Enjoy summer’s bountiful phenomena

Keys Living contributorMay 9, 2008 

The Florida Keys are gifted with a cornucopia of nature’s good bounty, specifically spilling out during the hazy, lazy days of summer. Look to the sea at any given time and you’re bound to be inspired by the flash of life found both above and below it. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.

Coral spawning

Now’s a good time to get certified in scuba, as this phenomena is best seen with gear. The yearly spawning of coral takes place at night around the August full moon, when billions of egg and sperm cells (gametes) are released from stony and branching corals into a swirling, snow-like flurry of reproduction. Perhaps having seen it all on Duval Street, this may be the sort of night life you don’t want to miss.

Unknown to scientists until the 1980s, coral spawning wasn’t documented until 1990 at the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, several thousands of divers have witnessed the extravaganza throughout the Keys, making elkhorn, staghorn and star corals star performers in some very sexy events. Gorgonians, brittle stars, sponges and Christmas tree worms take a supporting role, using the cue of corals to spawn near these times as well.

Species differ in their activity from night to night, generally around three to eight days after the full moon, and any time between two to three hours after sunset. Dive outfits up and down the Keys offer night trips throughout the week to help divers pay voyeuristic homage to the frenzy of coral love. Worm hatches

Grab your poles and tie some flies. The Palolo worm hatch is still happening in clusters from the Seven Mile Bridge and up. According to Randy Road, owner of Road Runner Sportfishing, while the majority of the hatches happen at the end of May or during the first full June moon, there may be a few scattered events left in local waters.

“I’ve been told by flats guides that they hatch out during tidal extremes,” Road says. “But there’s really no way of telling how nature is going to react. They can hatch out whenever they feel like it.”

Road says that the worms lay their eggs in a specific type of sponge on an outgoing tide. The part we see swimming free is the reproductive portion, called an epitope. Several species of fish, especially tarpon, will school up to feast on the mass hatches that generally occur in less than 10 feet of water in specific areas.

“I saw about 30 black groupers of varying sizes in three feet of water, just chowing down on the worms,” Road recalls. “I’ve only seen that once in my 35 years of fishing.”

For the water bound, it’s a great time to investigate the behavior of feeding fish, and a lifetime chance to swim amid hundreds of tarpon grazing like cows in a field of sea.

Bioluminescence

The ocean is alive and a-glow with the twinkle of sea creatures.

Bioluminescence — the glow produced by chemicals inside an animal’s body — is used by 80 percent to 90 percent of the ocean’s creatures for both loving and fighting.

This light show paves the way for communication, especially for those that live in the sea’s dark deep. It’s used to “call” each other during mating, or to spray into the face of a predator or to protect themselves against prey.

Here in the Keys, there are both micro- and macroscopic organisms that light up the night.

“One of the organisms that is pretty well known is the reproductive portions of polychepe, an annelid worm,” says Billy Causey, Southeast regional superintendent for the National Marine Sanctuary. “During the full moon in June, when they reproduce, a portion breaks off and goes to the surface.”

While it’s true you’ll have to wait until next year to witness that magnificence, keep your night-eyes peeled for several species of jellyfish.

“Cnidarians have the ability to bioluminesce,” Causey says. “As do cone jellies (ctenophores). They’re probably the most common that you’ll see throughout the year, moving through the water column.”

And we don’t have to wait for these critters to mate or put up their dukes; any surge against them will get their lights shining.

Waterspouts

Of all the places in the world, the Florida Keys is the greatest lab in which to study waterspouts. More than 400 are reported a year, with many unreported since they are such a common sight.

With weather and geography supplying two of the necessary ingredients needed to stir one up, it’s no wonder they dot the summer skies. The already high-temperature, humid air is further heated by the islands and shallow waters, causing the air to rise and the humidity to condense into cloud-forming water droplets. With the condensed water vapors, more heat is released, making the air rise faster. It is these rising air currents that generate waterspout formations.

Add to that the typical trade winds and you’ll end up with a line of clouds that somehow egg these spouts on. Just look out above Key West National Wildlife Refuge on any given summer day and you’ll see the rows of dark clouds making their way westward, with occasional “funnel” clouds forming out from below them.

Scientists say that here in the Keys, they’ll most likely form between 4 and 7 p.m. or 11 to 1 p.m. These deadly spouts can have winds of up to 190 mph packing within them. Boaters beware — they’ve been know to mangle masts and turn hulls upside down. Then there are legends of waterspouts ripping through Key West Harbor, creating a sort of ceviche for Mallory Square in the days that followed.

“There’s a (news) clipping about schools of Spanish mullet up and down Caroline Street,” says Key West Historian Tom Hambright. “How else would they have gotten there?”

Originally published in the Summer 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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