© 2024 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Questions and research lead to more questions and research: Dispatch from Kimberly's Reef

Science diver from FGCU affixing net to cement culvert as a part of Kimberly's Reef.
Adam Catasus
Science diver from FGCU affixing net to cement culvert as a part of Kimberly's Reef.

In the Gulf of Mexico, seven and a half miles due west of Bonita Beach and 30 feet below the surface grows an artificial reef complex created by The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University. This is the latest dispatch from Kimberly’s Reef.


One of the main functions of an artificial reef is to attract fish for recreational purposes like fishing and diving. After six months, the artificial reef made of 18 cement culverts is proving popular with animals with fins, claws, and bivalves.

"There's been a couple of sharks that have been sighted at the reef. There's been a couple of live grouper. So we're bringing in some of these like ecologically and commercially important fish species, which is why the reef was kind of designed in the first place," Dr. Melissa May, marine biologist and assistant professor at FGCU, said.

She said it's still in the early stages for the wildlife that she enjoys as a bivalve expert.

"We definitely see a lot of things, like encrusting worms, there are some tunicate sponges which are just kind of like blobby things that grow on there," said May. "We found baby scallops, which is kind of cool. We have found some oysters that have been living on there and then some other little things that kind of crawl around and live on them."

Most everyone we spoke to recently was excited over some stone crabs who were making the reef their home.

"They've actually kicked the sand and mud away from the reef and exposed the underlying limestone rock, which is almost creating or revealing another reef around the footprint of the artificial reef that we've placed," said Professor James Douglass who is a marine benthic ecologist at FGCU. A marine benthic ecologist studies the lowest ecological zone in a body of water including seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp beds and sponges.

 Stone crab burrowed beneath one of the culverts.
Stone crab burrowed beneath one of the culverts.

Douglass sees the entire project of Kimberly's Reef as an experiment unto itself.

"It's an experiment in ecological succession. How an environment changes after a disturbance or after that environment is newly created. And so what we're seeing is how living marine organisms colonize this new habitat and change it and add to it over time," said Douglass. "So it's been very interesting to see from the time that the bare cement blocks were first put in until now, how they were first colonized by small algae and then other invertebrates began to colonize them."

Beyond observations, one of the unique aspects of Kimberly's Reef is for experimentation. The scientists and students at FGCU have a lot of questions they wanted answered via the reef.


"Because The Water School is interdisciplinary, we're kind of approaching this from all different levels," said May. "We're looking at the sediment, we're looking at the water, we're looking at the invertebrates, the stuff that's growing on the reef, and then we're looking at the fish. So, kind of taking a whole ecosystem approach."

David Stormer, informally known as the "fish guy" at FGCU, is the newest researcher at the university. As a fish ecologist, he and a graduate student are working to identify the various fish in the Gulf waters off the Southwest Florida shore.

"There's a lot of interest in determining or cataloging the functional groups, and that's anywhere from like our primary consumers, like herbivorous fishes, for example, and then our middle or mesophotic consumers, the groupers and the snappers, and how they utilize an artificial reef," said Stormer. "And then the top predators like sharks and even marine mammals, what's their role on an artificial reef?"

Adam Catasus was an FGCU graduate student and is now the coordinator for Vester Marine Field Station. He's the lucky fella who gets to not only drive the boat out to the reef, he also gets to participate in much of the underwater research.

"I kind of lead all of the field operations, guide a lot of the faculty, students, staff on almost all field operations and The Water School for FGCU," said Catasus.

He's been privy to all the questions that FGCU researchers are asking. And he's the first to say, "We don't know."

"So artificial reefs go in the water, they're structure. Fish like structure, stuff grows on it. Small fish eat that stuff or hide in that stuff. Bigger fish eat them. We come for the bigger fish. We eat the bigger fish. So, is that true?" he asked. "Does that actually happen? How does it happen? What rate does it happen? These are all questions that we don’t know."

Other questions stem from financial grants for research on water quality.

"We got a NOAA grant to do some preliminary research on Kim's Reef," said Melissa May. "The overarching goal of the grant is to try to tie in changes in water quality and harmful algal blooms with the reef."

"The chemistry matters, the biology matters, the ecology matters, and then there's always the general water quality, right?" added Catasus. "And then, the whole other part is physics, right? So, where do currents go? What happens when a hurricane does come? What happens when just a cold front comes? What happens when it was super hot this past summer, it was over 100 degrees in the water in the Keys. What does that do? We don't know. But of all the things that we're measuring, all have a big interaction together."

So many question to ask of the artificial reef off Southwest Florida. Over the next several dispatches, we'll spend time with each of the researchers and go in-depth on their various experiments and observations.

This, according to Mike Parsons, Ph.D. with The Water School, leads to even more questions.

"Doing the work we're doing out there right now, it's causing us to expand our thought-process and it's causing us to evolve what we think about Kimberly's Reef, what we think about our coastal ecosystems. And that's science and education, in a way," said Parsons. "You start getting curious. You say, ‘Huh, what about that?’ ‘Oh, look at this.’ So, Kimberly's reef presents this opportunity to move knowledge forward and curiosity forward.

You know, who knows what we're going to find next week or next month that's going to drive future questions. So that's that's a really big motivator moving forward with our work."

Dispatches from Kimberly's Reef are part of a WGCU documentary project about the reef due out in 2025. Watch previous dispatches.

The Kimberly's Reef documentary project is generously and partially funded by Bodil and George Gellman.

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Pam James
Tom James