident ROV and preparing it for water operations. Even a small observation-class submersible is a complex machine, and many hours have been devoted to reviewing procedures, checking over hardware, and configuring software. Invaluable technical support has been provided by the online OpenROV forums and the Trident Pilot’s Facebook group.

Early testing has been carried out in a local swimming pool. This controlled environment allowed us a safe place to deploy and troubleshoot equipment. We also used the time to work out preliminary logistics procedures and protocols. The JXD controller that operates the Trident is very susceptible to outdoor glare. To alleviate this, many operators have resorted to a “towel over the head” technique.

Low-speed maneuvering testing was performed on August 31st. A large floating frame was submerged into the pool for the Trident to practice driving in and out of. Having a target object to practice precision maneuvering on permitted me to more rapidly familiarize with the remote controls. The JXD controller uses two separate joysticks simultaneously that control different thruster functions. Pilots lacking experience can easily mistake or reverse thruster controls, resulting in unplanned movements.

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CryptoCam Field Testing Analysis

Analysis of the August 6th CryptoCam deployment is now complete. The modified platform design was successful. The (new) SJCAM SJ4000 camera also performed very well. The unit recorded HD video for over 52 minutes all the way from deployment to retrieval. We observed schools of resting juvenile grunts, hunting behavior (on the grunts) from larger jacks, a mob of (different, smaller) jacks looking for a parasite cleaning station, and mimicry behavior of small scads with juvenile grunts. The highlight critter was a short visit by a Greater Soapfish (Rypticus saponaceus). Soapfishes are elusive, cryptic sea basses. Getting a cryptic fish photographed on the CryptoCam was highly validating. In the magnified photo you can see the hugely oversized pectoral fins on this shy fish. What a cutie. For some reason (maybe the body color) this fish reminds me of a manatee.

So now we have a working, very low-cost (less than $100 U.S.), highly compact and portable dropcam system. Yay!

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In The Field

For today’s monitoring survey at the nearshore field site, we had a 3-person team comprised of myself, Dr. Witmer, and Katie R.. While setting up on the beach, we noticed a small skiff with a dive flag parked directly over the monitoring area. We hypothesized that it was a spearfisherman and expected that all of the sea turtles, sharks, tarpon, and other large transient megafauna would have been cleared out by the boat engine noises and the diver. While perhaps disappointing for our morning survey, these are public waters and it is not unusual for this specific area to be visited by other stakeholders.

Sure enough, we did not see any large megafauna today. Nor any octopus, lobsters, or large crabs. In fact, the only “super neat” large fish that we came across out in the open today was a very large Gulf Flounder (Paralichthys albigutta) that Katie R. spotted flush against the sand (see video). This fish was so well camouflaged that it is likely that the preceding fishermen never saw it. If he had, it is likely that he would have caught it. Flounder is a delicious seafood fish.

The latest iteration of the CryptoCam was deployed today. We are eager to examine the video footage and will be reporting on that soon.

Floating Sargassum has been reported at record levels in the west Atlantic and Caribbean this year. Just this week we read in the news that Miami is taking the unusual steps of bringing in trucks to collect and move some of their accumulated seaweed into the landfills. For us today, floating Sargassum was quite dense in the surf zone, sufficient to heavily discolor the water and fill it with decayed algal particulates. As you can see from the (end of the) video, underwater visibility was reduced to the length of your arm in some places.

Check out our “Highlights Reel” video !!

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SEEI Grant Approved. We have a Trident ROV!!

In June 2019, we submitted a grant application with the Science Exploration Education Initiative (SEEI). Well, we were awarded that grant. And today, our Sofar Ocean Technologies Trident ROV arrived!

We’ve unpacked the equipment and begun preliminary power, hardware, and software checks. Expect an Expedition Update soon where we take our new Trident for its first Water Trials!

Thanks to all of our Open Expedition followers. Your participation has been critical in our grant being approved!

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In The Field

CryptoCam Field Testing

The newly built CryptoCam compact benthic camera system completed its first “sea trials” today. We took it to Blue Heron Bridge at high tide. Water clarity was good for videography. The camera frame performed very well; it was simple to both deploy and retrieve. Video quality with the SJCAM SJ4000 appears similar to the Akaso EK7000’s used on the Baited Underwater Camera systems. This is good news as it allows us a very low-cost system (compared to much more expensive GoPro cameras).

The CryptoCam was dropped into different locations to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Camera is easy to activate and adjust in the water. The frame is heavy and stable on the seafloor. Marine life does not seem negatively affected in close proximity to the CryptoCam.

Weaknesses: Disturbed bottoms particularly impair the CryptoCam. The camera is mere centimeters above the seafloor. This makes it vulnerable to even light sedimentation. The SJCAM also lacks close-in focusing resolution. The camera is unsuitable for macro-scale imaging closer than 30cm (see photo). The front leg of the frame has subsequently been lengthened several centimeters.

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Building the CryptoCam!

Our replacement SJCAM arrived in the mail. To ensure that this was an actual SJCAM (and not a lookalike) ordering was done directly from the manufacturer.

Two of the requirements of the CryptoCam are that it be compact and very simple. Besides the camera itself, the only “special work” involved is making the clamp that attaches the camera to the frame. We built a similar (but shorter) clamp type as that used for the Baited Underwater Camera Systems.

How we made the clamp. Heat one side of ½ inch PVC pipe until the material is slightly malleable, and then push a GoPro-style extension joint into it. The heated PVC pipe will conform around the extension joint. The joint may then be secured in place with a corrosion-resistant metal screw and nut. This makes for a very rugged camera clamp suitable for underwater use.

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Another SEEI update. Need just FOUR more followers!

We received a message today from the Science Exploration Education Initiative. We are just FOUR followers short of what we need to complete our Trident ROV application process! WE NEED FOUR MORE PEOPLE!

To be a Follower, all you have to do is hit the big yellow “Follow” Box (at the top of our Expedition Page). You can either register with National Geographic yourself, or you can register through Facebook. With FOUR MORE PEOPLE we have the chance to get a grant for our own Trident robot submersible. If you know anyone who might be interested in following our National Geographic expedition, PLEASE ask them to “Follow”. We would love to see what we could explore beneath South Florida’s waters with a professional-grade ROV available to us!

In other news, the “SJCAM SJ4000” has made been put out to pasture. It had some recent battery problems. One of the recommended repairs included making a software firmware update. Unfortunately, this update “bricked” the camera. It is now irreparably broken. Upon extensive investigation, the “bricking” was caused by the camera not being a SJCAM SJ4000 at all, but a visually identical knock-off “Veezy Cam” brand with an incompatible software suite. These “fake SJCAMS” flooded the market a few years back and have been quite a headache for the parent SJCAM company. All newer SJCAM’s now have a prominent “SJCAM” logo written on their housing, and it is recommended to only order directly from the manufacturer or a short list of specific 3rd party sellers.

