Remembering Mike Phelan

One of Mike's passions was studying and protecting the aggregation of Goliath Grouper near his home in Jupiter.

We are saddened to share news about the passing of one of our most active REEF members, Mike Phelan, earlier this month in Jupiter, FL. Mike's enthusiasm for fishcounting was infectious and he often taught fish ID. He had participated in many REEF projects and was a member of our Advanced Assessment Team. REEF co-founder, Paul Humann, remembers Mike’s unsurpassed passion for marine life and conservation. "REEF's database is much more meaningful thanks to Mike's contribution of nearly 1,500 fish surveys over the last 14 years. Working with State of Florida officials he did a great deal of volunteer research on the Goliath Groupers and wrote several scientific reports. His information was used as part of the government decision-making process to continue the Goliath's protection as an endangered species. On one of his last dives he counted 114 Goliath Groupers in a single aggregation, the largest ever recorded. As a personal friend, I along with everyone that knew Mike will miss him greatly - as will the Goliath Groupers who have lost one of their staunchest advocates."

REEF Director of Special Projects and original Executive Director, Lad Akins, regarded Mike as a top-notch team member and an all around great person. "Mike Phelan was a friend of REEF and a friend of mine. If I had to pick a team for anything, Mike would be one of the first I’d pick. He was a joy to be around – always quick in wit and a true professional in his approach to almost any situation. I first met Mike on a REEF fish survey trip in 1998. He quickly became a mainstay of REEF fish survey activities and achieved Golden Hamlet status with over 1,000 fish survey dives. His dedication to protecting marine resources, especially Goliath Grouper, was widely known and his efforts were far reaching in helping to better understand this keystone species. Mike was certainly a member of the REEF family and we’ll miss him much."

Mike will be sorely missed in the REEF community. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to his wife and their children. If you would like to read more about Mike's efforts with REEF, you can read the monthly member spotlight that featured him in June 2011. Mike's obituary and remembrance page is posted here.

Take a Dive Vacation That Counts

If you haven't yet booked your space on one of our 2013 REEF Field Surveys, don't delay. They are filling up fast and several are now sold out. Trips with space remaining are: Southern Bahamas Lionfish Trip with Lad Akins and Peter Hughes (May 18-25), Little Cayman with Paul Humann (July 13-20), Curacao Lionfish Trip with Lad Akins and Peter Hughes (Aug 31-Sept 7), Barkley Sound British Columbia with Janna Nichols (Sept 28-Oct 1), Grenada with Dr. Christy Semmens (Oct 5-12), and Socorro Islands with Marty Snyderman and Andy Dehart (Dec 3-12). Visit for information and details on all of these great trips. To book your space or ask questions, get in touch with our travel agent at Caradonna - 1-877-295-REEF (7333) or 

Upcoming Fishinars - Drums, Rare Cozumel Finds, and Scientific Illustration!

Juvenile Cubuyu, one of several drum species found in the Caribbean that will be covered in the upcoming Fishinar on Drums. Photo by Carol Cox.

Have you joined a Fishinar yet? These popular online REEF webinar training sessions provide fishie fun in the comfort of your own home. Fishinars are free, and open to all REEF members. You need to register for each session you want to attend. No special software is required, just a web browser. Upcoming sessions include:

Lesser Known Fish of Cozumel - October 17

Feel the Beat! The Top 12 Drums & Croakers of the Caribbean - October 29

You do WHAT for a living? Illustrating Fishes - with special guest Val Kells, Scientific Illustrator - November 13

New Fishinars are always being added. Check out the Webinar Training page ( for the most up-to-date listing and to register for each session.

Putting It To Work: Who's Using REEF Data, March 2014

Spiny Pink Sea Star in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Every month, scientists, government agencies, and other groups request raw data from REEF’s Fish Survey Project database. Here is a sampling of who has asked for REEF data recently and what they are using it for:

- Researchers from Western Washington University, Simon Frasier University, and the SeaDoc Society are all using REEF data to evaluate the status of echinoderms in the Pacific Northwest and how the rapid spread of seastar wasting disease will affect populations.

