Once the reefs are down the research begins.

Once the reefs are down the research begins.

The Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association has scheduled a minimum of 40 reef surveys for 2014 during which divers will investigate reefs

MBARA president Bob Cox and other volunteers will dive each structure and capture photographs and video of each reef’s unique activity.

Volunteers will also check the durability of the limestone structures, look for signs of movement and assess any damage.

“The surveys help us figure out which direction to go with future reef designs,” said Cox. “We make it a point to survey each reef once every five years.

“It helps us ensure that the reefs are where we say they are.”

The dives are as much about the fish as they are the structure.

Cox and his crew take note of the many types of fish that inhabit each reef, providing the counts to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).

Additionally, divers document marine life growing on the reefs and often consult video to catch fish that may have escaped the naked eye.

FWC provides updated information on all reefs online and the information is regularly used by fisherman, schools and biologists.

In 2013 the MBARA was able to visit 66 reefs and the 2014 surveys will kick off as soon as the water has warmed up.

Cox said that these dives also allow him to monitor the spread of lionfish in the Gulf waters.

“We analyze stomach contents to determine what native species are most vulnerable to the invasive lionfish in our local waters,” said Cox. “There weren’t any lionfish here a few years ago, but their numbers are growing.

“These days, it’s rare not to find lionfish in water deeper than 60 feet.”

There’s much speculation on how the lionfish, predators which overwhelm and kill many types of fish, made it into the waters in the first place.

Cox believes that somewhere along the line they were released from an aquarium and successfully invaded, starting with the Atlantic all the way to the Caribbean. If left unchecked, the lionfish will decimate a marine ecosystem.

“The Gulf waters are very rich in marine life,” said Cox. “We have a greater abundance than the Caribbean.”