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MirrorCam Data Analysis

The “mirrorcam” video footage from June 20th has been downloaded and analyzed. For reasons I cannot explain, the camera only recorded 17 minutes of footage before shutting off. There have been similar issues with the Akaso cameras linked to bad batteries. We even had to send two Akaso’s back to the manufacturer.

The mirrorcam used the old SJCAM SJ4000 that we’ve had since 2015 but rarely used after it was quickly replaced with a (markedly superior) GoPro Hero4. I am going to do a test run on the SJCAM with a fully charged battery and see if the problem lies there. The old SJCAM does take better-quality HD video than the new Akaso’s, which is why I still keep the thing.

The big mirror… did not seem to do anything at all to attract fish. Total bust. Maybe there weren’t enough damselfish. Maybe there weren’t enough of the right kind of damselfish. Maybe I needed to put the camera more into the rocks. The footage did identify some highlights. A lot of small benthic fishes buzzed about the camera that we normally don’t get to see very well (because they don’t like people or they are just small). I deliberately parked the camera in front of a large mass of worm rock to see if the structure attracted other species. An actual FIRE WORM was seen traipsing over the top of the worm rock.

After consulting with Dr. Witmer, I’m going to build a WHOLE NEW drop camera system! The new “Cryptocam” will be much more compact than our standard BUVC platforms. This will allow us to bring the thing along on our regular snorkel surveys without making such a mess on the big red raft. The cryptocam will also be optimized for close-in, benthic observations. This means that I can shove it under a ledge or right next to a coral head. There are lots and lots of observational applications for a small remote camera that one can stick into a crevice and pick up later.

UPDATE (June 27): Battery testing on the old SJCAM is completed. A full charge can only accommodate around 21 minutes of video. That is much poorer than the typical advertised 60-120 minute operating time for most Go-Pro style video camera batteries. I'll see if I can order a new battery for the SJCAM.

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Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab in the Newspaper!

The Palm Beach Atlantic University Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab made it into the June 25th edition of the Palm Beach Daily News!

In The Field

Sargassum Monster!!

For today’s jaunt to the long-term monitoring site, we had a big 5-person team made up of me, Dr. Witmer, Amberlyn, Sierra, and Alaina. The seas were slightly choppy and the visibility less than great, but we also were the only people out in the water and this usually means much better biological observations.

There was a LOT of Sargassum seaweed. It was on the beach. It was rolling in the surf. It was floating beyond the surf. It was carpeting parts of the seafloor. Sea urchins were even decorating their shells with it (see picture). It was everywhere.

There have been numerous reports within the last several years throughout the west Atlantic and Caribbean about increasing amounts of Sargassum. Some experts have hypothesized that increased Sargassum growth is linked to climate change. Whatever the reason, most cities negatively view excessive Sargassum that floats its way onto beaches. It smells. It covers the sand. It stains the surf brown and makes the water pretty gross looking. If you think it looks gross, it FEELS even worse when it gets all over your hair and swimsuit. Skin contact with Sargassum may even give you a rash.

Still, even with seaweed everywhere today, we had an excellent field report with tons of fishes, including a fun chain moray eel (Echidna catenata). We hardly ever see this species. Unlike the slenderer and much more commonly seen spotted morays (Gymnothorax moringa), chain morays are a “chunky” moray optimized for eating shelled invertebrates. They have fat heads and fat teeth.

The highlight today was probably running into a slumbering green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). By “running into” it was more like seeing a giant sea monster head poking out of a giant patch of sunken Sargassum, and then a whole turtle slowly erupting out. The video is kind of shaky while I abruptly make the universal underwater attention signal (Whap! Whap! Whap!), but the whole team was lucky to witness the encounter.

We also deployed the “mirror-cam” this morning. I haven’t analyzed the data from it yet and will save it for an upcoming Open Explorer post. A preliminary analysis shows that the camera operated for at least part of the time, so that’s a great improvement from the June 3rd drop attempt.

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Reef Fish Identification Certification Exams

The Palm Beach County Reef Research Team is holding its annual fish certification exam tonight. Anyone who is assigned as a “fish counter” on a PBCRRT SCUBA dive must possess a recent pass rating on the exam in order to carry out formal fish surveys for the county.

The exam format is a timed slideshow comprising over 50 underwater photographs of tropical West Atlantic reef fish. The photographs often show fish in unusual positions, color patterns, and different life history stages. This can make visual identification challenging.

For example, tonight there was a photograph of a slippery dick (Halichoeres bivittatus) with its head partially angled towards the camera. One of the visual diagnostic features for this species is a small spot just above and behind the opercular flap. However, with the fish in the photo angled forwards (and only seconds to make a decision), I had mistaken the spot’s position to be more anterior towards the eye. The related blackear wrasse (Halichoeres poeyi) has a spot very similar to the slippery dick’s located right behind the eye. I missed that exam question.

We have to identify the target fish in each photograph to both species and Family-level. Rarely do we get “easy” fish to identify, like a great barracuda or a midnight parrotfish. Instead, a typical fish on the exam might be a grunt, snapper, boxfish, or a tricky life stage of a parrotfish or wrasse. Both Dr. Witmer and I got stumped on the initial phase yellow-headed wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti) that was on the exam. The photograph was textbook-perfect but an initial phase yellow-head is a very small fish and commonly overlooked on the reef.

The PBCRRT exams are delivered by the team president, Lin Creel. Lin has been SCUBA diving for decades and is rated as a “Level 5 – Expert Surveyor” on tropical west Atlantic fishes by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). Level 5 is the highest level and extremely difficult to attain. The exams we are taking tonight are much simpler, roughly equivalent to a REEF “Level 3 – Advanced Surveyor”. Level 3 sounds fancy but it doesn’t even remotely approach the two “expert” levels above it.

In past years I have passed the certification exam but only barely. Tonight, I wanted to do better. I took a page out of my own college instructional curricula and made a “cheat sheet”. This was a handwritten piece of paper where I scribbled down key notes on what I viewed as problematic fish species to visually identify. Purple reeffish. Striped parrotfish. Red hind. I organized 50+ species notes down. Unlike a true “cheat sheet”, I could not use this during the exam. However, the act of creating the sheet itself had significantly boosted my memory knowledge. This learning tool paid off tonight. I received my highest score yet!

