Key Largo is known for it’s diverse and abundant Marine Life. Particularly the schooling fishes such as Snappers, Grunts, Goatfish, Spadefish, Parrotfish, etc. This this is why divers return again and again to dive here. But Key Largo also frequently sees many of the bigger Pelagics on it’s reefs and wrecks. One of the favorites for our divers is the beautiful and majestic Spotted Eagle Ray.
The Spotted Eagle Ray
According toOceana:“Reaching widths of nearly 11 feet (over 3 m), the spotted eagle ray is one of the largest rays, with only the mantas growing bigger. Spotted eagle rays, like all eagle rays, are active swimmers and do not lie motionless on the seafloor, like the closely related whiptail stingrays (e.g., southern stingray). They are foraging predators and are known to eat a variety of invertebrate and fish prey. Just like the name implies, the spotted eagle ray is covered in spots and other markings. It is unmistakable with any other species throughout its range.”
We see Spotted Eagle rays alone, or in pairs, and every so often in schools. Over the years we have seen as many as 20 together gliding across the reef…a sublime sight! Eagle Rays are not fished commercially, by do end up as “bycatch” by commercial fishermen, and again according to Oceana, their numbers are declining due to this in tandem with their low reproductive rate…having between 1-4 pups per litter.
Diving Key Largo is great for marine life, large and small. The beautiful Spotted Eagle Ray is a scuba diver’s favorite, and we’re grateful they choose to share the Key Largo reefs with us and our divers!
A special thanks to Videographer Aaron Davitt for this awesome Video
Over the decades, the reefs of Key Largo have always been abundant with marine life of many species. Sharks included, particularly the common Nurse Shark, a common sight on any reef during any season. Occasionally, scuba divers would come across a Hammerhead, Bull or Reef Shark. But over the last decade or so, the Caribbean Reef Shark has become a much more common resident of the Florida Keys reefs.
Caribbean Reef Sharks – Making their home on the Key Largo Reefs
The Reef Shark is indeed the most common shark on or near to the reef in the Caribbean in general. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but about 8-10 years ago, we started seeing this shark more frequently on opur dive sites in Key Largo. After dives, we noticed our Scuba divers frequently talking about the Caribbean Reef Shark, sometimes spotting them in groups of 2 or even up to 6 or more on one dive! A great development for many reasons as it turns out, which is talked about later in this blog, and it was an especially cool thing for our scuba divers!
According to Wikipedia, “The Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezii) is a species of requiem shark, belonging to the family Carcharhinidae. It is found in the tropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Brazil, and is the most commonly encountered reef shark in the Caribbean Sea. With a robust, streamlined body typical of the requiem sharks, this species is difficult to tell apart from other large members of its family such as the dusky shark (C. obscurus) and the silky shark.”
Although Caribbean Reef Sharks are known to exhibit aggressive and territorial behavior, they are rarely if ever known to attack humans. In our experience, Reef Sharks can seem curious towards divers when they first enter the water and may even approach and swim quite closely to a scuba diver. Generally however, it seems that they eventually loose interest on repeat dives. They can become more dangerous when being fed, which is illegal in Florida waters, but common in many other dive sites around the Caribbean.
A Great Beauty – And a Positive Sign for Coral Reefs
Sometimes it’s easy to take things for granted when they become more common. This is true for the Caribbean Reef Shark, as they are generally common now on our reefs here in Key Largo. And yet they are truly one of the more beautiful sharks in the Atlantic, as you can see from Photographer Andrew Jalbert’s photographs here, (all taken on a Key Largo reef). Scuba diving with these beautiful & majestic creatures is a thrill and leads one to appreciate their presence. The increase in their numbers on Florida Keys reefs is also considered a positive thing for the coral reef ecosystem, as it generally indicates a healthy abundance & diversity of marine life. As many scuba divers already know, Key Largo reefs are known for their abundance of fish!
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Caribbean reef shark is “Near Threatened”, as it’s population has declined particularly off Belize and Cuba from overfishing, and exploitation continues in other regions also. They are also threatened by the degradation and destruction of their coral reef habitat. Overfishing is not happening in the Florida Keys, as the Caribbean Reef Shark is “prohibited from harvest” in all Florida State waters. This is a great thing for the health of the reef system in general, as the Reef Shark is a critical part of the food chain. Our scuba divers certainly enjoy seeing these beautiful creatures.
Dive with Caribbean Reef Sharks
We can’t guarantee seeing one of these beautiful creatures on any one dive trip in the Florida Keys, but we can say that there’s a pretty darn good chance of seeing one (or many) over the course of a couple/few days of diving Key Largo dive sites. Call today and book your dive charter to find out for yourself!
A Special thanks to Professional Photographer Andrew Jalbert for the use of these amazingly beautiful Caribbean Reef Shark photographs for this article. We’re proud to say Andy has been diving Key Largo with Sea Dwellers Dive Center for over 2 decades now, and we’re constantly amazed by his work! We’re also very thankful for his generosity in the use of these photographs for our articles and blogs. To view more of his work, check out his web site Jalbert Productions.
Are you a scuba diver with a passion for the coral reefs?
Do you want to help save coral reefs from extinction?
At Sea Dwellers Dive Center, our answer is an emphatic YES to both!
