This is a guest blog post by LSU marine biologist Alicia Reigel! Did you know that coral reefs have microbial communities growing on and in them, just like we humans do, for example in the form of gut microbes? How do these microbes help or hurt corals? Alicia is studying just that. She recently embarked on a 15-day expedition onboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Research Vessel Nancy Foster to explore corals and their microbes within Gray's Reef, a temperate hard-bottom reef off the coast of Georgia.
Join Alicia as she takes us through an incredible journey into the deep blue!
Some of you may remember me from a blog post featured here at The Pursuit a few months ago. In that post I introduced myself and gave you all a glimpse into my research on Caribbean reef coral microbial communities. This time I’m back to share about my recent research trip aboard a 187-foot research vessel in the waters of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS)!
Gray’s Reef is a live-bottom temperate reef that sits about 19 miles off the coast of Sapelo Island, Georgia. The habitat at Gray’s Reef is made up of small, intermittent hard-bottom ledges separated by large tracts of sand. These ledges are encrusted with many benthic invertebrates including corals, sponges and tunicates, and is home to many echinoderms like sea stars as well as fish and sea turtles.
What is a research vessel, who operates it and what does it do?
This particular vessel is operated by NOAA and is named R/V Nancy Foster after a particularly influential female scientist and conservationist employed by NOAA. Members of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corp, one of the 7 uniformed services of the U.S. government, and civilians known as Able-Bodied Seaman (I prefer sea-people as many of them are in fact women!!) operate the vessel.
The R/V Nancy Foster is used for many types of research projects, from mapping of the sea floor, to tuna larvae studies in the Caribbean, to our project conducting surveys of fish and invertebrates and collecting coral samples at GRNMS.
What is particularly awesome about the R/V Nancy Foster is that it is one of several NOAA vessels specifically outfitted for heavy scuba diving expeditions. It has several unique features including a wet lab for processing samples with a running sea water faucet, a dive locker for gear storage, and an air compressor (affectionately nicknamed “Grumpy” for its desire to be somewhat finicky about how/who operates it) for filling scuba tanks.
Most importantly, R/V Nancy Foster has three smaller dive boats that are launched off the deck each day by a crane. The small boat launching is truly something special to see and requires “all hands on deck." Scientists at Gray’s Reef do A LOT of scuba diving, so luckily every year they are given valuable boat time aboard the R/V Nancy Foster to complete research that will benefit the management of the sanctuary!
What is it like to live and dive on a large research vessel for two weeks?
Imagine that everything around you moves. You can’t seem to find your balance and you might fall down if you aren’t careful. You also have bruises on your hips, knees, elbows and other random places from falling into doorways, counters, etc. whenever the boat rocks. That’s how the first few days are as your body adjusts to the rocking of the boat.
The R/V Nancy Foster is a flat bottom boat which means that it is particularly rocky, because it falls into the “valleys” of each wave. Once you get your “sea legs” and can walk straight, being on a boat is pretty awesome! The rocking means that at night in your bunk you are literally rocked to sleep, which is hard to give up when you get back on dry land. Some other highlights of boat-living include not having to cook meals or do dishes because there are two awesome chefs on board. You also get a brief respite from electronics since internet is limited and there is no cell-phone service, a large ice cream freezer filled to bursting with every flavor you could want, and a 4th level deck call “Steel Beach” that has lounge chairs perfect for sunset watching and ice cream eating. And then you have the joy of constant ocean breeze and scuba diving EVERY DAY!
What does a typical day look like on a research vessel?
A typical day on the vessel starts with breakfast at 7 a.m. followed by an 8:30 a.m. small boat launch that sees all the divers off for their two morning dives. After our two 40-minute dives, we head back to the big vessel for lunch. Around 1:30 p.m. we put all of our dive gear back on (this time it's already wet and cold from a morning of diving.. ick) and head back out for three more 40-minute dives.
After our afternoon dives we race back to the boat to get dinner. Dinner is served from 4:30-5:30 p.m., which is probably the hardest part of ship-living to adjust to. Sometimes our dives would run late and we would miss dinner, but no problem because the awesome chef would count who was missing at dinner and leave you a leftovers plate with your name on it! You CANNOT go hungry on this boat! After dinner we spend our time processing the day’s data, prepping dive gear and scuba tanks onto the small boats for the next day’s dives, and having our nightly science meeting on Steel Beach to recap the day and plan for the next day.
Scuba diving on the R/V Nancy Foster is exciting. To go diving, the crew need to launch the three smaller dive boats using a crane. Once those boats are in the water next to the big ship, the divers climb down a ladder into the small boats and are off to different locations throughout the sanctuary.
When we get to our dive site, we drop a marker buoy with an anchor on it. We can follow the line on this buoy all the way to the sea floor, that way if the current is strong we don’t get pushed off the ledge we’re looking for. To get into the water we do what’s called a "back roll." We have all of our dive gear on and we just sort of fall backwards off the boat with our knees tucked in. Then as soon as all the divers signal that they are "OK," we find the buoy line and head towards the bottom to do our science.
Most of Gray’s Reef is between 58 to 70 feet deep. Diving at Gray’s Reef is interesting because unlike tropical coral reefs, you can’t see the bottom from the water’s surface. So if you think about it, we’re pretty brave. We just ask someone to drive us to a spot in the ocean where we can’t see the bottom, we roll of the boat and head straight down to 70 feet and hope that something is there! It’s a little crazy, but that’s what makes our work so exciting!
What can you see at the bottom of Gray’s Reef?
Gray’s Reef is dominated by sponges, tunicates and soft corals. These particular invertebrates are often very colorful, much more so than the hard corals of the tropics. What’s interesting is that as we dive deeper underwater we begin to lose the ability to see certain colors, most notably red. What often happens is that you might collect something that looks a certain color underwater, but when you bring it to the surface it is a completely different color because of the ability to see red again! This poses a problem in underwater photography. To counteract this we either add a red-tinted lens to the camera or change the settings to add more red color into the photograph. These are some of the underwater problems we deal with that many people don’t know about or think about.
In addition to the sessile invertebrates, Gray’s Reef is home to many different types of echinoderms with sea stars being my favorite! These little guys move more quickly than you would expect underwater! If you’re lucky you may see some of the larger fish such as Scamp or Gag Grouper, Red Snapper or Amber Jacks. If you’re unlucky you may get bit by one of the very small but very territorial black sea bass. If you’re extra special, you may get to see a nurse shark or a sea turtle hiding under a ledge near you! My favorite find was a large yellow frog fish with his lure out! Gray’s Reef is truly beautiful and is one of our country’s best hidden gems!
How did you get invited to collect corals aboard the R/V Nancy Foster?
Getting to go out on one of these NOAA research cruises is an incredible opportunity as a young scientist. My advisor during my master’s program at Georgia Southern University, Dr. Daniel Gleason, has a long-standing collaboration with Gray’s Reef to complete research on the sessile benthic community at the Sanctuary. Each summer, researchers from all over the country, along with Gray’s Reef staff, spend days to weeks doing surveys of fish and invertebrates across the 22 square miles of the Sanctuary. While I worked on my M.S. degree in Dr. Gleason’s lab, I was able to spend time each summer helping with this research. In fact, this is my second research cruise on the R/V Nancy Foster!
Thankfully for me, the invertebrate survey team was a member short this year so they invited me back to help out. I also worked with Gray’s Reef’s Research Coordinator, Kimberly Roberson, to get a permit to collect samples of soft corals in the Sanctuary for my own coral microbial research!
Why exactly were you collecting soft corals from Gray’s Reef?
Let’s use humans as an example. Our bodies are covered with microbes, both inside and out, and they do lots of good for us like digesting food and protecting us from pathogens. However, some of them aren’t so helpful and can cause stinky breath or give us infections.
Just like us, corals have a whole community of microbes that live on them. We’ve been able to learn a lot about these microbes, but there is still so much that is unknown. For example, we don’t know if each different species of coral has specific types of microbes associated with it, or if changes to the environment can cause the microbes to change either in type or abundance. We don't know if these microbes are doing helpful or harmful things to the coral. Most of what we do know comes from work done on tropical hard corals, but Gray’s Reef is not tropical, nor is it dominated by hard corals. Instead, the reefs there are temperate and the main corals are soft corals, and we know very little about coral microbes in this type of habitat.
Beyond determining basic information about the microbes associated with corals at Gray’s Reef (which microbes are present and how many of them are there in each coral), the other goal is to figure out exactly what function these microbes have and how they might impact coral health and survival. Microbes react quickly to environmental changes, much more quickly than the coral itself. If we can determine what the microbial community of a healthy coral should look like versus that of an unhealthy coral, in the future we may be able to use that information to give us insight into the overall health of a reef before the coral show visible signs of degradation. This type of information is invaluable in a constantly changing global environment where reefs of all types are threatened.
On this expedition I was able to collect eight different species of coral - seven species that I was expecting to find and one that we’ve never documented at Gray’s Reef before! We have a fairly good idea of what this new species is, but it’s important to confirm this using both DNA (genetical material) and a morphological assessment. I will be working on that over the next couple of months to hopefully identify this newcomer and figure out how/why we are seeing this particular coral in Gray’s Reef this year.
Work on corals is awesome (!!!), but what else was going on at Gray’s Reef during the research cruise?
This trip was filled with science! My coral collection project was just one of seven different research projects going on to benefit Gray’s Reef during the cruise.
Some of the other projects included overnight time-lapse video to view ledge use by large predators and sea turtles (by Dr. Peter Auster of UConn), split-beam acoustic surveys to locate fish and habitat (by Dr. Fabio Campanella, an NOAA affiliate), underwater scuba diving fish transects to identify type/abundance of fish species (by Dr. Roldan C. Muñoz at NOAA and Kimberly Roberson at NOAA), benthic surveys to identify and quantify sessile benthic creatures (by Dr. Daniel Gleason at GSU, Dr. Risa Cohen at GSU, Alicia Reigel at LSU, and Brianne Varnerin at GSU), and visual surveys to identify and quantify echinoderms (by Dr. Tim Henkel at Valdosta State and Marybeth Head at NOAA).
Beyond all that, we had the AMAZING professional videographer for NOAA Paul Chetirkin aboard for a few days to shoot video of us doing our important science at Gray’s Reef! To keep all of our science going there were also several volunteers and NOAA personnel helping out with surveys, filling scuba tanks, checking dive equipment, spearheading social media and public outreach and many other tasks that were vital to the cruise!
Science is accomplished through collaborations. This research cruise was truly what a collaboration for the good of science looks like! Not only did we complete an amazing amount of work underwater, we had a GREAT time doing it! All of this work is important to help the staff at Gray’s Reef advocate for the continued presence of the Sanctuary to government officials and other important stakeholders such as fisherman.
To wrap all of this up I would love to share with you the stats from our research cruise. I found it incredible, and I think it’s worth sharing to show how much a great collaboration and a lot of work can accomplish!
- 359 individual scuba dives totaling 174 hours underwater!!!!!!
- 68 fish and mobile invertebrate surveys over a span of 4.2 miles.
- 536 quadrants assessed for sessile invertebrates, a total of around 1,450 square feet surveyed.
- 600 nautical miles of split-beam acoustic surveys at eight sites (driven straight and on land that would get R/V Nancy Foster from Savannah, GA to Indianapolis, IN!)
- 168 hours of time-lapse video recorded.
- 23 invasive lionfish removed (and promptly devoured as ceviche by all those onboard!)
- 40 samples from 8 soft corals species collected for sequencing microbial symbionts.
- 3 underwater acoustic receivers switched.
- Two new dive sites outside GRNMS explored for their potential connectivity to the Sanctuary.
- Many hours of video recorded and one amazing highlights video created.