The Faces of REEF: Member Spotlight, John Wolfe

Male Kelp Greenling. Photo by Janna Nichols.
John with dive buddies, Dan Grolemund, Kate Chaitin, Deenie Clinton.
John is not only an ID nerd underwater, he enjoys birdwatching too.
John recently submitted a paper for publication that analyzes REEF data from Monterey Peninsula. John evaluated trends in species such as this Young-of-the-Year Canary Rockfish.
One of John's favorite finds, a Masked Prickleback. Photo by John Wolfe.
Rookie Revenge! An Acapulco Damselfish (correctly ID'ed). Photo by John Wolfe.

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 John Wolfe. John joined REEF in 1998 and has conducted 530 surveys. John is a member of the REEF Advanced Assessment Team in both the Pacific Coast and Hawaii. In addition to his active survying, he has delved into teaching about REEF and ID and has mentored several surveyors to become experts. He has also taken a keen interest in getting REEF data used by the scientific and management communities, serving on Marine Life Protection Act committees and has written several papers using REEF data. Here's what John had to say about REEF:

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

I took my first REEF fish ID class in 1997. It was a Great American Fish Count kick-off event organized by Karen Grimmer of NOAA and taught by Dan Gotshall (author of Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes). My friend Rachid Feretti was the area’s most enthusiastic REEF surveyor at that time. Quite the raconteur, Rachid would pigeonhole anyone (including curious tourists) to describe the REEF diver survey program. In the late 1990’s I only did a handful of surveys every year, thinking of them as special dives with special equipment; I was also a volunteer diver for the sheriff’s department, diving black water and not getting to the ocean as much. In the new millennium I realized that it was more fun to conduct a REEF survey on EVERY ocean dive I did. That was the big break-through. When I realized I could simply put my slate on a retractable harness and tuck it under my BC belly strap, it became a standard piece of my diver gear, taken on every dive.

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

Since 2003 I’ve participated in every annual REEF Advanced Assessment Team monitoring project in Monterey, my local dive area. It’s always a fabulous assemblage of skilled cold-water divers and enthusiastic fish nerds, with Captain Phil Sammet entertaining us with salty stories and Christy and Brice Semmens calmly and expertly leading the trips. I’ve been on the Sea of Cortez and Big Island of Hawai’i REEF trips once each, and totally enjoyed both experiences, learning a whole new ecosystem of species.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

REEF totally supports my chosen hobby. My father was a fanatic fly fisherman and my mother is a fanatic bird watcher. It’s only natural that I became a fanatic fish watcher. My REEF experience has also taken me beyond just carrying a slate. Between 2005 and 2007, I served as a diver stakeholder and REEF volunteer representative for the California Central Coast Region Marine Life Protection Act initiative. After three years of intense wrangling between conservation and fishing interests, that effort resulted in a network of Marine Protected Areas along the central coast. In the Monterey Peninsula area we fought so hard that the chairman of the Fish and Game Commission, witnessing the debate, called it the Balkans. Nevertheless, I think the contentiousness of that process led to a resulting network of MPAs that all sides now grudgingly admit is a good compromise.

I have also enjoyed teaching others about REEF and ID. Over the past decade I’ve also given several REEF fish ID classes and presentations about the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative to local divers. I’m always looking for that next special diver who will become an enthusiastic and dedicated REEF surveyor. I have found some special people, like Keith Rootsaert and Alex Matsumoto, who now teach REEF fish ID classes and carry on the tradition.

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

It’s only now, with fifteen years of data in Monterey, and even more in the western Atlantic, that we’re starting to see the value of the REEF surveys as long term data. REEF scientific advisor, Dr. Brice Semmens, points out that such long-term data are quite rare and precious in ecological research. Furthermore, I think we’ve recently made a big breakthrough on how to statistically analyze the data; it’s a gold mine that we’ve only really started to dig into. I’m really excited about a paper I’m co-authoring with REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, about this topic.

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

The Monterey Peninsula is a special place, with rocky reefs, protected coves, and amazing kelp forests. It’s a two-hour drive from my home in Berkeley, well worth the effort. My favorite dive spots along the Monterey Peninsula include North and South Monastery, now protected in the recently expanded Pt. Lobos marine reserve, as well as Point Lobos State Park itself, the longest running no-take marine reserve in the state. Butterfly House and Point Pinos are wild, spectacular shore dives. I also enjoy the mellower Coral Street and Otter Cove dive sites – and I’ve never had a dull dive at the most heavily dived site of our area, the Breakwater. My favorite local boat dive site is Dali’s Wall outside of Stillwater Cove – it’s always a highlight of our annual Monterey field survey.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Do I have to choose? Kelp Greenling, both male and female, are such handsome fish. Juvenile Canary Rockfish are tiny spectacular gold, black and white jewels. Enormous schools of tubesnout threading and weaving their way through a kelp forest is a spectacular sight!

What is your most memorable fish find and why?

Well, I have a few. I’ve only seen one Rockhead Poacher, years ago – it’s a bizarre tiny fish with a punctured pate (pit in the top of its head) that looks just like the orange cup coral it so successfully hides amidst. It's so bizarre, an exciting find! The second would be finding (and eventually photographing) the Masked Prickleback. It is a handsome fish with a tan back, white belly, and broad dark chocolate brown stripe running the length of the fish from eye to tail. This species was only discovered by science in the mid-1960’s, by a night diver at the Monterey Breakwater. That diver, David Powell, later became the Director of Live Exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He recounts his discovery of that species in his book “A Fascination for Fish”. Masked Pricklebacks are shy and nocturnal, relatively uncommon and very difficult to photograph. And finally -- an instance of fish ID rookie vindication! On my first Sea of Cortez REEF field survey, I’d made a couple of embarrassing and very public rookie ID goofs early in the week. So later in the week, after coming up from Swanee Reef and telling Brice I’d seen an Acapulco Damselfish, he was certain I’d seen the much more common Cortez Damselfish … until I showed him the photographic evidence. It was the first (and perhaps the only) Acapulco Damselfish the group saw that week.

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