The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) Citizen Scientist Program is a way to be involved and help protect our beautiful coral reefs here in the Florida Keys. Sea Dwellers Dive Center will be taking scuba charters on a regular basis out to CRF reef sites to monitor planted coralks using the fun, easy-to-use smartphone app, OkCoral, you can use your recreational dives on the Florida Reef Tract to help us answer vital questions about the health and survivorship of our coral outplants. This data will make a significant contribution to the success of our mission of coral restoration!
Your data will help us begin to answer things like “which reef habitat has greater coral survivorship?” or “are there differences in genotype performances?” and many other questions.
Coral Restoration Foundation Citizen Scientists can be snorkelers or divers. All you need is a smartphone* and a way of recording data or taking pictures underwater! Dive Key Largo while helping to preserve our precious Florida Keys Reef!
Sea Dwellers Dive Center “CRF Citizen Scientist Dive Schedule” …call 1-800-451-3640 for dates & details!
The Future of the Coral Reefs in Key Largo by David Jefferiss
The current situation:
NOAA estimates that US coral reefs, including the ones we dive on regularly in the Florida Keys, contribute about $3.4Bn annually to the US economy. Worldwide some 500 million people depend on reefs for food and income. In addition, barrier reefs like Molasses reef and French reef that we dive on the Sea Dweller III here in Key Largo provide protection to the shore and reduce potential flood and storm damage.
Coral reefs today are suffering as a result of multiple threats. Some global and some local:
In the fairly recent past, Carysfort reef, north of Key Largo was a model of a healthy reef, with huge stands of Elk horn coral. This picture from 2012 shows some decline. It is estimated that some 90% of the coral on the reef has been lost today.
When we talk about coral, most often we are referring to Stony Corals which are the basic building blocks of the reef.
Stony Corals come in several types. Branching corals, like the Elkhorn coral on Carysfort reef. Brain corals, like the one on the right on Snapper ledge.
Or encrusting coral. This one is from Hens and Chickens, just south of Key Largo. Stony Corals live as a result of a symbiotic relationship between the coral polyp and an alga called “zooxanthellae”. It is this alga that gives the coral it’s natural color. The alga is a plant which photosynthesizes to produce sugars. The coral is an animal which consumes the sugars produced by the algae and excretes waste. The algae use the waste as a type of fertilizer to grow.
When the coral is stressed, by any of the mechanisms described above, the coral expels the algae. This results in what is called coral bleaching. This occurs most often when ocean temperatures rise above normal. This photograph from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia shows what the coral looks like when this happens.
Research from the Great Barrier Reef has shown that branching corals are more effected by bleaching than the massive corals like brain coral. Coral bleaching on its own does not necessarily kill the coral. It can and does recover but bleaching makes the coral more susceptible to disease which will kill it.
What can a scuba diver do?
Obviously the most important action that mankind can take to stop the loss of coral reefs is to reduce global warming. Unfortunately, the United States, unlike 195 other nations, decided to withdraw from the Paris Climate accord in 2017. There is hope however that sanity may prevail. Many state, local and business leaders are taking action to meet emission reduction targets despite the Federal government.
Another way that we can take local action to resolve a global problem is by reducing pollution. The Florida Keys is spending $939m to replace the old septic tank systems with wastewater treatment plants. This has already shown measurable improvement in the water quality on our reefs.
The third way is to try to replace coral by growing it in a protected nursery and transplanting it onto the reef. This photo shows the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) nursery in Key Largo where stag horn coral is being grown to be replanted onto our reefs. The CRF has a 5 year grant to replant Carysfort reef with stag and elkhorn coral.
.Science is working on several innovative approaches to reverse the loss of coral cover on our reefs. One is to introduce higher temperature resistant algae into the coral allowing it to thrive in warmer water. Another is to transplant corals from warmer waters such as the Arabian gulf where corals have a naturally developed tolerance to higher temperatures. Perhaps one of the most si-fi solution being worked on today is through genetic engineering of the algae to produce more temperature resistant strains. This uses state of the art gene editing using CRIPER/Csa9 tools.
If we can be successful in these efforts who knows?
“Molasses Reef is still a beautiful reef. But perhaps one day we can look forward to scuba diving on Molasses reef with additional branching corals transplanted from places like the Great Barrier Reef… like the ones in these photographs!”
Anything is possible, and there is hope if we take action and work together to save the reefs of Key Largo and the world!
David Jefferiss Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo
Announcing the 2015 Reef Fest -A Great Way to Dive Key Largo!
We’re happy to announce that Sea Dwellers Dive Center of Key Largo is a host for this year’s Annual Reef fest Event put on by the REEF Foundation. We’ll offer daily scuba diving trips, (of course), with REEF Representatives and you can learn how to engage in fish counts while helping REEF expand it’s database! Improve your fish ID skills with the best! REEF is offering many exciting events to coincide with the weekend including Seminars and Social Events. Some require registration, so let us know if you have any questions.
Sea Dwellers is offering a great Dive & Stay Package to coincide with the event..Sept 24th – 27th
Stay 3 nights, get the 4th Free Dive & Stay Package! $408 plus tax per diver/double occupancy! Sept 24th – 27th, 2015