Days here are pretty packed and wet. Dive in the morning, dive in the afternoon, afternoon excursion in search of YOYs (young of years….the fishy way of saying baby fish), dive in the evening, attempting to set up the equipment for doing a live stream from the dive site to classrooms on Grand Cayman. The team is made up of researchers, graduate students, people from the Cayman Island Department of the Environment, and REEF Volunteers, and of course Brice and Christy’s kids. We all gather at Peter’s house and talk about the day, what everyone will do, has done, has seen, plans to do. Meals are communal and everyone forms a wonderful working family of sorts. The bond between the people who have come for years is evident and they welcome us newcomers, all of us sharing our enthusiasm of the project and love of diving and fishes.
My days consist of diving with Brice in the morning and snorkeling in the afternoon looking for juvenile groupers. The dive site is incredible. The water is to blue what fire trucks are to red. Its deep and full yet bright and vivid. From the surface you can easily see the bottom over hundred feet below. The weather this year is better than most, the current hasn’t been running very strong and the seas have been pretty strong. The water is as clear as I have ever seen it. From the moment we hit the water I can see the groupers milling around on the bottom. There are hundreds of them, mostly right off the reef resting and staying out of the current. The first day they are primarily in the barred color phase, the second day more of them are dark and white bellied. Nassau grouper are, like most groupers, strikingly beautiful, graceful fish. Well at least I think so. I think they look noble and wise.
The second day of diving the current finally picks up. Brice and I easily drift down to the edge of the plateau where the wall drops off into the depths. The fish are scattered over the plateau and more concentrated over the wall. The ones over the wall are mostly in the dark color phase while the ones on the reef are mostly barred. I want to stay at look at the fish along the wall but Brice signals that it’s time to start kicking back to the boat. And kick we did. The current provides an uninvited workout.
After lunch we head out to the rocky rubble and sea grass habitats in the lagoon to look for the YOY Nassaus. Each of the snorkelers looks for a YOY, when we find one we notify Bradley, a Caymanian who works for the Cayman Island Department of the Environment. He drives the boat over and we try to catch it. The YOYs occupy holes in the rocks where they can wait for prey to come by and retreat into the crevices for protection from predators. They are incredibly good at hiding in their holes and avoiding the nets. When, or rather if, we catch them we measure them, take a small fin clip to do genetic work, tag the fish and let it go back right where we found it. By getting the genetics of the fish we can see if it is an offspring of the Little Cayman adults or if it drifted here from another location. Understanding the connectivity will help us better understand the population dynamics and how the species can be better managed and conserved.
The snorkeling is lots of fun. I got to see my first bat fish! Scott and Brice both seemed a little jealous when I showed them the picture. I was cruising along looking for the JV Nassaus and when I saw him hanging out in a low spot in the sediment. I free dove down and we watched each other for awhile. Super cool.
Conches are extremely abundant here. I’ve been trying to use them as markers for Nassau holes. When we find a YOY we sometimes have to wait awhile for the boat to come over. So in the interest of being able to move around a bit and not lose the hole, I place a conch that has distinguishing foliage on top of it (most of the Conchs have some sort of seaweed assemblage on their shells) near the hole. More than once my marker has moved away in my absence—luckily they don’t move too fast. The sea stars in the sandy lagoon move extremely fast, if you dive down you can watch their little suckers move them along rather rapidly—relatively speaking of course.
The second snorkel attempt we spend the second half along the back reef of the lagoon. The water is very shallow so the light is wonderful and there are tons of tiny fish as well as some schools of grunts. I saw a beautiful peacock flounder perfectly camouflaged against the rocks and algae. Although there’s few branching corals there are lots of brain corals. The girls told me there was a hurricane last year and I suspect some of the broken coral pieces can be attributed to it.
Guy Harvey is here with us, as is Paul Humann, guy who did all the reef fish ID books, and a film crew from PBS who does the series ‘changing seas.’ It’s weird to be around all the huge cameras. One member of the group will say something and be asked to repeat it once the camera is rolling. We had to wait to jump in the water and go one by one so they could get a shot of each of us getting in. Alexis and I had to look off into the distance, pretending to listen to someone talking, and nod intermittently as if that imaginary person was saying something fascinating. As strange as it is to have the cameras around, the upside is that the story about the fish here is being documented and will be brought into the public eye.
When I’m not in the water, I’ve been playing with the Semmens kids who are an absolute blast. We’ve made a sand castle city, drawings of Nassau groupers, unicorns, aliens, snow storms, weirdo fish among others, played in the pool, collected data on the tides, made the biggest sand castle ever, done gymnastics on the beach etc.