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In The Field

Sofar Trident Application for Science Exploration Education Initiative

It has long been my wish to examine underwater ecosystems in a less disruptive manner than using SCUBA. Many animal species either run away, hide, or behave very differently in close proximity to humans. Even when we are on snorkel gear and floating in the water motionless, we have observed fishes keeping their distance and modifying their movements. Our new experiences with the remote underwater camera systems have been remarkably different. Fishes that we rarely see (or only at a distance) are either curious or indifferent to the remote cameras and allowing us close observations.

Back in 2014 I had constructed a small homemade ROV to better understand the benefits and challenges of such systems in small-scale underwater research. The Open Expedition logs for 2014 summarize the problems discovered with my ROV and why that program was ultimately cancelled.

Advances in small, low-cost ROV technology has improved much over the last five years. The company Sofar has been a leader in this, now producing a small commercial ROV design that may be able to do much of what I want. Sofar has partnered with National Geographic on the Science Exploration Education Initiative (SIEE). Selected Open Explorer Expeditions are funded with Sofar’s Trident-model, remote operated vehicle to help them carry out program objectives.

The Trident ROV looks impressive on paper. I really want to integrate this submersible into our Expedition program. There are things that it might be able to do even better than our snorkel/SCUBA teams or our new bottom camera systems. There are a lot of places that a small ROV could explore that humans could not. Today Dr. Witmer and I went out on a field trip to examine potential operating sites for the Trident ROV.

We visited three locations in Palm Beach County. Spillover Park is sited next to a large gated canal that separates inland freshwater from coastal saltwater. The waters to either side of the canal represent the extremities of freshwater and saltwater habitats as constrained by manmade structures. Too polluted for safe human immersion but easily accessible from shore, a small ROV could explore what lives in these waters.

Two other potential ROV operating sites were identified within the protected intracoastal waterway lagoon. Both Snook Island and South Cove are small, manmade islands constructed for wildlife preservation, habitat conservation, and erosion protection. Both of these sites are closely accessible by elevated boardwalk from which a small ROV system could be easily operated. The waters in these areas are shallow and easily prone to excess sedimentation from boat operation or humans. However, a small ROV might be able to work with far less water disturbance.

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Last Two Baited Camera’s Deployed!

The Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab was performing subtidal sediment coring today. Two of the camera systems dropped on May 22nd did not record any video, so we decided to add these last two BUVC’s to the equipment list and see if we could finish up the reef line transect series.

We did not have kayaks for today. Today’s BUVC deployments would be from the Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab’s big red snorkel raft. I knew that it was possible to deploy the BUVC’s from the raft, as I had successfully done it the day before with the prototype platform. I just needed the raft to be completely cleared off, and additional lashings to hold the bulkier BVC #9 and #10 units in place. We used a couple of pieces of Velcro tape and a power cord clamp. The two drop sites were well known to me with easy-to-find, fixed underwater landmarks, so we didn’t require shore-based communications to tell us where to go. One less thing to worry about.

This may have been our final opportunity to complete the baited camera surveys. Our two remaining BUVC’s were meticulously inspected to ensure that they were fully activated and properly positioned. One advantage of snorkel-based deployments is that the camera system can be examined and corrected on the seafloor after its been dropped. I checked each camera on the surface before it was dropped, and Amberlyn completed a secondary camera check from the seabed. I definitely did NOT want a repeat of yesterday’s camera record failure. Then we scooted back to shore. When the deployment time was concluded we swam out and recovered both BUVC’s with zero complications. Video transects completed!

These final baited camera deployments were among our best for observing interesting marine life. Preliminary analysis revealed visits by Atlantic nurse sharks, a stingray, jacks, moray eels, and porcupinefish.

Brainstorming Techniques with Remote Seafloor Cameras

Examination of our baited camera footage is revealing fish behavior that I’ve never seen in over twenty years of snorkeling and diving Florida waters. Species of fish are showing up that I rarely if ever see. Fishes are behaving very differently around the camera than they are when humans like me are in the water with them. While I had scientifically prepared myself for this to happen, seeing it up close in HD video was astonishing.

Our prototype BUVC system was sitting at home in storage. Unlike the other baited camera frames that we had constructed, the prototype was built as a design troubleshooting platform and as a construction template. While more delicate, it had the virtue of being easily folded up and taking apart into pieces. This got me to thinking that the prototype BUVC might make a reasonably low-fuss remote camera platform for snorkel raft deployment. I could drop the thing right into a reef fish hidey hole at one of our monitoring sites and then come back for it later. I don’t even need bait; the fish are already there.

Heck, while I was at it, why not strap down a handheld cosmetic mirror in place of the bait container? It might entice some of the more cryptic but territorial reef fishes like damselfishes and wrasses. Yes, let’s do the mirror thing!

June 3rd was scheduled for a field survey at our long-term monitoring site. The prototype BUVC (jury rigged with a big mirror) hitched a ride with us. It was a little awkward finding room for it on the snorkel raft alongside the other survey equipment. But it did fold flat. On station at the monitoring site, the prototype BUVC was dropped into a small hardbottom patch surrounded by marine debris overhangs. Our survey team came back later, recovered the device, and headed home. I was very excited to see what the camera footage would reveal.

The camera battery was dead. Good, this meant that the camera ran itself down until it ran out of power. The camera memory card reads as empty. Nothing recorded. Oh no.

Backtracking the day’s events, my best guess is that the camera was turned on, but the record function was not enabled. This has happened before with the other BUVC systems. It is easy to task-overload in the field, and very difficult to read the symbols on a tiny camera screen inside an underwater housing. I had also used a different model of camera (that operated differently) than the Akaso EK7000’s.

Good Lessons: our little lightweight BUVC’s can be deployed from large snorkel rafts Bad Lessons: full camera activation needs to be double or even triple checked

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The seas were much calmer today. We were able to complete yesterday’s camera deployments. Having both of us on a single 2-seater kayak, with our respective duties split-up, worked out very well. I usually drove the boat, and Amberlyn handled the radio and the BUVC drops/recoveries. Sierra pushed us off from the beach and performed gear hot-swaps for us from the shore. Overall management, documentation, and land photography was performed by Dr. Witmer.

Most of the camera deployments today were on the “C-Line”. This transect line is far from shore (~250 meters), and lies atop exposed paleo shoreline hard bottom. Low-relief hard features such as ledges, crevices, and rubble create additional bottom habitat for marine life. Fish diversity is expected to be much higher here than in adjacent sandy bottom habitats (e.g. the “A” and “B” transect lines).


