The Faces of REEF: 2013 Volunteers of the Year, Carlos and Allison Estapé

Allison swimming with a Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Photo by Carlos Estapé.
A camera is a great fish watchers tool. Check out this photo that Allison took of a Colon Goby, only to later notice on the computer screen a Saddled Stargazer hiding in the sand. Photo by Allison Estapé.

We are proud to announce our 2013 Volunteers of the Year, Carlos and Allison Estapé. Carlos and Allison joined REEF in 2008, and collectively, they have conducted 108 surveys. They call the Florida Keys home. As Tropical Western Atlantic REEF Advanced Assessment Team members, skilled lionfish hunters, expert underwater photographers, and PADI Open Water Scuba Instructors, this diving duo is instrumental to REEF’s fieldwork conducted in the Upper Florida Keys and they are avid REEF ambassadors. Most recently, they have raised interest in the 100 Fish ID Challenge, or "Century Dive", in the Keys, whereby a REEF surveyor finds at least 100 species of fish on one dive (their quest even ended up in the Miami Herald newspaper). Here's what Carlos and Allison had to say about REEF:

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?

In 2008, we moved to the Keys permanently and we were looking for people with similar interests. What a great find! We started attending the monthly REEF Fish and Friends lectures and participated in REEF Lionfish Derbies. From there, our participation continued to grow as we got involved with the interns and the 100 Fish Challenge.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

Carlos- "For me, surveys have evolved into an underwater treasure hunt. There is a great quote that says “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder” R.W. Sockman. And this directly applies to fish surveys. When all you know are 100 species you try to pigeonhole everything you see into that knowledge base, but as I have delved deeper into all the real possibilities I question even what appears to be obvious. A few days ago, Allison pointed out a solitary fish on a deep mooring line. It appeared to me to be an Orange filefish, a species I only see on rare occasions and needed a better photograph of. Only after seeing the image on the computer back at home did I realize I had just photographed the first and only Unicorn Filefish (Aluterus monoceros) I have ever seen!

Allison - "I completely agree with Carlos on the surveys being an underwater treasure hunt. It is always exciting when you identify a new fish and/or see a very rare fish. I’ve greatly enjoyed adding to the REEF database and expanding the number of species sighted on our favorite dive sites. When we realized that there was the possibility of seeing over 100 species of fish on one dive at Alligator Reef, that really motivated us to not only expand our ability to identify with certainty more fish species, but it also motivated us to get out and do 2 ½ hr dives to see just how many species we could identify on a dive. My personal best was 116 fish identified and we have had a great time taking the REEF Interns and other fish ID enthusiasts to Alligator Reef so they can attempt to identify over 100 species. So far, 12 divers have achieved the 100 Fish ID Challenge, and we are hoping that many more take up the challenge. Doing the 100 Fish ID Challenge has really taught me where to look for different species of fish, and has really re-invigorated my diving enthusiasm – I spend time in the grass flats, sand, and rubble areas looking for the small fish I never paid any attention to prior to doing the surveys.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

The camaraderie, hands down! We have especially enjoyed our time with the interns when we take them out on our boat and show them some of our favorite dive sites. The friendships we have made with the REEF team and members, the fun of diving with other fish enthusiasts, and the sense of excitement and accomplishment we achieve together when we do Field Surveys and attempt the 100 Fish ID Challenge, has made our participation in REEF one of our most satisfying experiences.

If you had to explain REEF to a friend in a couple of sentences, what would you tell them?

Carlos - "REEF is an organization of people driven by their passion of the sea with the goal to protect and document life in the oceans."

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs?

Carlos - "Education. You only love what you care about, only care about what you know and only know what you are taught.

Allison - "I also believe the scientific research and data that REEF volunteers collect is making a difference in the management of our marine ecosystems/fisheries. The Lionfish removal/derby data is enabling marine park managers to make scientific choices on how to manage the invasive species, and the REEF survey database allows non-scientists to participate in collecting data that scientists use.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there?

We have the Florida reefs thirty minutes away by boat by design. I was certified in 1978 and my first dive was on Pickles reef. Recently we have been on a quest to photograph as many species as possible listed on a survey done by Dr. W. Starck back in the 1960’s. Over a period of ten years he found over 500 species in our own backyard! Over 300 of those are within the safe diving limits and so far we have photographed 225 of them including a few he never found!

Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

Islamorada Dive Center (IDC) out of Windley Key in Islamorada. Great attitude and service. They always put a dive guide in the water with you for no extra charge. We have become close friends with everyone there.

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?

Carlos - "The one and only time I was in the water with a Whale shark in the Maldives. We had been motoring for hours looking for one without success and finally the crew gave up and put us in the water anyway. Within minutes a shadow blocked the sun and when I looked up there it was! A juvenile “only” about twenty-five feet long! We swam with it for a few minutes and then it was gone like it had never been there. When I dive I always try to remember to look up now and then."

Allison - "The time we found a 12ft sawfish while diving on the Eagle Wreck in the Florida Keys. The sawfish was laying on the sand in 110 ft of water and looked like a parked submarine. It was flanked by 2 large remora. When we approached it, it pushed up off the bottom in a big swirl of sand and slowly swam away. It was a spectacular sighting of a very rare animal. On that same dive we saw a spotted eagle ray, hawksbill turtle, and many schooling fish. That dive goes down in the memory books as one of our best."

Do you have any surveying, fishwatching, or identification tips for REEF members?

Carlos - "Take a camera with you and if you can afford it add an external strobe even to the simplest of point-and-shoot cameras. I cannot tell you the “finds” I have made once I have downloaded and reviewed the day’s photos. A great example of this was reviewing some of Allison's photos that she had taken at Alligator ledge of a Colon Goby. Lying next to the goby is a three inch Saddled stargazer! She didn’t realize it was there when she snapped the photo."

Allison - "A camera, or a buddy with a camera is a must. The more I learn, the less I “know”. You have such a short amount of time to ID fish and so many species are similar that having a camera really makes a difference in identifying an Almaco Jack vs a Lesser Amberjack, and when it comes to the tiny triplefins – a photo is the only way I know whether I got the ID right.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub