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.

The Faces of REEF: Naomi Wooten

The Blue Rockfish. Photo by Janna Nichols.

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 Naomi Wooten. Naomi has been a REEF member since 1999, and has conducted 143 surveys (all in her home state of California). She is a member of the Pacific Coast Advanced Assessment Team as an Expert Surveyor. Here's what Naomi had to say about REEF:

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

My friend and I participated in a Great American Fish Count dive in Monterey in June 2005 led by John Wolfe and did my first REEF surveys. A local reporter wrote about the event and said that my buddy and I were excited to find an elusive fish and mistakenly named a very commonly sighted fish. I have had a REEF number since 1999. I think I signed up at a scuba show exhibit.

Have you participated in any REEF special projects or Field Surveys?

I was part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advanced Assessment Team Project in 2012. After the last dive, my tank went bouncing off the boat into the ocean on a rocky ride back to the dock, and I unwillingly contributed to the artificial reef of Monterey. The best part of the story is that several team members and REEF generously pitched in and helped me replace the tank. I put a REEF sticker on that tank!

What inspires you to complete REEF surveys?

I am motivated to complete surveys by an unexplainable interest in stats and a slightly competitive spirit. Doing surveys contributes to a growing database that others have used in scientific papers and debates. When I started, Kawika Chetron was the top surveyor in California with about 300 surveys. Three hundred surveys became my lifetime goal. I am almost halfway there.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?

I love doing REEF surveys because they are so easy and surveys can be part of any dive. I am happy that I can contribute without being a scientist, fish expert, or copious surveyor.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Instead of being a rare fish, my favorite is the blue rockfish, which is very common in Monterey. I smile every time I see the first one on a dive. There is nothing like the peaceful awe I feel when I slowly move into a school of these beautiful fish and am temporarily allowed to be part of their group.

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

Well, this is my tip for myself. Don’t compare yourself to other REEF members you know and don’t feel bad that you cannot identify (or find) tons of fish and invertebrates like they can. Concentrate on ones you can identify for sure. Keep adding to your personal list and honing your critter-finding skills.

Join REEF in Fiji, Grand Cayman, Roatan, and more

The reefs of Fiji! Join us in May to see this firsthand. Photo by Paul Humann.

If you haven’t yet booked a REEF trip, or if you are considering another, please take a look below. There are still a few spaces left, especially in the first half of the year when colder temperatures at home may make a tropical dive vacation look especially inviting. In particular, be sure to check out our trips to Fiji aboard the luxurious NAI'A liveaboard. We have 3 spaces available (1 double cabin and one share female space), May 2-12, and 1 male share space left on our second trip, May 12-19. We have also just added a trip to St. Lucia in December. To find out more information or to secure your space on the Fiji trip or any of our other 2015 trips, contact us at trips@REEF.org or call 305-588-5869. Visit www.REEF.org/trips for complete trip details.

2015 REEF Field Survey Schedule

Feb 28 - Mar 7 -- Hawaii -- Kona Aggressor II Liveaboard, Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, SOLD OUT, Details

Mar 14 - 21 -- Grand Cayman -- Wall to Wall Diving and Comfort Suites, Led by Jonathan Lavan, 4 spaces left, Details

May 2 - 12 -- Fiji -- NAI'A Livaboard, Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens and Dr. Brice Semmens, 3 spaces left, Details

May 12 - 19 -- Fiji -- NAI'A Livaboard, Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens and Dr. Brice Semmens, 1 space left, Details

May 9 - 16 -- Bahamas Invasive Lionfish Control Study -- Explorer II Liveaboard, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes, SOLD OUT, Details

Jun 13 - 20 -- Roatan -- Anthony's Key Resort, Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach, 3 spaces left, Details

Jul 11 - 18 -- Grand Turk -- Oasis Divers & Osprey Beach Hotel, Led by Paul Humann, SOLD OUT, Details

Aug 1 - 8 -- Bonaire -- Buddy Dive, Led by Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens and Dr. Brice Semmens, SOLD OUT, Details

Aug 22 - 29 -- Curacao Invasive Lionfish Control Study -- GO WEST Diving & Kura Hulanda Lodge, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes, 3 spaces left, Details

Nov 1 - 5 -- Catalina Island -- Scuba Luv & Pavilion Hotel, Led by Janna Nichols, Details

Dec 5 - 12 -- Cozumel -- Chili Charters & Safari Inn or Casa Mexicana, Led by Tracey Griffin, SOLD OUT, Details

Dec 5 - 12 (just added) -- St. Lucia -- Anse Chastanet Resort, Led by Heather George, details coming soon

Remembering Joe Thomas

Joe Thomas at the helm of his boat.

