I was gliding along next to the ledge on Davis Reef — located in a Sanctuary Area (SPA) about 4 miles southeast of Plantation Key — looking for all the usual suspects.
Davis Ledge is one of the more popular shallow dive spots in the Upper Keys, which is understandable because it is easy to navigate, and, due to its protected status, has an abundance of hard and soft corals, eels, nurse sharks, turtles and all manner of tropical fish.
As I neared my traditional turn-around spot, a small statue of Buddha, I saw a pair of divers about 25 yards off the ledge who were thoroughly involved studying the bottom.
Finning in their direction I received no wave, or shaka — the friendly Hawaiian hand gesture meaning “hang lose” that divers often use when approaching or passing each other. The divers were too engrossed in what they were doing to acknowledge some pesky diver with an oversized underwater camera.
I noticed that the divers had laid out grid markers. Getting closer, I saw that they seemed be paying particular attention to a small staghorn coral. It looked like one diver was cleaning it with a tooth brush while the other kept pointing and making notations on an underwater slate.
A closer look revealed that the diver was prodding at what seemed to be small rock. The small rock was actually a snail, which made me wonder why the diver would be poking at a snail.
A line from the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” came to mind, “Who are those guys?”
I looked up and saw a boat was floating above the divers. “Maybe it would provide a clue about their identity,” I thought. Being only 25 feet deep, I decided to go up and check it out. Big letters FWC were painted on the side.
Like most folks, when I think of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, what comes to mind are its fish and wildlife law enforcement activities.
I returned to the bottom near the divers, snapped off a few photos and decided to give the FWC a call the next day.
I had the good fortune to talk with John Hunt, program administrator of the commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s (FWRI) Marathon office, Bill Sharp, who heads up the institute’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Restoration Research Program in Marathon, and the two divers (Brian Reckenbeil, 30, and Einat Sandbank, 26) I had seen on Davis Reef.
Reckenbeil, a research biologist with a master of science degree in Natural Resources from Delaware State University, is a PADI divemaster who has been with the FWC in Marathon since February 2014.
Sandbank, also an accomplished diver with over 700 dives, has a master’s degree from the University of Miami in tropical marine ecosystem management. She started with the FWC in 2013 as an intern with the queen conch program and is now a researcher monitoring and studying queen conch in the Florida Keys and conducting research on other marine snails.
According to Hunt, coral reefs in the Florida Keys, the third-largest coral reef tract in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef, have become highly degraded in recent decades, prompting efforts to reestablish vital reef-building corals to restore the reef structure.
The FWC is collaborating with numerous partners collecting staghorn coral fragments, growing them in nurseries and then transplanting thousands of coral colonies from these nurseries onto Keys reefs restoration sites.
Organizations involved in the restoration effort include the Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy, NOVA Southeastern University, Penn State University and the University of Miami. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwc/sets/72157632749476739/)
It turns out that coral eating snails have been a problem for the restoration efforts.
This is where Sharp and his team of researchers come in. They have been studying a type of coral reef dwelling snail, the deltoid rock snail, which preys on the coral eating snails. The research team wants to know if the deltoid rock snail can reduce the impact that coral eating snails have on transplanted corals.
“Our laboratory experiments have shown that the mere presence of the deltoid rock snail deters coral-eating snails from preying on coral,” Sharp says. “We now are testing this laboratory result in the wild at Davis Reef.”
“We have transplanted nursery-grown corals from our partner the Coral Restoration Foundation onto Davis reef in a series of experimental plots. In some plots, we have added coral-eating snails and in others we added both coral-eating snails and a deltoid rock snail; Still other plots had no snails added them to act as experimental ‘controls,” he added.
Researchers Reckenbeil, Sandbank are tracking these snails and the health of the coral colonies within the experimental plots off the ledge at Davis Reef.
“The interaction of marine snails has received limited attention by coral reef restoration researchers, but they play an important role in the reef community,” noted researcher Sandbank.
“We have studied how these snail species interact for a few years in the lab. It is great to finally see will happen in the wild,” added researcher Reckenbeil,
Sharp said, “If the results of these experiments confirm our laboratory observations, and the presence of the deltoid rock snail can indeed mitigate the effect of predation by coral-eating snails in the wild, this snail could be used in coral reef restoration to enhance survival of corals, either by allowing restorers to transplant nursery-grown corals in locations with a naturally high abundance of deltoid rock snails or by enhancing their abundance at restoration sites by transplanted individuals collected at other locations.”
“If further research confirms that manipulating this snail on restoration locations enhances coral health, then this process could constitute a significant component of a comprehensive coral reef restoration strategy for Florida,” Sharp concluded.
In other words, the good snails could come to the rescue, eat the bad sails, and this may help save the reef.
OK, what else, besides studying potential reef saving snails and catching fish poachers and other bad guys, does the FWC do? Quite a bit!
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came into existence on July 1, 1999 — the result of a constitutional amendment approved in the 1998 General Election as part of the package proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission.
The 2,118 full-time and 840 and temporary and seasonal employees are organized into six divisions: Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Freshwater Fisheries Management, Habitat and Species Conservation, Hunting and Game Management, Law Enforcement, and Marine Fisheries Management.
The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute headquartered in St. Petersburg, which includes the Coral Reef Ecosystem Restoration Research Program, is responsible for:
▪ Monitoring marine and freshwater resources, wildlife, and habitats;
▪ Developing and implementing techniques for restoring plant and animal species and their habitats;
▪ Providing technical support when oil spills and human-related or natural disasters occur;
▪ Monitoring red tides and providing technical support for state and local government public health concerns; and
▪ Providing fish and wildlife research technical result to state and local governments.
So, if you happen to be scuba diving on Davis Ledge and see divers poking around at the bottom, they might just be FWC researchers Brian Reckenbeil, and Einat Sandbank seeing if the deltoid rock snail can help save our reefs.
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.