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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