At this point we are very wary of rental kayaks. We decide that for today, we are going to just use the one 2-seater kayak from May 15th that didn’t leak so much. To reduce task loading on the water, I will only be responsible for driving the kayak, and Amberlyn will only be responsible for activating and dropping the camera systems. Regrettably, the water was much rougher than we expected, and we had to abort the camera deployments.

So, let’s talk about the bait we use. Each bait container is filled with 80 grams of chopped up, locally sourced Spanish sardines. The containers have a locking, screw-type lid. Numerous holes are drilled in the sides and bottom to allow the containers to fill with seawater and leak out fishy fluids into the immediate water column. The holes are too small for solid pieces of sardine to be pulled out. This functionally makes the bait containers operate more like “scent containers” than actual feeding devices.

Many BUVC designs utilize wide-mesh bags that either release bait into the water column or allow marine life to tear bait loose from the container. We opted for a non-feeding container design as our BUVC’s are very lightweight and we have concerns about marine life knocking over or carrying away the entire camera frame.

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Second Field Deployment of BUVC’s

Following the aftermath of yesterday’s field experience, we now had different kayaks (big 2-seaters), new procedures, and walkie talkie radios. Our goal today was to complete yesterday’s BUVC deployments.

Lo and behold, our new rental kayaks BOTH leaked. Neither leaked as catastrophically as the kayak that we took out on May 14th, but the flooding on Amberlyn’s was viewed sufficient for us to ground it after she finished her deployment cycle. My kayak’s leaks were minor, so I took it back out to recover all of the deployed BUVC’s when video cycles were completed. It still had to be beached once to drain the accumulated water out.

What we learned from our second field deployment.

  1. We don’t trust rental kayaks
  2. Handheld radios are great
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First Field Deployment of BUVC’s

Today served as a classic example of the complications that arise when performing new types of field research.

The plan was to deploy the first five BUVC systems in a shore-parallel line 50 meters from the shore (the “A-Line”), and a second set of five BUVC systems in a line 200 meters from the shore (the “B-Line”). Each BUVC drop would be coordinated from the beach, where Dr. Witmer and Sierra would be measuring out distances and using visual signals for Amberlyn and I to see from the kayaks.

We loaded the bait containers for the first time, packed the BUVC’s into two kayaks, and began our first deployments. The first drops went according to plan. We quickly discovered that communicating from kayak to shore involved more than our visual signal series could handle. We also discovered that Amberlyn is an excellent swimmer! Amberlyn’s kayak flooded so much that it eventually capsized and I had to tow it (and Amberlyn!) back into shore). One of the un-deployed BUVC systems fell into the sea but Dr. Witmer and Sierra went in with snorkel gear and quickly recovered it. Amberlyn’s kayak was judged “unseaworthy” so I went back out to recover the remaining BUVC’s when their recording period was finished.

When we returned to the lab for cleanup and data recovery, multiple problems were found with the cameras. Some of the underwater camera housings had water inside of them. Some of the camera batteries ran out of power before completing their minimum 60-minute video surveys. Other cameras were turned on but not set to record when deployed. One camera had been accidentally set by me to the wrong video setting. All in all, most of the BUVC’s either didn’t deploy or they didn’t fully activate or they yielded unusable data.

What we learned from our first field deployment.

  1. We need handheld radios to communicate between the beach and the kayaks
  2. If the kayak feels sluggish or looks low in the water, beach it and check for flooding
  3. Additional confirmation checks are needed when activating each camera system in the field
  4. Amberlyn keeps her cool when her kayak sinks and flips her out of it
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BUVC Test Deployment #2

With all ten of the camera systems built, it was time for another test deployment. A finalized BUVC system would be dropped this time, and deployed/recovered from kayak rather than from snorkel raft. We wanted to test out not only equipment this time, but personnel operating procedures. The deployment/recovery people needed to actually handle the equipment in field conditions, practice operating it, and develop protocols for dropping and retrieving.

Tidal currents at Phil Foster Park are very strong. Only when the tides reach maximum flood or minimum ebb “slack waters” is it suitable to enter the water. Phil Foster Park possesses a semidiurnal (“mixed”) tidal rhythm, offering four “slack water” events each day. Two of these events occur at the highest point of high tide, and two of these events occur at the lowest point of low tide. It is the high tide slack water periods where water clarity is usually greatest.

Unfortunately, our time window only allowed us a low tide slack water event. As you can see below, water clarity was very poor and heavily stained. You can barely make out that BUVC #10 served as the test frame. Like the first test deployment, no bait was used. We were more interested in troubleshooting equipment than in attracting fish.

Amberlyn and Sierra both role-played as “aggressive fish”. It was necessary to test the camera frame’s ability to remain stable if the bait container were to be heavily jostled by marine life.

Despite the murky underwater visibility, our second Test Deployment went well and our new BUVC design was judged “seaworthy” and ready to go!

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BUVC Construction Day

Today was the big day of getting all of the Baited Underwater Video Camera (BUVC) systems put together. We had boxes filled with everything from PVC glue to brass bolts to pool floats. Hundreds of feet of polypropylene line. Bundles of ½ inch PVC tubing. And let’s not forget the cameras and all of the camera accessories. Batteries, charging stations, underwater cases, connectors, memory cards.

One of the first tasks was crafting camera mounts for the BUVC frames. This was much easier said than done. Out of the many attachment accessories that come with most all GoPro and GoPro-styled cameras. Using a heat gun, it is possible to soften ½ inch PVC pipe sufficiently to insert a GoPro-style long extender connector. And that extender can then be locked down into the PVC pipe by simply drilling a hole through the pipe and bolting the extender down into it. Thanks for this goes to Kyle Martin’s Youtube video “DIY Tricks to Mount a GoPro to PVC Pipe”.

Using the prototype BUVC frame as a template, we crafted ten new BUVC frames. The prototype frame was designed to be completely taken apart for this, with each PVC piece measured out and labelled. But the new BUVC frames would be significantly more rugged, having most components bonded together with heavy duty plumbing glue. Gluing alone took up much of the afternoon.

Float buoys and float lines also had to be crafted. Floats had to be compact but also big and bright enough to be seen from a hundred meters away. Float lines had to be long enough to accommodate the research site water depths but not so long as to make a mess for the kayak teams.

While the frames were being built, the Akaso cameras themselves were being carefully inspected for defects or flaws. Video settings were calibrated, upgraded memory cards inserted, and batteries were checked. The underwater housings all passed preliminary submergence tests.

Each of the ten BUVC systems were given a number designation from One to Ten. This would help ensure that each camera was mated properly to its own BUVC frame and bait container. Identification numbers would also greatly simplify field deployments, by assigning specific BUVC’s to specific drop locations.

