One of the natural wonders of Cayman’s waters – a mass gathering of thousands of large Nassau grouper – was broadcast live from beneath the waves this week as part of a unique education project.
The spawning occurs in at least five sites around the Cayman Islands. Most spectacular is a mass aggregation off the west end of Little Cayman, which typically features between 3,000 and 5,000 fish.
During the winter full moon, in either January or February, the normally solitary and territorial Nassau grouper travel long distances to gather in one spot to spawn. It is the only time the fish procreate, and the gathering is crucial to the survival of the species, considered an iconic fish in the Caribbean.
This year, hundreds of schoolchildren from across the Cayman Islands, as well as some in the U.S., have been able to tune into the aggregation from the comfort of their classrooms.
Dive researchers hooked up to special underwater cameras and microphones talk the schoolchildren through the details of the project and take questions as the fish swim around them.
“It is a rare chance for them to see science in action. You normally get to hear about the research, but you rarely get to speak to scientists as they are working in the field. I don’t think this is done anywhere else.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for schools, and the kids have been really excited about it,” said Bradley Johnson, research officer with the Department of Environment.
Schools used the Google Hang Out instant messaging and video chat platform to tune in to the live lectures and check out the grouper aggregation as it was happening.
In total, three live and interactive video feed sessions took place. The first was last Friday, live from the Little Cayman aggregation site. The second took place Monday from the research base on Little Cayman, and the third was on Wednesday from the island’s Bloody Bay Wall.
The Grouper Moon research project is a collaboration between the Department of Environment and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, known as REEF.
“While the bulk of the lessons take place over the course of the two weeks in January and February, when REEF scientists and DOE staff are working at the spawning site, we have developed a set of pre-activities to help build background knowledge, as well as follow-up lessons to help deepen the students’ learning experience,” said Christy Pattengill-Semmens of REEF.
Mr. Johnson said the educational component helped raise awareness of the importance of aggregation sites to the survival of Cayman’s marine life.
Researchers have been monitoring several sites around the Cayman Islands for more than a decade.
Preliminary estimates from this year’s spawning sites suggests population numbers remain stable.
Over the years, researchers have recorded more than 25 species of fish that use the sites for spawning. Mr. Johnson said the spawning sites had unique oceanographic characteristics which maximized the eggs’ chances of survival.