- Scientists from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are including REEF data in an evaluation of the status of Northern Abalone in Washington State.

- A researcher from RSMAS at University of Miami is using REEF data from throughout the Caribbean basin to evaluate populations of predators.

Upcoming Fishinars - Sand Dwellers, Life on Oil Platforms, Sharkinar, and more!

Don't miss the Sharkinar on October 22nd. Sand Tiger Shark photo by Jeffrey Haines.

We've got lots of exciting, fun, and educational REEF Fishinars in store for you this fall - featuring your favorite instructors and special guests. Check out the full schedule at REEF Fishinars are a free benefit of REEF membership, and did you know that REEF members can also access and view any of our archived Fishinars from previous years? Fishinars coming up include:

  • Playing in the Sandbox: Top 12 Sand Dwellers of the Caribbean - Jonathan Lavan, October 7th
  • Sharkinar! - Dr. Dean Grubbs, Florida State University, October 22nd
  • That Face, That Face, That Wonderful Face! Top 12 Blennies of the Caribbean - Jonathan Lavan, November 4th
  • What I Did on My Fall Vacation - Research on the Fishes of Southern California Oil and Gas Platforms - Dr. Milton Love, UC Santa Barbara, November 10th
  • Lionfish Myth Busters, Liz Underwood, December 3rd

Explore our Fishinar webpage, register for the sessions you like, and we'll see you online! No special software or is required - just a computer with speakers and an internet connection. And did we mention they are FREE to REEF members!

Announcing REEF's Inaugural Trip to the Central-Indo Pacific

An incredible table coral in Tubbataha Marine Park in the Philippines. Photo by Q Phia.
Atlantis Azores Liveaboard, host of our REEF trip April 16-23, 2016.
Atlantis Resort in Dumaguete.

We are excited to announce the first of our 2016 REEF Trips -- a land and sea adventure in the Philippines. On this inagaural REEF trip to the Central Indo-Pacific, we will explore this diverse region by land and by see during two weeks of adventure -- by land, based at the Atlantis Resort in Dumaguete, April 9-16, 2016, and then by sea, aboard the Atlantis Azores Liveaboard, April 16-23, 2016. Join us for either week or both! The area is known for some of the most interesting and beautiful fish and critters to add to your life list, including ghost pipefish, mandarinfish, pygmy seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish, and much more. Visit the REEF Trips page to see all the details.

During the first week, we'll dive and stay at the all-inclusive Atlantis Resort, featuring first class accommodations and an on-site restaurant, spa, camera room, and five star PADI dive operation. On April 16th, we will transfer to Puerto Princesa, where we will board Atlantis Azores. Our at-sea itinerary includes the isolated Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park, which features dramatic underwater terrain, incredible biodiversity, and megafauna such as sharks and manta rays. The liveaboard package includes double occupancy twin share accommodations, all diving (up to 4 dives a day), all meals and snacks on board, local soft drinks, beer and wine.

The Philippines archipelago is home to more than 3,000 species of fish, and the dive sites combine unbelievable muck-diving with pristine coral reefs and shoals of schooling fish. The diving, accommodations, and amenities are all sure to make for a once in a lifetime adventure - sign up early to secure your space! Both weeks will be led by our Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens.

We have a few special offers: REEF members who sign up for both weeks will only pay one REEF Program Fee of $300 (a $300 savings), and discounted early bird prices for booking before June 1st. Visit the Philippines Land and Sea Package page to view all of the details. We'll be announcing more 2016 trips soon. Keep an eye on for more details.

The Faces of REEF: Peyton Williams

Peyton doing a buddy check with his favorite dive buddy, grandson, Andrew.
The stunning male Bird Wrasse. Photo by David Andrew.

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 Peyton Williams, a REEF member since 2012. An active member based in Hawaii, Peyton teaches SCUBA and passes on the fun of doing REEF surveys to others. Here's what he had to say about REEF:

How did you become involved with REEF?

I had been diving for about 30 years when I decided to become an instructor. With my increase in diving on trips, I grew bored with blowing bubbles, and decided it was time to learn more of the ecology of the dive sites (mostly in the Caribbean) I visited. My mentor was Marty Rayman, who had worked as a volunteer at the National Aquarium. Marty offered an outstanding Fish ID course that was based on the REEF program. I have been teaching Fish ID for both the TWA and Hawaii ever since using the REEF program, requiring my students to perform at least the two survey dives to become a Level 2 surveyor. Unfortunately, as an instructor, I do not get to do as many surveys as I would like, but I do get to point out many interesting critters to students and others as we dive that I would not have learned as easily without the REEF programs.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

Being able to learn more about the ecology of areas I am diving in. I am a regular with the Fishinars, even for regions I do not survey in regularly. It also gives purpose to my observing fish by completing the surveys and entering them into the database.

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

While taking a Venturing scout on her 4th open water dive while on a live-aboard in Bimini, I saw a large hammerhead come up on our left. I decided not to tell her, but when the hammerhead passed us and curved about 20 feet in front, I changed my mind and pointed him out. Her excitement was palpable. And she had no fear. When we returned to the boat she yelled, “I saw a hammerhead!” My wife, helping at the ladder, said, “You saw what! He never takes me where I see the big fish.” Oh, well.

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

I always try to carry at least a small camera when doing surveys. On a recent trip to St. Lucia where I was teaching fish ID, I saw several fish that I had not known which I photographed and identified at leisure and added to my surveys.

What is your favorite fish?

In Hawaii, it is the Bird Wrasse. It is a very interesting fish. My favorite invertebrate (other than the blue crab that I love to eat) is the banded shrimp. They are fun to play with.

REEF Lionfish Study Trips

Lionfish Trip co-leaders, Peter Hughes and Lad Akins.
Lionfish Field Survey Team in Curacao

REEF’s 2016 REEF Trips schedule is well underway! Two trips have already happened (Dominica and Barbados), and a group of eager fishwatchers is heading to the Philippines in a few days for our inaugural Field Survey to the Indo-Pacific. Be sure to check out the Trips schedule at, if you haven’t already. In addition to the traditional fish identification and surveying trips, we also host several Lionfish Study Trips each year. There are still a few spaces left on lionfish trips to Honduras in May and Curacao in August, and we are looking for team members. These important projects provide valuable data, and result in the removal of hundreds of the invading fish during the week.

During the week-long projects, either liveaboard or land based, team members are presented with training and opportunities to remove lionfish through spearing or hand netting. All collected lionfish are measured and some dissected on site to get valuable biological and impact information and some fish are prepared for team and public tastings to help promote the market for lionfish as a food fish. Team members can get fully immersed in as much of the collecting and research activities as they would like. Divers not wanting to take part in removals, still provide valuable sighting information and conduct REEF fish surveys to augment the long-term data used to look at ecological changes.

One example of Lionfish Study Trip data includes a series of annual projects we held in Belize between 2009 and 2012 that documented the progression of the invasion. From zero fish seen or collected during the first year of the project, to over 500 fish removed in a single week during year three, divers were able to document the incredible explosion in numbers but also dramatic increases in sizes. Average size of lionfish collected in 2010 was 194mm, exploding to 270mm in 2012. Another example was from our lionfish recent trip to Dominica in February. This was our second lionfish trip there. In 2012, our team collected 45 lionfish. This year, in the same locations, the team collected 566. Click here to see other examples of findings from Lionfish Study Trips.

And keep an eye on your inbox because we will be sending out the full 2017 REEF Trips schedule next week!

Grouper Moon Project Results in Sweeping Science-Based Protections For Nassau Grouper

Nassau Grouper, an icon of Caribbean reefs, receives broad protections in the Cayman Islands. Photo by Stephanie Archer/Grouper Moon Project.
One of thousands - Nassau Grouper at the spawning aggregation on the west end of Little Cayman, the focus of REEF's Grouper Moon Project. Photo by Jim Hellemn, (c) Grouper Moon Project.
A spawning burst of Nassau Grouper, captured at the Little Cayman spawning aggregation. Photo by Jim Hellemn, (c) Grouper Moon Project.

We are excited and very proud to share amazing news – on August 15, 2016, the Cayman Islands government enacted a comprehensive set of regulations aimed at recovering Nassau Grouper, an endangered Caribbean reef fish. The new rules are based on more than a decade of collaborative fisheries research carried out by the Grouper Moon Project. REEF initiated the Grouper Moon Project in 2001 in collaboration with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, and it has become one of our flagship programs. We work in partnership with scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and Oregon State University. The project is the Caribbean’s oldest continuous grouper spawning aggregation research program, and represents one of the most advanced, multi-faceted tropical fisheries research programs in the world.

The regulations represent the Caribbean’s most progressive set of management actions for Nassau Grouper, and include:

  • All take, possession, or sale of Nassau Grouper is prohibited from December through April (during the spawning months for the species)
  • When take is permitted (May – November), only fish between 16"-24” can be kept and no more than 5 Nassau Grouper per fishing vessel per day can be kept
  • Nassau Grouper may not be taken on spear gun at any time

Many of you have followed the progress of the Grouper Moon Project through the years. Our research has focused on the west-end aggregation site on Little Cayman, which supports one of the last great reproductive populations of this endangered species. Lessons learned in the Cayman Islands have benefited Nassau Grouper conservation efforts throughout the Caribbean.

The sweeping protections enacted for Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands last month represent the kind of action-oriented work that REEF is known for. This science-based management action would not have been possible without the dedication of Grouper Moon scientists and the support of REEF donors and volunteers. We greatly appreciate all our members who have contributed financially to REEF to make this important work possible.

We look forward to continuing our important work on spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands and beyond. In addition to support from our members, REEF's work in the Grouper Moon Project has been supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program and Disney Conservation Fund. Significant field logistics support has been provided by Peter Hillenbrand, Southern Cross Club, and Little Cayman Beach Resort/Reef Divers.

For more information, visit And be sure to check out the PBS Changing Seas documentary filmed a few years ago about our work in the Cayman Islands.

REEF Participates in Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas Monitoring Data Workshop

CINMS Superintendant, Chris Mobley, gets ready to conduct a REEF survey during a recent monitoring cruise at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Carl Gwinn.
Channel Islands MPA Monitoring Data Workshop Participants

Earlier this month, REEF Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, participated in the first of a series of workshops to be held this Fall to analyze REEF and other data gathered from the Channel Islands Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Originally established in 2003 (and then expanded to include Federal waters earlier this year), this network of no-take marine reserves protects 318 square miles around the northern five Channel Islands off the coast of California. In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission will conduct a 5-year review of the MPAs to evaluate the effectiveness of the reserve network. The results from the evaluation will inform future decisions made by the Commission under California's Marine Life Protection Act. The data group workshops, held at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, will culminate in a series of publications summarizing the cumulative efforts of dozens of monitoring programs within the Channel Islands MPAs, with an emphasis on analyses that can best address key management questions concerning the reserves. These results will be presented during a special symposium associated with the California Islands Symposium.

Coincident with the establishment of the marine reserves in 2003, REEF initiated a coordinated monitoring program at specific sites inside and outside of the reserves to complement the ongoing survey activities in the area by REEF members. Surveyors on REEF's Pacific Advanced Assessment Team participate in annual REEF cruises aboard the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) vessel R/V Shearwater, and this project has generated over 800 surveys to date. These data, along with an additional 750 REEF surveys that had been conducted around the islands prior to 2003, will provide information on the fish assemblages (and more recently key invertebrate and algae species) of the Channel Islands.

To find out more about our work in the CINMS, visit the REEF in Sanctuaries page.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub