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Coral Connections in the Gulf

August 21-September 2, 2011
aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster


Scuba as a Tool

By Jenny Vander Pluym, Research Technician & Kim Edwards, Marine Ecologist and Diver, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)

Conservation and management of our nation's coastal and marine resources are important parts of the NOAA mission. It is necessary to conduct research underwater to observe the habitats and organisms that comprise these marine resources in order to better manage and protect them for future generations.

A diver stands at the edge of a boat deck just before jumping into the water
A NOAA diver prepares for data collection.
Photo: NCCOS CCMA Biogeography Branch

One tool that is paramount to achieving these goals is scientific diving. Having the trained scientific eye underwater is sometimes the only method that can be used to make valid observations and take accurate measurements in certain conditions.

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When picturing science, most people think of chemistry labs with test tubes, substances bubbling and spinning, as well as lab coats and goggles. Scientific diving takes the goggles underwater and places trained scientists into a variety of dynamic marine systems to identify, enumerate, collect, measure, and observe all aspects and processes of these communities.

A diver takes a photograph of a manta ray swimming overhead.
Sometimes divers have up-close encounters with marine life like this manta ray swimming several feet overhead.
Photo: NCCOS CCMA Biogeography Branch

Divers participating in this project will survey the fish and habitat to provide baseline information on the fish populations and benthic communities in the sanctuary. 

To gather the data in the water, a fish diver will visually identify, count and measure all the fish species seen along a 25-meter x 4-meter long transect (100 square meters or 1076 square feet) and record the data on underwater paper. 

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A habitat diver will follow behind the fish diver, identifying and counting the benthic habitat, such as coral, algae and sponge species within 1-square-meter quadrats along the transect. 

Diver works along a meter tape on laid across the reef.
Once in the water, divers collect fish and coral data along a belt transect. Photo: Jenny Vander Pluym/NCCOS Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research

Photo and video are also collected to help with any fish or coral identification and to document the sampling.  A total of 56 sites will be sampled within the sanctuary across East and West Flower Garden Banks.

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Orange, branching gorgonian (soft coral) anchored in a bed of sponges and other sea life.
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