Each Baited Underwater Video Camera system was labelled with its own number code in the following locations.

  • Physical Camera Itself
  • Removable Memory Card for Each Camera
  • Bait Container (this would be visible in recorded video)
  • Forward-Facing Lander Pole (this would be visible in recorded video)

It was important to ensure that the bait containers and forward lander poles were labelled. In case of a camera (or its memory card) ever being misplaced or confused, the recorded video from it would always show what BUVC frame that the camera had been physically attached to.

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Underwater Camera Screening

With our experience operating GoPro and GoPro-style underwater cameras, we decided to stay with these systems for our Baited Underwater Video Camera (BUVC) platforms. Only now we needed TEN identical cameras. Selecting a top of the line GoPro Hero7 would have recorded beautiful imagery but blown the budget. Fortunately, much cheaper GoPro-style cameras were available. We just had to find a model that could accommodate our budget, be purchased in bulk, and fulfill the minimum technical requirements (underwater use, decent battery life, high definition video, microSD card recording).

After much research and experimentation, the Akaso EK7000 4K Action Camera was selected.

In The Field

Baited Camera Test Deployment #1

The first prototype Baited Underwater Video Camera (BUVC) system was deployed. We are using an older SJCAM SJ4000 model camera that we already had on-hand. Our deployment site was Phil Foster Park, a popular Florida snorkeling and SCUBA destination. We chose Phil Foster Park because of its excellent shoreline access and astonishingly high amounts of viewable marine life. You can download and view an official government map of the snorkel trail here!

The prototype BUVC system was deployed from snorkel raft and dropped into sand-bottom algal beds on the west end of the park. As you can see from the video footage, the “bait container” was really just a plastic mesh roll tied to the end of the forward lander leg. No bait was inside the roll.


SUGAR 2019 Project Approved

Dr. Witmer’s summer 2019 SUGAR project proposal was approved! Palm Beach Atlantic University will be funding equipment and two undergraduate interns. SUGAR stands for Summer Undergraduate Academic Research. Its purpose is to fund and partner PBA students with PBA professors on specific research projects. The program lasts for 8 weeks in May and June.

The project that Dr. Witmer will be leading is titled “Understanding the Subtidal Macrofauna and Fish Assemblages in Nearshore Sandy Bottom Communities”. It will involve field sampling and field observations in shallow waters off of Palm Beach Island. Survey lines will be set up at specific distances from the shore. Some survey lines will be used to take sediment cores for both geological and biological analysis. Other survey lines will be used to deploy Baited Underwater Video Camera (BUVC) systems on the seafloor. The cameras are intended to visually sub-sample local fish populations.

The two 2019 SUGAR interns will be Amberlyn and Sierra. Both are Palm Beach Atlantic biology majors and are active in the Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab. For SUGAR 2019, Amberlyn’s primary focus will be the underwater camera systems and visual fish identification. Sierra’s chief task is sediment cores and benthic invertebrate identification.

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In The Field

Lobsters and Golf

In South Florida, two popular pastimes are golfing, and eating lobster. Today we found both lobsters and golf balls at the monitoring site. Two lobsters in two different areas, and two golf balls wedged into a ledge next to live coral.

The Florida spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is both delicious and easy to fish for. Because of this, harvesting is tightly regulated to ensure that people don’t eat them all out of the ocean. Recreational fishing of spiny lobster in Florida is carefully managed, requiring both a specific permit (lobster stamp) and specific equipment (carapace gauge). The gauge is used to measure the lobster’s outer head shell “carapace”. If the shell is less than 3 inches long from front to back, it is illegal to harvest.

Finding golf balls in coastal waters might at first seem weird but it’s much more common than you think. Florida boasts over 1200 golf courses, over 160 of which are found just in Palm Beach County. That’s a lot of golf balls that end up getting whacked out to sea. Factor in that it takes between a hundred and a thousand years for a golf ball to degrade, and you end up with a potentially significant source of marine pollution. What’s worse is that many golf balls contain a surprising amount of nasty heavy metals. Those metals degrade into the ocean, which in turn get absorbed by marine life, which may end up on your seafood plate. So, the next time you find yourself out on the putting green, strongly consider using biodegradable golf balls. There’s even one (the “EcoBioBall”) made partially out of fish food!

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Reef Fish Identification Workshop

If you are a sophomore or upper-class biology student attending Palm Beach Atlantic University, you might have an opportunity to join Dr. Witmer’s Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab. At any given time, there are multiple ongoing projects ranging from fish counts to beach elevation profiling to marine pollution tracking.

For students interested in working underwater at the long-term monitoring site, Dr. Witmer has invited me to teach semi-annual reef fish identification training workshops. This is what is covered.

  • Basic External Fish Anatomy
  • Body and Fin Marking Patterns
  • Common Florida Nearshore Reef Fishes
  • Snorkel Surveying

Most of the workshop is spent examining over 80 species of shallow water reef fish that may be found at the long-term monitoring site. Yes, that’s right, we review over 80 species! Now you see why I’m always trying to photograph fish; to bolster our local training database. Many reef fishes display different markings based on their age, size, and gender. There are even visual differences in some species based on what parts of the Caribbean or West Atlantic that they reside in. For the latter, we try to use local and Florida/Bahamas images wherever possible.

We start off by watching training videos supplied by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). From there we go through a massive slideshow highlighting species that may be found at the monitoring site. Students are supplied with copies of the slideshow afterwards for continued study.

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In The Field

Palm Beach County Reef Research Team Dives

Do you like reef fish or tropical marine invertebrates? And are you a skilled SCUBA diver? If yes to both, perhaps the Palm Beach County Reef Research Team is for you!

A recreational group composed entirely of volunteers, calling this a “SCUBA club” will likely get you slapped with a fish tail and your diving booties stuffed with seaweed. The Palm Beach County Reef Research Team is named precisely for what it does.

“… mission is to observe, collect, document and record scientific data for use in further enhancing our marine habitats.”

The team has been active since the 1990’s, which says a lot for the dedication of its members. Both Dr. Witmer and I joined up with the reef team a few years ago, but as busy professors we don’t often have the opportunity to join a research dive. But today we had compatible schedules! Hopping aboard a diving boat chartered by the team, we found ourselves among a salty group of fish and invertebrate counters, mappers, videographers, and even dedicated “lionfish hunters”. The PBCRRT doesn’t mess around.

Our first survey site today was in a 3-knot current that tore at us nearly all the way down to the bottom at about 100 feet. The data recording slates that we use are so enormous that they cause underwater drag if not secured close against the body. Performing these deep SCUBA surveys is wholly different from the shallow snorkel work that we’re more accustomed to at the Palm Beach nearshore monitoring site.

A big benefit of going on PBCRRT trips is seeing a lot of fish diversity. Many of the locations are artificial reefs created by the government to provide high relief, hard bottom habitat. The reef team is contracted out to perform periodic marine life inspections of both these and natural areas and report its findings back to the government.

Not your typical recreational group, “fun” is more often defined by a team member as logging an obscure goby or counting off a triple-digit-sized school of scad fishes. There’s a niche for everyone in South Florida.

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Today we had an up-close encounter with a cobia (Rachycentron canadum)!

Loosely resembling a sharksucker (minus the sucker), cobias are sometimes found swimming with much larger animals such as sharks and turtles. This one was hanging out with an Atlantic nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum).


Year 4 Begins at Long Term Monitoring Site

Katie R., Sumer, and Daniel joined us for the first monitoring outing of 2018!

A goldentail moray eel (Gymnothorax miliaris) displaying a reticulate color pattern was encountered on carbonate hard bottom. Most of the time we only see the more slender spotted moray eels (Gymnothorax moringa), so this was a welcome addition to the local database.

Sumer picked up an arrow crab (Stenorhyncus seticornis) for photo documentation before gently returning it back to the seafloor. If you release an arrow crab into open water and allow it to sink, it will “play dead” and not move until it hits bottom. This behavior may be adaptive to prevent it being noticed by hungry fish in the event of it being swept off the seafloor by waves or currents.

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End of Year 3 Monitoring

The weather forecast for this mid-December morning showed flat seas. Let’s run out to the monitoring site! The water temperature was 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). To South Floridians, that is brutally chilly. We are going to freeze our butts off.

We had a large 5-person team today, comprising myself, Dr. Witmer, Katie R., Andre, and Meggan. What can I say, misery loves company? We had two notable encounters this brisk morning. One was a spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri). It’s not unusual for us to come across scorpionfish, but I’ve never seen (nor even heard of one) being white-colored. Let’s call him/her “Venomous Snowball”. Pretty but don’t touch.

The other cool encounter we had was with a full-size speckled crab (Arenaeus cribrarius) in the sandy shallows. We don’t normally run into them out in the open like this, so I got in close with the GoPro (from which I might extract some nice still photos from).

Oh! the video footage later revealed that there was a SECOND CRAB clamped underneath! The team had interrupted two speckled crabs in the act of mating. Oops.

This brisk December jaunt wrapped up the 2017 field season. All told, we had seven team members help out at the monitoring site! Thank you, Katie S., Katie R., Daniel, Alaina, Andre, Josh, and Meggan.

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The team today was just made up of Dr. Witmer and myself. Two person teams are technically able to complete a monitoring survey but it is not ideal. This was my first time back in the water following skin cancer surgery in May. *Tip: You Can Never Put On Too Much Sunscreen. *

An estimated 1500 smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) were counted by Dr. Witmer. So. Much. Grunt.


Year 3 Begins at Long Term Monitoring Site

We went out with a 3-person team today comprising myself, Dr. Witmer, and Katie. Ugh it was cold.

It was a good day for Atlantic spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber). These are interesting fish that show unusually strong preferences for hanging out around vertical manmade structures. Odds are good that if you visit a shipwreck, oil platform, bridge piling, or just any old manmade debris that projects off the seafloor, you are likely to bump into a school of these black-and-white beauties.

I cannot believe my luck. There was an initial-phase yellowtail parrotfish (Sparisoma rubripinnae) just sitting in the sand. This species is a total pain in the butt to photograph at the monitoring site. I’m not sure if I’ve even seen one before with marking patterns like this. Hooyah.

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End of Year 2 Monitoring Season

Today we completed the final snorkel survey for 2016. Waters were chilly, requiring some extra thermal protection. It was also rough with substantial ground swells and longshore currents, making photography difficult. I did manage to score what is my best shot of a yellowtail parrotfish (Sparisoma rubripinnae). Yellowtails are often the only parrotfish that we see at the monitoring site, but they do not seem to like snorkelers and will go out of their way to avoid us. Grabbing this photograph was a big win for our local database.

Thank you to all of the volunteers (Katie, Alaina, Josh, Daniel, Sumer, Noah) who joined the team out on the water this year.

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Water Clarity

One of the oldest devices used to measure the transparency (or clarity) of water is a Secchi disk. Flat, round, and usually colored black and white, the disk is normally lowered by a line into a body of water. The water clarity value is marked at the depth where the disk is no longer visible from the water’s surface.

Secchi disks are crude and have largely been replaced by turbidimeters for accurate and precise water clarity measurements. However, for approximate work the rugged simplicity of the Secchi disk makes it a very popular tool even today.

Secchi disks are designed to measure water clarity in the vertical water column. However, Secchi disk principles have been adapted for horizontal underwater use by many research groups. ReefCheck California for example uses dark-colored diving gloves in place of a disk.

At our monitoring site, we make approximate water clarity measurements by simply operating a Secchi disk sideways on a tape reel near the water’s surface.

In these photos from today, the camera is near the opposite side of where the Secchi disk is being held by one the team members. Can you see either of the Secchi disks?

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Flip Camera, Get Sharks

Through trial and error, I’ve determined that the GoPro-on-a-Stick is easier to position on snorkel when its inverted. Daniel is operating the GoPro today. I’m running around trying to snap still photos of wrasses and soapfish. Soapfish are a pain in the butt to photograph.

We don’t typically run into a shark. When we do, it is the benign Atlantic nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum). A bottom dweller, nurse sharks feed mostly on shellfish. They generally prefer to rest in a cave or underneath a ledge during the day, which is where we almost always encounter them at the monitoring site.

There were TWO nurse sharks today. That is a lot of excitement for even seasoned marine biologists. If a nurse shark is in the right “mood”, it will permit divers and snorkelers to closely approach it. These sharks did, and so I did. I am glad that we could get close, as it allowed us to get a good look at some substantial damage to one of the sharks. The left pectoral fin was almost completely cut off. We could not ascertain the cause of this injury, although it appeared recent. Did another shark do this?

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Some of the Palm Beach Atlantic University students are being cross-trained on taking video surveys. This has freed me up to dedicate time back into still photography. I had taught a reef fish identification workshop the previous Fall, and there were a lot of fishes that we either had no photographs or very poor photographs of.

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Year 2 Begins at Long Term Monitoring Site

The Atlantic seas are usually too rough in the winter months for inshore snorkeling. The winds are stronger, which in turn generate larger surface waves. Effective snorkeling requires flat or nearly flat conditions.