On August 24, 2015, a beloved member of our Key Largo community unexpectedly passed away. Joe Thomas of Ocean Divers was a brilliant captain, a caring mentor, and a wonderful friend, known for his softspoken demeanor and sharp sense of humor. Joe loved to share his passion for the sea, whether it was through educating young divers or imparting his knowledge of the local dive sites and Key Largo history to the many who looked up to him. Joe was a member of the REEF family for more than 20 years. He selflessly dedicated his time to helping many generations of Marine Conservation Interns advance their diving skills by offering training and certifications for courses such as Nitrox, Advanced Open Water, and Rescue Diver. Joe also provided support for and participated in numerous REEF monitoring and research projects throughout the Florida Keys. He was a valued member of REEF's Advanced Assessment Team and made a significant contribution to citizen science by submitting more than 500 fish surveys. He will be greatly missed.

At the request of Joe's close friends throughout the Key Largo community, The Joe Thomas Memorial Fund has been created as a legacy to remember the ideals by which Joe lived and worked, and to support educating future generations of marine conservationists and divers to protect the ocean that Joe loved so much. Proceeds from the fund will be used to aid young people beginning careers in marine conservation and diving by providing intern scholarships and dive certifications. To contribute to the fund, click here to donate securely online. Be sure to type "Joe Thomas" in the comment section on the donation page. You can also make a donation over the phone by calling REEF at 305-852-0030, or by sending a check to REEF HQ, PO Box 370246, Key Largo, FL 33037.

A celebration of life will be held in Key Largo later this month. If you have a memory of Joe to share, please visit www.REEF.org/joethomas.

Connecting With Classrooms in the Grouper Moon Project

Elementary students in the Cayman Islands working on one of the REEF Grouper Education Program lessons.
Live video feed from 2013, connecting researchers diving at the aggregation site with classrooms. Photo by Joshua Stewart.
In collaboration with a team of engineers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography we are using a cutting-edge underwater microscope with plankton net attached to study the habitat around the spawn cloud. As water flows through, two high speed cameras within an underwater microscope capture images of zooplankton and eggs.

Scientists and volunteers from REEF, and our partners at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, are wrapping up two weeks of field work on Little Cayman for the Grouper Moon Project. Since 2002, the collaboration has conducted ground-breaking research on the Nassau Grouper spawning aggregations in the Cayman Islands, to help ensure that populations of this iconic species recover. Around winter full moons, Nassau Grouper leave their home reefs and aggregate in mass to spawn. January didn't turn out to be the big month for spawning, and therefore our team will return for the February full moon. Nevertheless, many of the fish (at least 1,000) showed up at the aggregation site and our team kept busy collecting ongoing monitoring data (counts, size of fish, and documenting behaviors), field testing cutting-edge tools such as an underwater microscope, and running the Grouper Education Program.

In 2011, with funding from Disney Conservation Fund, REEF launched the Grouper Education Program to engage Caymanian students in the Grouper Moon Project. This exciting effort brings the Nassau Grouper in to elementary and high school classrooms through lesson plans and live-feed videos that connect classrooms with scientists in the field. The curriculum presents a multi-faceted view of Nassau Grouper in which students create their own understanding of this important fish. Key curricular concepts include the historical role of the species as an artisanal fishery throughout the Caribbean region, the grouper’s value as a keystone predator and its impact on local reef health, its role in today’s tourism-based economy in the Cayman Islands, and the conservation challenges facing Nassau Grouper given steep declines in populations. 

In January, we conducted four live-feed webcasts - three topside chats with scientists and one from underwater at a coral reef site along Bloody Bay Wall. All webcasts are archived on YouTube on TheGrouperTeacherREEF channel online here. Over 200 students from 17 schools participated.

Several interesting video clips and stories from the field were posted on REEF's Facebook page.

