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A killer trip

Discussion in 'Member Trip Reports' started by Sushi Boy, Sep 6, 2015.

  1. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    Well we got to go this year. I originally got my acceptance letter to the Inaugural FGBNMS Lionfish Invitational in June of ’14 with it planned for that September. Unfortunately Neptune had other plans and we got blown out. The Sanctuary staff rescheduled the trip for Aug/Sept of this year. We nervously watched the tropical storms that were starting to churn through the Caribbean but all of them dissipated and we gathered on the evening of Aug 30th to start the trip.

    We met at On the River in Freeport for a briefing and meet and greet session before we boarded the Fling. The participants on the trip were an interesting mix of folks from all over the States. There were a few folks from the local Sanctuary staff, other NOAA personnel including Steve Gittings who was the Sanctuary Manager at the Flower Gardens in the early days and is now the Chief Scientist for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, grad students and researchers from Oregon State and Texas A&M at Galveston, staff from aquariums in New Orleans, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Ripley’s Aquarium in Canada, a director of REEF, Eric Peterson who some of y’all may remember as the head of diving at Aquarena Springs a few years back, some educators, a few people representing various lionfish control groups and a few recreational types like myself.

    They divided us into two groups for diving – the researchers who would do fish surveys before and after our removal dives and the removal divers who would work in buddy pairs shooting the lionfish with a pole spear then bringing them back to the boat in Zookeepers. Typically spearfishing is not allowed for most divers in the Sanctuary but they received a special permit that covered those of us participating in this trip.

    The typical dive series went like this. The research team would enter the water at 7:00 am, lay down tape measures running north/south and east/west as transect lines and do a fish survey. The removal teams would pick a quadrant and then go down and shoot lionfish in that section. We’d take a surface interval, do another removal/shooting dive and then the research team would do another fish survey and pull up the tape measures. We had lunch while the boat repositioned to another buoy and then repeated the same process in the afternoon at the new dive site. We didn’t do any night dives.

    After each removal dive, the researchers would empty the Zookeepers, measure each of the fish, then bag them and put them in the freezer we’d brought along for storage. That usually drew a pretty good crowd on the back deck.

    This was my first time hunting fish with anything other than a camera, although the stalking skills that I’ve developed for taking pictures did come in handy. We were using tri-tipped pole spears (some people called them Hawaiian slings) to hunt the lionfish. I gotta admit, shooting them was fairly addictive. It’s definitely a rush the first time you get a nice clean shot. In the buddy team, one person would hunt with the pole spear and the other person would hold the Zookeeper and write down the stats – time sighted, time either shot or abandoned, how many attempts were made on the fish, whether it was killed or got away, location of the fish in the quadrant, what the fish was doing and so on.

    On most dives my buddy Mike and I shot at least a few fish. I think our highest tally for a dive was 10. 3-4 wasn’t unusual although we did have a few dives where we either didn’t see any or came up with just one in the bag.

    I’d never really paid attention to when I saw lionfish before, but they definitely seemed to be more active at dawn and at dusk. At those times, you would typically see them in hunting groups of two or more lionfish. Sometimes we would come across 5 or 6 together and then things got really hectic. At one point on my tally sheet, I just wrote “LOTS”. During the day if you saw them, they would usually be solitary and just hovering above the reef or under a ledge resting.

    It wasn’t unusual to have speared a fish and have them swim off your spear while you were trying to put it in the Zookeeper. That gets really frustrating. I managed to get a few of them with another shot, but more often than not, they would duck into a hiding spot in the reef where you couldn’t see them.

    I found myself not noticing a lot of other activity underwater while we were hunting, but we did get to see several manta rays and turtles while we were diving. There were lots of oceanic triggerfish on the reef as well. One of the turtles had it’s flippers wrapped around the tape measure transect line and was lazily chomping away on it. That was pretty funny to see. We also had several times when a manta ray was swimming right beside the boat. Because of the task loading of the dive, I never did take my u/w camera with me, but I did take several surface photos.

    During the evenings we typically hung out chatting, but one night we had an interesting presentation by one of the participants. He’s working with some NGO’s to help train women in fishing villages of areas affected by the lionfish invasion to make jewelry out of the non-venomous lionfish fins. It’s an attempt to increase the landed value of the fish to make them more enticing to fishermen and to provide new skills to the members of the local communities. If the fins are dried in the shade they retain most of the natural color, if they’re bleached in the sun they end up being mostly white and black, but they can be stained or painted afterward. He had several demonstration pieces to show. It was something I’d never heard of before and was an interesting approach.

    Our last night at sea had perfectly clear skies and the moon didn’t rise until late, so several of us hung out on the top deck enjoying the blanket of stars and the Milky Way. We’re pretty sure we saw the Space Station go over and saw several other satellites and some shooting stars.

    Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were spent at West and East Bank, but on Thursday we got to do one removal dive at Stetson Bank. For whatever reason, all of the lionfish on the normal diveable area of Stetson are all juveniles, which makes them a REAL challenge to shoot with a pole spear. One trick that helped was to put an o-ring on the prongs of the spear which could be rolled to the top, bringing the points in closer together. I managed to get one tiny 10.5 cm dude on that dive, mostly thanks to the urchin that he was hiding beside. When he tried to get closer to the urchin for cover, he kept getting poked, so he’d move back into the open making it a little bit easier to shoot at him. I was trying to shoot another one under a rock when a scorpionfish came darting out. That scared the crap out of me! I was glad to have some thick rubber-lined gloves on at that point!

    After four days at sea, we headed back home Thursday afternoon. All told, we removed 317 lionfish from the Sanctuary during the trip. My buddy Mike and I were responsible for 29 of those, so we definitely carried our weight. It was a really cool experience and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it. I’d definitely recommend it. Hopefully they’ll be able to organize similar events in the future.

    I put a few photos in the Gallery.
  2. Drew

    Drew Tiger Shark

    Very cool! Congrats on a successful hunting trip. That's pretty neat to be a part of and good write up. Thanks for sharing.
  3. Heidi Ho

    Heidi Ho Grand Pooh Staff Member

    Very cool - I had totally forgotten that this trip had been blown out before. The pics were great - thanks.

    Since this was the first one, do they have any plans to continue them? Was it considered a success or is it too soon to tell?
  4. ReefHound

    ReefHound Divemaster

    I'm glad to see 300 plus lionfish removed but I was on the following 4-day coral spawn trip and there was no shortage of lionfish sightings. They should be doing this several times a year.
  5. Sushi Boy

    Sushi Boy DAM CHUMmer

    They're hoping to, depending on funding, approvals, etc.
  6. scubagirl

    scubagirl Member

    Great trip report Roger. It was very interesting.
  7. Cajun Diver

    Cajun Diver Tiger Shark

    That was a fun trip - my 2nd on the Fling this year. I didn't do nearly as well on my first attempt at using a spear. I hit quite a few but only managed to get one in the Zookeeper and many times my buddy Eric and I didn't see any. So I still have a lot to learn about using the spear and finding the lionfish that are well concealed.

    I think my next trip will include learning and practicing in case they can find the funds and do it next year.

    I did manage to get a good video of a Manta Ray on Tuesday:

  8. Heidi Ho

    Heidi Ho Grand Pooh Staff Member

    FGBNMS sent this out - very cool to read about again. Can you find Sushi Boy?

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