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Life under the sea

State, national researchers dive below to study the species of Gray’s Reef sanctuary

POSTED: June 7, 2012 1:58 p.m.
Jeff Whitten/

Crewmembers of the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration Ship Nancy Foster use a launch to take scientists and others from a Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary boat to the Nancy Foster on May 31.

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Greg McFall estimates he has made more than 500 dives at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, located about 17 miles east of Sapelo Island.
It never gets old, he said.  
“This place is so unique and so diverse, on every single dive I make here, I see something I’ve never seen before,” said McFall, deputy superintendent and research coordinator for the 23-square-mile sanctuary. “That happens on every dive.”
With good reason.
Biologists say they know of more than 800 species that call the waters around Gray’s Reef home — including a new species of sea squirt named after the Georgia Southern University graduate student who found it in 2004. But there could be thousands of living organisms yet to be identified.
The diversity is in part due to ocean currents. Since the reef is at the crossroads of warm water from the Gulf Stream and colder water from up north, it brings in sea life from both temperate and tropic zones, making it a marine melting pot of sorts.
It’s that diversity and abundance that makes the sanctuary not only a playground for divers and recreational anglers, but also an ideal laboratory.
Recently, biologists from Gray’s Reef, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Georgia Southern spent time on the NOAA ship Nancy Foster to look at areas set aside in December for research and restricted to all fishing and diving, and compare them to areas within the sanctuary still open to recreational use.
“As far as I know, there’s never been an area set aside that was never previously used only for sport fishing like Gray’s Reef,” said Daniel Gleason, a biology professor at Georgia Southern who is studying invertebrates — sponges, sea squirts, corals and other species — at various sites around the sanctuary floor.
Read more in the June 6 edition of the News.

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