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Scientists fish for knowledge
Ongoing research conducted at Grays Reef
W GRAYS 0617 07
A dive crew motors away from the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, as they prepare to explore Grays Reef. - photo by JEFF HARRISON/staff

    SKIDAWAY ISLAND — More than 15 miles from the inlet marshes of Savannah and shores of Sapelo Island, like a drop of gray on a vast blue canvas, the enormous Nancy Foster research vessel bobs steadily atop the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
    Views in every direction reveal rolling, reflecting waves of water that stretch to the horizon and a scene quiet and devoid of any activity.
    But near the Nancy Foster, commotion is constant.
    Dive boats patrol waters surrounding the ship, as divers gear up for another decent. Crews aboard the vessel scramble on the platform, refilling scuba tanks and planting electronic sensors, and officers stationed in cabins three decks above the water carefully maneuver the nearly 200-foot-long behemoth where it needs to go.
    The action creates quite a scene, but the true show — and what has prompted scientists’ journey to this isolated location — lies just out of view.
    Researchers have come to study Gray’s Reef, one of the largest near-shore "live-bottom" reefs in the Southeast.
    They have gathered for an almost three-week-long expedition by the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Georgia Southern University to monitor and explore the 22-square-mile (about 14,000 acres) rocky-bottom marine habitat.
    On June 5, because several college professors and students are playing a prominent role in the underwater research, officials representing Georgia Southern were invited to join the Nancy Foster crew and learn about the significant work being conducted on the ocean floor.
    The small group, composed of administrators and professors with ties to the university’s museum and biology department, were taken aboard the NOAA Joe Ferguson for a nearly two-hour trek southeast to rendezvous with the Nancy Foster, where they were given a full tour of the ship and briefed about the ongoing studies.
    Visitors met with several members of the research crew and gathered in on-board laboratories to hear about progress being made.     “We do research constantly, year-round. But once a year, we have the Nancy Foster available to us, and it lets us multiply our research tremendously,” said Gail Krueger, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s outreach and communication coordinator. “We are running dive operations off the boat and conducting satellite mapping of the ocean floor.”
    The mission’s focus, Krueger said, is to monitor life in the reef and discover how animals use the habitat.
    Researchers also are interested in learning more about the habitat itself.
    The reef is a series of rocky ledges formed by consolidated shell fragments, sand and mud that can be as tall as 6 feet, lying about 60 to 70 feet below the ocean’s surface. The ledges are complex, with nooks, crannies, caves and bumps that provide space for a dense carpet of living invertebrates, which, in turn, provide food for other animals.
    Scientists representing Gray’s Reef, NOAA and Georgia Southern have formed dive teams to explore the environment, observe and collect specimens and analyze their finds.
    “What we’re doing this year is trying to detect patterns to know if there have been changes in the invertebrate and fish populations after setting up a zone last year where people can’t fish,” said Dr. Danny Gleason, a Georgia Southern biology professor who, along with graduate students, has worked at the site periodically for nearly a decade. “Another main objective is identifying the relationship between the fish and the invertebrate species.”
    The ultimate goal, he said, is to learn ideal strategies for managing and protecting the area.
    “We have more than 40 sensors stationed around the sanctuary that monitor and measure how life uses the reef,” Krueger said. “We want to measure site fidelity — to see how we can best manage the access of the reef to the public and still protect the species here.”
    While on the ship, guests were escorted to a pair of laboratories used for study.
    In the “dry lab,” Dr. Laura Kracker, a geographer with NOAA in Charleston, S.C., spoke about her role in mapping the sea floor and identifying primary fish habitats.
    She does so by monitoring and analyzing sonar signals being bounced off the sanctuary bottom.
    In the “wet lab” — called such because samples still dripping with seawater are allowed in — Gleason and Dr. Roldan Muñoz, a research fishery biologist out of Beaufort, N.C., talked about the various forms of life being found at the sea floor.
    “We are sampling the whole bottom-dwelling community,” Muñoz said. We are sampling several fish communities, including small prey fish and the more mobile, economic things like groupers and snappers.
    “We have seen snapper, barracuda, sea bass, grouper and plenty more,” he continued. “There are a variety of different species.”
    Gleason said teams are even finding some species of invertebrates they can’t identify.
    “Some of what we are finding down here are species that have never been described before,” he said, holding a tunicate the crew is now referring to as a “brain tunicate” because of its striking resemblance to the organ. “We will take samples and send them to experts around the world for examination and possible identification.
    “Every time we go down, we’re finding things we haven’t seen before,” he continued. “It is a very diverse area.”
    Research for the last leg of the 20-day expedition concluded last week, but work at the Gray’s Reef will continue year-round without the Nancy Foster, Krueger said.
    The day-long effort to include university officials was part of an ongoing effort by the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in partnering with Georgia Southern to spread awareness about the reef and its importance, said Dr. Brent Tharp, the director of the Georgia Southern Museum.
    “We are trying to get across to the public knowledge of how important, currently and historically, this reef is to this area and even our region,” Tharp said. “We’re focused on getting people interested.”
    As a way of spreading that message, Tharp said a new exhibit using information and photographs taken from research expeditions to the reef, including the most recent, will be on display at the museum beginning July 12th.
    The exhibition will include an interactive kiosk permanently stationed at Georgia Southern to provide visitors with a full array of knowledge concerning the underwater habitat, he said.
    For more information about work being conducted at Gray’s Reef, call Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary at (912) 598-2345. For information about Georgia Southern’s role in research, or to learn more about the upcoming exhibit, call the Georgia Southern Museum at (912) 478-5444.
    Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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