The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, Carol Cox

Sawblade Arrow Shrimp. Carol was the first to capture this creature on film! Photo by Carol Cox.

REEF members are at the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. Over 43,000 divers, snorkelers, students, and armchair naturalists stand behind our mission.

This month we highlight Carol Cox. Carol joined REEF in 2010 and has conducted 159 surveys. Carol is a member of the Tropical Western Atlantic REEF Advanced Assessment Team and has been an active volunteer and instructor in REEF's Fishinar series. Here's what she had to say about REEF:

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

After retiring from the Air Force, and returning to our home in Mexico Beach, Florida (20 miles east of Panama City), I became active as a volunteer research diver for the Mexico Beach Artificial Reef Association (MBARA). To receive State grants for our program, we are required to monitor the condition of artificial reefs we deploy. MBARA decided to incorporate fish surveys with the monitoring program, and I found REEF when researching ways to do fish surveys. REEF serves as our model, but we tailor our survey forms for the local area because our fish population is very different than the fishes found further south.

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

When I saw how REEF data are used by naturalists and scientists, I wanted to add fish count data from where I live, especially because there were only a few surveys for my community. I really saw the need after the large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Our community was lucky, barely escaping the oil slick when a storm blew the approaching oil slick back in the direction it came from. Although we suffered few effects, I realized we needed to catalogue what we had, otherwise, how would we know how our biodiversity was adapting to environmental changes? Since I started volunteering with REEF, I have had opportunity to interact with scientists and fish enthusiasts from around the world. The education REEF provides is phenomenal. I began my self-education by doing the fish quizzes. Then I attended many of the online Fishinars and they are all very educational and FUN! I also learn a lot from other fish watchers using the online fish identification forum.

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

The data that are being captured by REEF fish surveys will be invaluable to scientists of the future. As the environment changes, the REEF database will be looked at more and more. We need to record what we have now if we are to know what is affected by global warming, red tide, or the next big oil spill. Who knows, the REEF database may eventually provide the knowledge on how to control the lionfish invasion.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? Do you have a favorite local (or not) REEF field station or dive shop?

Most of my diving is where I live, in Mexico Beach, Florida. MBARA has deployed over 150 artificial reefs, everything from reef balls to a large shrimp boat, which is my favorite dive. We see everything from giant Goliath Groupers, to small arrow shrimp (a species that had never been photographed until I discovered them during a survey). Because the survey programs for MBARA and REEF are similar, I encouraged MBARA to become a local Field Station. We are always looking for divers interested in doing surveys on our artificial reefs and can now provide training. I use training gained from REEF, along with my local experience, to teach regional fish identification and throw in some local knowledge for enthusiasts that primarily dive in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

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

We were 20 miles offshore of Mexico Beach, when our boat was surrounded by small Mahi Mahi. I had a few shots left on my camera, so I slipped into the water to use up my film (am I dating myself?). Suddenly, a Mahi sped towards me, followed by a large, dark shadow in pursuit. In a matter of seconds, I could see fins, tails, and bubbles, as a large sailfish did a 360-degree turn right in front of me as it tried to capture the Mahi. In an effort to escape, the Mahi swam over my shoulder smacking me in the side of the head. The bill of the sailfish missed by chest by inches as it veered away. Having lost its prey, it swam around me three times before disappearing into the depths. The entire event lasted less than a minute, but the memory of it will last me a lifetime, especially because I got the photos.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate? What is your most memorable fish find? What fish are you still waiting to find?

I love blennies! They are such a great photo subject—colorful and expressive. With a little patience, most will gladly pose for the camera exhibiting as many poses as a Vogue covergirl. Of course I am a big, big fan of Anna DeLoach’s Blennywatcher blog. My favorite find wasn’t a fish, but a sawblade arrow shrimp, Tozeuma serratum. I have REEF to thank for putting me in touch with Les Wilk who requested critter photos for the upcoming Reef Creature DVD to be published by ReefNet. I didn’t know what a rare find I had until I sent a photo of the unidentified shrimp to Les for the DVD. He sent the photo off to a marine biologist, who identified the shrimp after I collected one. It turns out this shrimp had never been photographed in its natural environment and scientists believed it only lived in deeper waters. The marine biologist was so excited she flew from Texas to our home so we could take out and show her some of “our” shrimp. The fish I would love to check off my life list is the whale shark. With all the diving we do in the Gulf of Mexico, I’m sure it is only a matter of time, but I am still waiting!

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

Doing surveys for both MBARA and REEF, I’ve learned it can be fun to get away from the big sites and spend time on something small that isn’t frequented by divers. I’ve spent 45 minutes looking at two 3-foot reefballs. If I hadn’t taken the time to slow down and really look, I would never have seen the small juvenile jackknife-fish, or a pea-sized juvenile trunkfish.

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