Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
2018 Gray's Reef Research Cruise Photos
Mission Information

Gray's Reef Research
Expeditions 2018

Project Overview

Black Seabass in Vase Sponge

Black Seabass in Vase Sponge
(Photo: Greg McFall, NOAA)

Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary (GRNMS)is a hidden pearl located 19 miles offshore of Sapelo Island, Georgia and protects 22 square miles of rocky reefs that provide shelter for a diverse community of marine life. The reef is home to more than 200 species of fish and boasts a variety of other creatures like sea turtles, octopuses, sponges, rays and sharks that all live in the reef’s nooks and crannies.

The reef's vibrant live-bottom habitat makes it a living laboratory that is just bursting with marine species, many of which we have yet to fully understand. It's a harbor for fishermen, divers and ocean stewards to visit and enjoy. A few years ago, NOAA established a scientific research area (RA) within Gray's Reef for scientists to study the sanctuary's unique underwater habitat, without effects from human actions. The RA encompasses the southern third of the sanctuary, about eight square miles. Fishing and diving are prohibited in the RA, and boats must transit through it without stopping. Scientists often set up experiments that mirror each other, one inside the RA and the other outside the RA in a different part of the sanctuary.

Sponge Group

Sponge Group
(Photo: Greg McFall, NOAA)

Kim Roberson, the Research Coordinator for Gray's Reef, serves as the Chief Scientist for this year's 10-day mission (July 30 - Aug. 8). Kim ensures that the scientific staff are properly trained in planned operations and are knowledgeable about project objectives and priorities.

The expedition utilizes two research vessels, the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster and R/V Joe Ferguson, to conduct research projects. The projects explore questions related to the relationship between large predatory fish and their smaller prey, fish abundance and distribution, the effects of bio-physical factors on fish behavior, immature coral (larvae) quantification, seafloor monitoring, new methods of coral collection, algae diversity, and the microbial communities that live symbiotically with the reef’s resident corals.

Each project planned for this expedition is described in more detail below.


Dr. Roldan Muñoz of NOAA Fisheries and Kim Roberson of Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary are assessing diverse "hot spot" ledges all across the sanctuary. These areas are packed with large predators and schools of prey fishes. They also can harbor threatened sea turtles. Together, they create vibrant undersea communities found at Gray's Reef. Learning more about these hot spots will be valuable to Gray’s Reef staff because when appropriate, they can concentrate sanctuary resources on areas overflowing with biodiversity. Scientists also might choose to focus on these hot spots for future projects within the sanctuary.

Schooling spadefish with predators above

Schooling spadefish with predators above
(Photo: Peter Auster, UCONN, Mystic Aquarium)


Dr. Peter Auster from University of Connecticut and Mystic Aquarium and his team are continuing their long-running examination of the relationship between predatory fish and their prey. This year, they are expanding the scope of their research by using new 360-degree virtual reality cameras. Unexpected encounters can spook most undersea creatures, but these cameras allow researchers to film fishes in their natural habitat without human interference. These videos also will improve the scientists' ability to examine the interactions of highly mobile species that tend to move from place to place.

Anemone Up Close

Anemone Up Close
(Photo: Greg McFall, NOAA)


Scientists from two different Georgia universities – Dr. Daniel Gleason and MSc (Master of Science) candidate Erin Arneson of Georgia Southern University and Dr. Scott Noakes of University of Georgia -- are leading a round of experiments on corals to test whether or not their skeletons can be used as natural indicators of ocean acidification at Gray's Reef. If their work is successful, these corals might provide a viable and cheaper alternative to the pricey monitoring equipment used by researchers today.


Dr. Craig Aumack and Dr. Risa Cohen of Georgia Southern University are collecting samples of macroalgae -- algae that can be seen with the eye, such as seaweed -- from Gray's Reef. Their effort is to provide data about the identities of the algae found within the sanctuary. Algae use photosynthesis and make oxygen as a byproduct. They also are vital producers in the food webs of marine ecosystems, with fishes being their primary consumers. Collecting more information about these small, but vital, creatures is critical to understanding the ecology of Gray's Reef.


Dr. Scott Noakes and his team are bringing big things to the reef. They are lowering a 900-pound concrete platform to the sanctuary's floor and deploying a suite of advanced sensors all along the platform's surface to monitor the waters for high-levels of acid. These sensors will remain at the site until after the fall season, to include any storm related events that might have an impact on the Gray's Reef ecosystem.


Plumed Scorpion Fish

Plumed Scorpion Fish
(Photo: Tim Henkel, VSU)

Dr. Diane Fribance of Coastal Carolina University and her collaborators are assessing how physical factors in the ocean like velocity measurements relate to biological data that might affect fish behavior. For example, gathering water density information is especially important because it lets researchers know the effectiveness of the acoustics (sound waves) they use in fish surveys. Preparation is the key to success, and this study will help make future investigations at Gray's Reef just that.


Dr. Daniel Gleason of GA Southern and Dr. Marc Frischer of UGA’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are working with their team to develop and test several new ways of safely and reliably capturing tiny coral larvae that are in the hunt for a place to call home. This capture has only been achieved under very special circumstances in the ocean and never before at Gray’s Reef. They also are developing new and innovative technology that will allow larval corals, many of which look exactly the same, to be identified without having to let them settle down and grow for months.


Marine biologist, Alicia Reigel from Louisiana State University is continuing her multi-year assessment of microbial communities living with the corals found in Gray’s Reef. She is examining the roles these tiny organisms play and how they help their coral hosts survive under changing conditions. Ensuring that the many coral species within the sanctuary are healthy enough to withstand sudden hurricanes like Irma and Matthew is important for both humans and animals.

The team will update these webpages with daily logs describing our progress with these planned investigations. Please check back to keep up with our progress!


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