The work of the Grouper Moon research project – a collaboration between REEF and the Cayman Island Department of Environment has led to fishing restrictions at the aggregation sites and an increase in numbers of the endangered fish. To find out more, visit www.REEF.org/groupermoonproject. The Grouper Education Program is supported by a grant from the Disney Conservation Fund. In-kind logistics and technical support is provided by Peter Hillenbrand, Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Reef DiversCayman Airways, and FLOW Cayman.

“Finding Dory” and Promoting Responsible Pet Ownership

"Dory" is a Palette Surgeonfish. Photo by Efraim Stocher.

The highly-anticipated sequel to Disney and Pixar’s “Finding Nemo”, “Finding Dory” opened in theaters in June, and was recently announced to be the highest-grossing animated film of all time. The titular character, Dory, is a Palette Surgeonfish (Paracanthurus hepatic), who spends the film searching for her family. Native to the tropical waters of the Western Pacific Ocean (REEF’s Central Indo-Pacific and South Pacific regions), these bright blue, reef-dwelling, algae-eating fish are also referred to as Pacific Blue Tangs, Hippo Tangs, or Regal Tangs. In addition to the film’s endearing characters and entertainment value, the release of “Finding Dory” carries the potential for an increased demand for Palette Surgeonfish in home aquariums, as well as the message that marine fish should be released into the wild.

Marine biologists worry that the release of “Finding Dory” could cause an increased demand for Palette Surgeonfish, threatening wild populations as well as coral reef habitats. National Geographic estimates that following the release of “Finding Nemo” in 2003, the demand for Clown Anenomefish (Amphiprion percula) like Nemo, more than tripled. Anenomefish are able to be aquacultured, or bred in captivity. Until recently, Palette Surgeonfish had never successfully been captive-bred, however, researchers at the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory recently announced that for the first time they have successfully raised the Palette Surgeonfish in captivity. This conservation breakthrough means that aquarists may soon have a source for Palette Surgeonfish that does not rely on fish removed from the wild. REEF encourages pet owners to educate themselves about fish ownership before buying a marine fish, including specifics on living requirements such as tank size, and whether the fish was bred in captivity or caught in the wild.

In addition, pet owners should have a plan in place in case they are ever unable to care for their fish. In “Finding Dory”, we learn that Dory was born and raised in a facility on the California coast, but eventually ended up in the wild. Releasing non-native marine fish into the ocean from home aquariums, while well-intentioned, can create severe problems for marine ecosystems. One threat includes the spread of invasive species, like the Indo-Pacific Lionfish, which has caused dramatic impacts since their initial introduction in the 1980’s. Non-native fish may also carry diseases and parasites that can have harmful impacts on native fish species.

In 2015, REEF launched the “Don’t Release Me” campaign to educate pet owners about responsible pet ownership, teach the public about the effects of releasing non-native pet species into the wild, and work cooperatively with other organizations to promote alternatives to pet release and stop the spread of invasive species. To learn more about Don’t Release Me and responsible pet ownership, visit www.dontreleaseme.org.

Fishinars - the Archive, and Lionfish in January

Join us in January for a Lionfish Jewelry Fishinar!

Did you know? Our Fishinar program has been going strong now for 6 years! In that time, we've put on over 120 Fishinars and recorded most of them for later viewing as a benefit of REEF membership. Our typical Fishinar lasts about an hour. Check out our Fishinar archives and you might find something you like!

And we have another great year planned in 2017. In January, our focus will be on Lionfish. We'll have an online Do It Yourself Lionfish jewelry "how to" session on January 24th, along with a Lionfish update from expert scientist Dr. Stephanie Green on January 18th. If you're interested in Lionfish, you won't want to miss these! Visit the Fishinar page for all the details and links to register.

 

Great Items Added to the REEF Store

Have you checked out REEF's online store recently? We have added a bunch of great items perfect for the ocean lover in your life! Preservation Creature Puzzles, Hammerhead Bottle Openers, Swell Style Bags from Bungalow360, and Conservation Creature Plushes! Of courese, we also have a great selection of fish ID books, REEF survey supplies, and REEF gear. Visit www.REEF.org/store to see all of our great inventory.

REEF Joins Leading Volunteer Organizations to Develop Citizen Science Toolkit

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Leda Cunningham test drives an online bird ID portal with other conference participants.
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REEF volunteer (and family member) Brice Semmens takes in the REEF display during the poster session.

