Our first site on Tuesday was the Cheeca Rocks, which is located on the oceanic side of Islamorada, Florida. Cheeca Rocks is a sanctuary protected area or S.P.A. which generally means that it is federally protected and you may not take or touch what lies within its borders.
While visiting this amazing site, we saw several coral, invertebrate, and vertebrate species. This site had the biggest coral reef patch and had the greatest species richness we had seen thus far. There were several Orbicella annularis colonies, which were the main support system for this reef. Due to the abundance of large corals such as these, larger species of fish are able to live around them. We saw several types and sizes of grunts, snappers, parrotfish, gobies, damsels, and barracudas; these fish seemed to be more vibrant than most other sites because they evolved before the corals did so they had no need to match the corals. The visibility was approximately 30 meters, and there was little to no thermocline; which is a sharp change in water temperature. There was some dissolved organic matter and decaying vegetation, but not as many as the mangrove forests, both of which contribute to the turbidity of the water.
Some of these corals were hundreds of years old and covered in various species of tube worm. The combination of all of these large corals created a habitat for various fish and invertebrates, which held such surprises for all of us! It was our first sighting of Southern stingray, great barracuda, and angelfish (pictured right).We greatly enjoyed this site and would definitely recommend it to others, just remember to take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but bubbles! Thank you to everyone who made this possible and for an amazing week and a special thanks to Keys Marine Laboratory, Dr. Joshua Voss, and Dr. Dennis Hanisak for taking us on and showing us around! We hope to see you all again! Morgan O'Gorman and Mackenzie Farrell.