With a new summer season, we were curious to see how the winter has changed the seafloor’s physical structure and the organisms that attach themselves to it. A curious collection of large, mostly intact gastropod shells littered an open crevice on a submerged piling. How did the shells get there? Did winter storm waves do this?

I was surprised to see that colonies of alcyonacean “soft corals” were thriving in sand-scoured limestone. I was expecting these corals to be more seasonal, either destroyed or heavily damaged in winter seas, or newly colonized each summer.

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The First Monitoring Team

A small group of friends and Palm Beach Atlantic University students have been volunteering their time at the monitoring site. We have established that a group of 3-4 people is optimal for each snorkel excursion. This gives us sufficient manpower to carry equipment, tend to the raft, collect measurements, and survey fish without task-overloading. Thank you, Katie, Daniel, Alaina, and Josh!

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Sea Turtle Encounter

Usually when we observe sea turtles in the wild, the animals are either immediately spooked and swim away, or they’re slumbering on the seafloor. But today we were blessed with a young green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) that came right up to the camera. Sea turtles are usually shy around people, so it is important to move as little as possible around them and to give them plenty of space.


Debut of the Big Red Snorkel Raft

Over the last few months, the team has been struggling with underwater logistics at the monitoring site. We need to swim out on snorkel gear specific pieces of equipment. Some of it is small and easy to lose, like little water sampling bottles. Some equipment is heavy, like a Secchi disk. And some equipment is bulky and/or messy, like tape reels and large writing slates. Most all of this gear gets placed into mesh SCUBA bags that we rummage through while we’re in the water.

We have been jury-rigging swimming pool equipment into equipment mules to haul our gear around. It has been a less than satisfactory experience. Our first attempt mutilated a swimming pool float and wrapped the pieces around a mesh pool seat. This thing dragged like a sea anchor and tangled up with the equipment bags like spaghetti.

Our second attempt took rope and oversized plastic clamps to an extra-long kick-board. It looks exactly as horrific as you might imagine. I can’t even begin to describe how poorly it behaved in the water. Much in science is experimenting with new ideas. Many ideas are just bad.

For attempt #3, Dr. Witmer went shopping at SCUBA stores. And found a SEAC Sea Mate Inflatable Gangway Raft. This thing is hardcore. Designed for dedicated spearfishing, it is deliciously rugged and a marine biologist’s dream come true. I think that Dr. Witmer has solved our logistics problem. And we look really cool in the water.

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In The Field

Underwater visibility was very good today. Our observations at the monitoring site are revealing a wealth of marine animal species. A large octopus even made an appearance. We had suspected that an octopus had moved into the area as we had identified a fresh shell midden. Octopi primarily feed on shellfish like clams and crabs, which are captured and carried into the octopus den for consumption. The empty shells are then dumped outside the den (where savvy naturalists can spot them).

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A bluespotted cornetfish (Fistularia tabacaria) was found at the monitoring site today! We managed to snap a few photos before it swam away.


Non-Government Organizations

Scientists not only work with other individual scientists; we also work with agencies and groups. One common type of group is an NGO, which stands for Non-Governmental Organization. Independent from direct government control and usually nonprofit, NGO’s are created by concerned citizens to serve specific societal needs or goals. Many NGO’s are founded around science and conservation. The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and the National Audubon Society are well-known examples.

Within the SCUBA diving community, a popular NGO is the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). REEF is a marine conservation organization focusing on citizen-science initiatives ( Since 1993, REEF has operated an underwater fish survey program designed for use by volunteer SCUBA divers and snorkelers. There are hundreds of fixed REEF survey locations in Florida alone, containing tens of thousands of submitted fish sighting reports.

I had previously worked with REEF before in the Florida Keys and in the Bahamas. Their survey database is searchable online, allowing anyone to look up records for what fish species were encountered in an area and roughly how abundant or rare they were.

With South Florida being a top SCUBA destination, it was very possible that REEF fish survey sites were near our new monitoring area. So, I contacted REEF for information. And lo and behold, there was data from as far back as 2000! The REEF folks also made a pretty map for us that pinpointed all the local fish survey sites. Teaming up with NGO’s is great.


More Scouting of the Proposed Monitoring Site

We have been doing a lot of scouting and making preliminary field observations at the new monitoring site in Palm Beach. This area has a lot of great things going for it. We’ve identified multiple different seafloor habitat types within a relatively small area. Some spots attract high amounts of fish and benthic invertebrates.

Winds and sea permitting, we can snorkel to this area from the beach. The very best thing is that we’re only 10 minutes’ drive time away from Palm Beach Atlantic University. You may be familiar with the real estate agent’s mantra of “Location, Location, Location”? It works in field biology too.

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Outreach Partnerships

In academic work, networking with colleagues is very important. Nearly all professional science done today is a group process involving many people, each person contributing some combination of expertise, labor, funds, work space, equipment, etc.… The film and television portrayals of solitary genius scientists working in isolation are largely fiction. The truth of the matter is that one scientist, no matter how brilliant or well-funded, is still just one person, and performing most science today is just too complex and time consuming for one or even a few people.

So, scientists work as teams. Commonly we network outside of our own organizations, as the specific sorts of collaborations that we need just don’t exist locally. In education this is sometimes referred to as outreach, where services are provided from one source to a destination that lacks such services.

One of my colleagues from graduate school (Dr. Angela Witmer) has newly taken up a professor posting at neighboring Palm Beach Atlantic University. She has created the Beach and Nearshore Ecology Lab and invited me to collaborate in establishing an underwater long-term monitoring site near her university.

Long term monitoring areas allow scientists to examine changes in ecosystems over extended periods of time. They are particularly useful in tracking human encroachment and human impacts into natural habitats. The largest monitoring programs in the United States are formally known as Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites and investigated by dozens of scientists ( Florida possesses one LTER, centered on the southern Everglades (

Our monitoring site will be far more modest. After much exploring around on snorkel gear, we may have a candidate in front of this beach currently undergoing sand re-nourishment.

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In The Field

The ROV project has been shelved for the time being. Being neither an engineer or a natural tinkerer, building an ROV from scratch has proven very time consuming and difficult. I am hoping that advances in low-cost commercial or kit-based platforms will allow me to revisit remotely piloted submersibles for the future. The OpenROV project looks promising and I have been regularly checking it for technology updates (

In the meantime, other Florida underwater exploration continues! As a professor of biology and oceanography courses at Palm Beach State College, I maintain an extensive photographic library for use in curriculum instruction. Many of the students relate better to instructional topics when local examples and local images are used. Underwater photographs are especially prized, as they are both harder to find online for public domain use, and harder to make yourself.

I recently upgraded my handheld underwater camera to a Sealife DC1400. With a 60-meter depth rating, SCUBA-friendly housing, and 14-megapixel sensor, I hope for this camera to get a lot of use.

For the Sealife’s first dip into the ocean, I took it to the famous “Blue Heron Bridge” at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. Quite possibly the #1 underwater photography destination for the state of Florida, Phil Foster Park excels in close-up encounters with many forms of marine life. Here is an official weblink from Palm Beach County in snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the park.

Today I was able to snap excellent teaching photos of the upside-down jellyfish Cassiopeia xamachana, and the “sea frost” colonial worm Salmacina huxleyi. These are both very common in south Florida waters but commonly overlooked to the untrained eye.

Cassiopeia is a bizarre example of a scyphozoan swimming jellyfish pushing itself to the seafloor and preferring to behave like a sea anemone or giant fluffy coral. It contains photosynthetic algae in its tentacles just like in many tropical corals and sponges. The algae produce excess sugar products, which are absorbed internally by the Cassiopeia. It’s basically an animal with a greenhouse inside of it.

Sea frost is equally interesting. A serpulid tube worm, it lives as large, white-colored colonies resembling tangled stick bushes or stick encrustations. Only up very close are the worms themselves visible with their fleshy feeding radioles protruding out.

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Testbed ROV Complete and Pool Trials

Three major alterations were made to the “ROV in a Bucket” design. The bulky, rigid PVC tube floats were replaced with cut pieces of foam pool float wrapped around the upper frame. A mount (to potentially hold an ice fishing camera) was installed on the bottom frame. And a detachable bolt system was incorporated to allow separation of the upper and lower frames. By detaching the two frames, the entire ROV platform could easily fit inside a 5-gallon bucket. A large 12-volt battery (the power supply) required a separate bucket.

Total expenses for the entire project (books, parts, tools) now exceeded several hundred dollars. This was still a fraction of the cost for buying a commercial ROV, and roughly comparable to the cost of buying an OpenROV kit (minus the tools).

A friend’s swimming pool served for the first water trials. Performance was… bad. One of the side thrusters failed for no visible reason within the first few minutes. The heavy, switch-based thruster controls only allowed for crude, imprecise maneuvering. The tether system (bundled up stereo wire) was easily tangled and did not spool up well. The ROV frame itself was too narrow for the two side thrusters to perform tight turns. The thrusters needed to be spaced much further apart from one another, but that would require an entirely new ROV design. This last item was the nail in the coffin. With such poor maneuvering ability, the testbed ROV was deemed unsuitable for field use.

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The ROV’s frame is put together and the three maneuvering thrusters are installed. The control box is also completed. I have made so many trips to Radio Shack and Home Depot in the last month that I can walk blindfolded into each of their respective electronics aisles. The budget has also tripled to accommodate the many different kinds of specialty tools required for assembly. Before this month I had no idea what a Heat Gun was. Now I own one.

The maneuvering thrusters are bilge pump motors that are placed into watercraft to pump out excess water. The thruster propellers are remote controlled airplane props. The tether is coated stereo wire. I’m not making this up.

The first powered test took place in a bathtub. Nothing shorted out, so victory was declared!


Building the First Remote Underwater Submersible

After weeks of reading and research, the plan was to spend the next few months building an ROV that would teach me how to build ROV’s. Its primary purpose would be as a learning testbed. The criteria list would be short.

  1. the ROV would be very small, lightweight, and compact
  2. the thruster maneuvering systems would be analog
  3. components would be “off the shelf”, inexpensive, and readily available

NOAA’s “ROV in a Bucket” would serve as the design template (

Baby Steps into Remote Underwater Vehicles

Following last year’s Florida Marine Science Educators Meeting, I had been kicking around the idea of setting up a marine robotics laboratory at Palm Beach State College. The folks at Brevard Community College had supplied me with several contacts and reading resources, and I had been slowly spending the last several months going through them.

To a marine biologist, the benefits of a remotely operated submersible were readily apparent. However, I had serious doubts regarding the ability to construct, operate, and maintain something so complicated. I did not have any practical knowledge in electrical, mechanical, or computer system engineering. Nor were there any local experts at my college to consult with. Our laboratory facilities were also extremely modest. The ROVs from Brevard College were built by robotics students and designed primarily for robotics education and robotics competitions. My interests were simpler and more applied, centered less on the ROV platforms themselves and more on how they could be used in low-cost marine and freshwater studies.

Pre-built remote underwater vehicles were expensive, with even the smallest costing many thousands of dollars. The kit-based “OpenROV Project” offered a novel, affordable system but the computer skills needed to build and operate this ROV were far outside of my knowledge base.

The next option would be to build an ROV completely from scratch. With my lack of engineering know-how, this would be a serious challenge. I’d need an “Idiot’s Guide to ROVs”. Fortunately, the Office of Naval Research’s Sea Perch program has been doing this very thing in primary and secondary schools since 2003 ( Sea Perch lesson plans would provide the foundations for my marine engineering education.

In The Field

FMSEA Meeting

The Florida Marine Science Educators Association (FMSEA) sponsors annual conferences throughout the state of Florida ( With a focus on Florida’s marine and aquatic environments, FMSEA offers educators and researchers the opportunity to gather together for learning, reporting, networking, and collaboration. This year, FMSEA’s conference would be held at the internationally renowned Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Among the many interesting conference sessions was one led by Professor Susan Phillips and William Fried from Brevard Community College. They hosted a workshop on how to build low-cost Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Several of their custom-built ROV’s were showcased, ranging in all shapes and sizes. At the end of the meeting, we headed to the Harbor Branch boat basin and got a firsthand experience driving some of their ROV’s!

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Expedition Background

Florida is an unusually wet U.S. state. With over 2.000 kilometers of coastline (bordering two oceans), over 4,000 islands, and home to the Everglades super-wetland, Florida is rich with nature and in nature viewing.

Based out of Southeast Florida’s “Palm Beaches Coast”, my expedition partners and I investigate many of the watery habitats and ecosystems that help make this region a global travel destination.

Our area borders parts of the northern Everglades, Lake Okeechobee (the largest lake in Florida), the Gulf Stream, and the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Tract. In addition, the Palm Beaches contains within it a vast quantity of manmade canals and ponds.

Expedition members include scientists, educators, naturalists, students, and friends.

Our mission is to closely engage with the underwater environment, for purposes of science education, academic research, and personal enrichment. This Open Explorer Expedition chronicles our adventures and discoveries as we immerse ourselves “Beneath South Florida Waters”.


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