Hey everybody! Last week I had the extreme pleasure of hopping on a 41-foot catamaran and heading out to learn more about Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary.
Photographer Drew and I arrive at the Gray’s Reef office on Ocean Circle just after 7:30 a.m. We load up and shortly after 8 a.m., pull out from the marina.
First of all, you have to know that there is no such thing as too much time on the water, in my opinion. I spent nearly the entire time sitting in the back of the boat just watching the wake and the water. So incredibly peaceful …
Nearly two and a half hours later (we traveled about 46 miles southeast of Savannah at roughly 18 knots per hour and were about 20 miles almost directly east from Sapelo Island), we arrive at our destination — a 186-foot NOAA research vessel called the Nancy Foster.
We climb aboard and, after a fantastic lunch, get to meet the scientists and scuba divers who are part of the two-week research mission, including a second-year master’s candidate from Georgia Southern named Brianne Vernerin.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “The first time I went down at Gray’s Reef, I did not expect to see how beautiful and colorful it was. You hear how coral reefs, how beautiful and colorful they are, but a live bottom reef is just as beautiful.”
Instead of a hard coral reef formed by calcium the corals leave behind, Gray’s Reef is instead a hard rock bottom with ledges and ridges that are perfect for colorful invertebrates like sponges, corals and sea squirts to cling to and grow.
Vernerin and her professor, Danny Gleason, are watching changes in the diversity of species and the amount of invertebrate coverage on the live bottom reef.
“You’ve got these big base sponges and these brightly colored ascidians, tunicates, different things like that,” said Vernerin. “It’s just gorgeous. I’m in awe every time I go underwater.”
But that’s just one of the experiments happening in Gray’s Reef. Professor Peter Auster and researcher Fabio Campanella (yes, Fabio — he’s dark-headed instead of blond, but he’s Italian, has a wonderful accent and I’m told, until recently, had a long ponytail) are working together to monitor predator and prey behavior, and how different species of predators impact and sometimes seem to help each other.
“I think Gray’s Reef is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, ‘cause it’s not over used. You can still jump in the water and see abundant fish carrying out their daily lives,” said Auster. “After 40 years, this is still just like being a kid. I always tell students that I’ve got the best job in the world. I get to go hang out underwater and study fish.”
Researchers have counted more than 80 species of fish in Gray’s Reef in the last few years, which means Auster and Campanella have plenty of specimens to study. But the example of their research that made the most sense to me was how Spanish mackerel will attack cigar minnows, which makes them dive toward the ocean floor, only to then be fed upon by bottom dwellers like black sea bass, red snapper, and scamp and gag grouper.
After chatting with the scientists, we finished our tour of the Nancy Foster led by chief mission scientist Kim Roberson.
“Two weeks out of the year, once a year, we’re fortunate enough to get the Nancy Foster NOAA Ship into Gray’s Reef, and it gives us an opportunity to spend 10 days to two weeks out here and learn more about Gray’s Reef and how special a place this is,” she said.
Tour highlights include the bridge (that’s really what it’s called, so cool), where we got to chat up Commanding Officer Master Donn Pratt, and spending time on the “Steel Beach,” which is a patio deck covered in a comfy, spongy mat material (vs walking on steel) and beach loungers. This is where the crew and/or guests come to chill and look out over the water.
But back to the expedition: It provides the bulk of the research on Gray’s Reef each year. The scientists and researchers get to dive to collect data up to five times a day, which leads us to what may be the coolest part of our story. We got to see them dive!
The divers were loaded into two 19-foot dive boats; then we were, too. By the way, being in a dive boat (it’s a metal, styrofoam and hard plastic “international orange” center console with an engine on the back) 20 miles out to sea (no land in sight) really should have been nerve-wracking, but I was having so much fun I didn’t think about that until way later.
We follow one of the boats about a mile from the Nancy Foster toward the research buoy in the center of Gray’s Reef, then watch and wait. The divers strap on their tanks and snorkel up, give us the OK sign (a thumbs up means “go up” underwater, but the OK sign means all is well) then simultaneously flip backwards off the edge of the boat. So cool!
They immediately resurface and give the driver another OK sign, then dive back under for their research.
At this point, our trip was pretty much over, although I got to spend another blissful two hours watching the wake and the water on the way back to land.
The Gray’s Reef folks get to stay aboard the Nancy Foster until Friday. But that’s when you get a special treat.
The NOAA ship Nancy Foster is docking along River Street from 1 to 4 p.m. June 23 and hosting an open house. It’s first come, first served and it’s free. Grab the kids to come tour this amazing ship and meet the NOAA crew.
Reneé LaSalle is co-host of “The Bridge,” which airs at 11 a.m. Monday-Friday on WSAV. Contact her on Facebook by searching Reneé LaSalle WSAV, on Twitter @WSAVReneeL or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.