In late June, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) hosted the first ever Citizen Science Toolkit Conference in Ithaca, New York. Widely known for projects like FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count, the CLO is a pioneer in bringing people closer to nature through cooperative research, cutting edge technology and innovative science programs across many natural science fields. Leda Cunningham and Dr. Christy Semmens represented REEF at the 3-day meeting, where fifty leaders of citizen science organizations around the world – from worm watchers to bird counters to star gazers – came together to build a toolkit for citizen science practitioners and others seeking to engage volunteers in meaningful science activities.

There is some debate about what citizen science is, not to mention what it does. Many participants noted that “volunteer monitoring” more accurately captures the nature of their programs (much like the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project) while others thought that volunteers fill more of a role than just data collectors and should be involved in all parts of the scientific process, beginning with posing the research question. The group periodically split into five focus groups and reconvened at the end to present a model based on each group’s focus area: Education, Evaluation and Impact, Community Building, Technology and Cyberinfrastructure, and Research and Monitoring. The resulting Toolkit will include resources, recommendations, and case studies from each of these areas, as well as a key to existing citizen science programs. Christy participated in a panel on the impacts of citizen science and presented examples of how REEF data are used by resource agencies and scientists. She presented details of how REEF volunteers helped identify a hotspot of non-native fishes along the south Florida coast and the resulting management actions of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the important role that REEF data can play as a fisheries-independent source of data for the development of stock assessments and fisheries management plans, the discovery of new species by several REEF members, and the value of using our most experienced divers (the Advanced Assessment Team) to conduct annual monitoring of selected sites inside and around no-take marine reserves.

REEF was proud to contribute its fourteen years of experience building the Volunteer Fish Survey Project to the group discussion. Many citizen science organizations deal with the same issues of volunteer recruitment, recognition and retention, engaging the “real” science community, standardizing data collection methods and measuring success. REEF has addressed many of these issues with innovative strategies that may be adopted by other citizen science initiatives: engaging the private retail sector (dive shops) to recruit volunteers within a target audience (scuba divers and snorkelers), developing strong partnerships with science and resource management agencies (such as university-based researchers and the National Marine Sanctuary Program), 5-level expertise testing (in fish identification) to assist with quality control, a published standardized data collection method and the Advanced Assessment Team as an incentive for volunteers to become more proficient surveyors and a measuring stick for training programs.

For more information on the conference or Citizen Science Central, the CLO’s initiative to provide information for practitioners and volunteers, click here. Look for the Citizen Science Toolkit, a robust and practical framework for citizen science program development, implementation, and evaluation, in the fall 2007.

Weeding the Good from the Bad: Deciphering “YOUR” Scanform . . .

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TWA scanform

A few reminders to our surveyors:

  • Always write your member number, your name, AND your email legibly on your survey form. It's not necessary to fill in the other contact information unless your information has changed or if you are a new member and do not yet have a REEF member number.
  • Please fill in the full 8-digit Geographic Zone Code for the site where your survey was conducted. You can find a list of these hierarchical codes online [Click here]. If the site is currently not on our list, contact our Field Operations Coordinator, Joe Cavanaugh, to have a site code assigned (please provide as much information as possible, including as many digits as you can pinpoint for your location. A site code should never end in two zeros.
  • The temperature fields on the survey form (Surface and Bottom) are both water temperature. Please do not report air temperature for the surface value.
  • Remember to use a pencil, but do not to use the pencil that was underwater to fill out your scanform. The residual water can cause the paper to rip and it's almost impossible to erase.
  • We graciously ask, moving forward, that team leaders handling a Field Trip survey, review the forms before your trip is over to make sure the participants have indeed filled all the necessary fields correctly, that also goes for current members that mail them in independently as well. Only send us your original form, not a copy and always use a pencil. NOW, to avoid all this, for non members, you can join REEF online, this way you fill out the information we need, thus eliminating the mind reading on our end.
  • And finally - for surveyors in the Tropical Western Atlantic (TWA) or Northeast (NE) regions, please consider using our online data entry interface. This will save you time and postage as well as grant you the eternal gratitude of our small staff. Your surveys will also be processed quicker, and it's better for the environment!
Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub