Guest column by Dr. Heyward Mathews, Oceanographer
St. Petersburg College has had a scuba program for more than 50 years, but only in the last two years have our scuba students been able to use their scuba skills to conduct scientific research.
With help from Reef Monitoring Inc., a non-profit research group formed by Dr. Heyward Mathews and Dr. Monica Lara in 2010, SPC students are monitoring the artificial and natural reefs in the Gulf of Mexico off Clearwater, and the mangrove marshes of Pinellas County.
After the recent major oil spill in the Gulf, SPC students began what we call the “canary in the mine” study. The purple sea whip, one of the soft corals, is a common resident of both natural and artificial reefs, and is a species that cannot tolerate any type of pollution. By making growth studies on five of these soft corals, our students will be able to tell if any adverse water conditions, man-made or natural, occur at this site
A second study is to determine how artificial reefs provide spawning areas for many marine fish species.
Our students put out light traps in the Gulf, St. Joseph Sound and upper Tampa Bay. These traps have battery-powered lights that comes on at dark and go off at dawn. Small ½ inch openings allow small juvenile fish that are attracted to the trap to enter and not escape.
The student divers deploy these traps late in the afternoon and then retrieve them the next morning. The small fish then are preserved, counted and identified.
Another student study involves having divers collect bottom sediment samples out away from the artificial reef to compare with samples collected adjacent to the reef.
It has been well-documented that artificial reefs provide habitat for a large population of algae and benthic invertebrates. However, this project is finding large populations of benthic organisms are populating the sediment around the artificial reef.
The sediment samples the student divers are collecting then are passed through a series of geological sieves to determine the mean particle size. The sediment out away from the artificial reef is fine grain quartz sand. However, the large number of benthic invertebrates growing on the artificial reef have totally changed the character of the sediment adjacent to the reef structures.
This coarse sediment composed of shell debris is supporting a large and diverse population of marine worms and crustaceans, while the fine grain sediments provides minimal habitat.
The sediment samples are preserved in an alcohol solution containing Rose Bengal, a chemical that stains all the biological material in the sample. The students then spend hours with tweezers picking out and identifying the small invertebrates that are an important source of food for the fish that populate these reefs.
Once the samples are analyzed, the students write up the results and present their findings to the local diving and fishing community at free symposiums sponsored by Reef Monitoring.
These SPC scuba students now are viewing diving as both a recreational activity and tool for a career in marine science. We are finding students are signing up for both open water and advanced scuba to be able to participate in these ongoing research projects.
This is a win-win for our students. They have acquired a new hobby and a useful skill for a future careers in marine science.