The Faces of REEF: Mary Korte

Mary surveying in Kauai.
Mary and Don snorkeling and surveying!
Mary getting ready.
A rare dry moment for Mary.
Butterflyfish, often found in pairs, like Mary and Don! Photo by Carol Cox.
It's always great to have a buddy to point stuff out to.

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 50,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Mary Korte. Mary, and her husband Don, have been REEF members since 2001. Both are active surveyors, and Mary is a Level 3 surveyor in the TWA who has completed 284 surveys (all on snorkel!). Here’s what Mary had to say about REEF:

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Everything! I especially love the Fishinars because they are a great way to improve my fish identification skills, and they boost my confidence in my ability to record species accurately. Fishinars also inspire me to read about the species and learn more about the fish behaviors I observe. I’d love to dive, but I can’t SCUBA dive due to my cardiac history. However, even as a snorkeler, I can contribute to the REEF database. I used to feel bad that I couldn’t dive, but REEF staff members have been wonderful and have told me that reporting data from the top 10-15 feet is important—I’m thankful for their encouragement. I also love that the REEF staff will help me identify “mystery fish” in photos I take while surveying.

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey, where and what was your trip highlight?

My husband and I went on the first lionfish survey REEF organized in Curacao. Curacao is a special place for us because we’ve spent our wedding anniversary there every year for almost 15 years. It’s a wonderful island, and the fish life is amazing. It meant a lot to be able to help gather data on the lionfish invasion and hopefully make a difference in the future of the reef fish populations. Without a doubt, eating those pesky fish was the highlight. As our t-shirts say, “Wanted Dead and Grilled: Lionfish, Pirate of the Caribbean.” They make very tasty ceviche, too! We also loved the wonderful sunset sail the last night.

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

You’ve probably known birdwatchers who keep a life list of bird species they’ve seen. They may collect data, e.g. by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. REEF volunteers are “fishwatchers” who keep a life list of fish and collect data on fish abundance and biodiversity for a global database used by marine biologists to monitor the health of coral reefs worldwide. Over 60 scientific papers have been written using REEF data which is really amazing.

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

I think the most important aspect is that REEF’s professional staff and volunteer “citizen scientists” are enhancing our understanding of coral reef ecosystems and fish populations. REEF’s database is an invaluable resource for marine scientists, and it is a privilege to help gather information that is useful for their work. I believe humans have a unique responsibility to care for the environment and our fellow creatures. Hopefully we can collectively make a difference in preserving these special living organisms and places for future generations.

What is your favorite fish?

My favorite fish are the butterflyfish because we almost always find them swimming in pairs. My husband and I have been married 46 years and we always snorkel together so the butterflyfish remind me of all the wonderful years we’ve had together. Surveying for REEF is one of the things we most enjoy doing as a couple because we are both biology teachers and love the ocean.

Where is your favorite place to dive and why?

We’ve lived in Wisconsin for the last 20 years, but I really love being near the sea. I’ve completed most of my surveys in the tropical Western Atlantic although I’ve also surveyed in Hawaii and the Galapagos. This summer I’ll be in French Polynesia for a week, and I’m looking forward to adding new fish to my life list. We were there almost 30 years ago, and that is where my husband and I fell in love with snorkeling although we didn’t know about REEF back then. It’s really hard to pick one favorite place, but I especially like the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and Curacao because of the species diversity and beautiful water. Curacao probably tops my list because there are so many great places that are easily accessible from shore, and Playa Lagun is probably my favorite place to spend an afternoon there because I almost always see eels and interesting fish.

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

Slow down and take time to enjoy really watching the fish—don’t be in a hurry to move on to a new spot too quickly. Linger in one place and try to figure out what the fish are doing. It’s not just about identifying and counting fish—it’s also about relaxing and savoring the privilege to be in this environment. If you slow down, you’ll use more of your senses, notice more details, and begin to feel that you are a part of the ecosystem even if only briefly as a guest. Absorb the tranquility and drift with the fish—breathe slowly, feel the water, and go with the flow. Always, always carry a camera because you never know what you’ll find.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub