The Faces of REEF: Judith Cucco

Cooperative hunting is always a great find for a REEF surveyor. Here, Blueifn Trevally, Blue Goatfish, and a moray eel (not shown) are hunting together. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A badly damaged sea turtle flipper, the result of entangled fishing line. Photo by Judith Cucco.

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 Juddith Cucco. Judith has been a REEF member since 2010, and has conducted 555 surveys (all in her home state of Hawaii, and all as a snorkeler!). She is a member of the Hawaii Advanced Assessment Team as an Expert Surveyor. Here's what Judith had to say about REEF:

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

I first heard about REEF through Reef Watch Waikiki while taking a fish identification course with them in February 2010. I immediately started doing surveys as I felt it was a fun way for me to share my enthusiasm for all the fish I see while snorkeling in Hawaii, where I live...and I wanted a record of the many species I've encountered.

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

Even though I've seen it many times, it still fascinates me to see cooperative hunting, for example jacks following a moray eel or blue goatfish. My favorite fish is the juvenile rockmover wrasse. They look like drifting seaweed in the ocean when they move and I enjoy watching them turn over rocks with their snout. My favorite discovery is a semi-circle angelfish (not native to Hawaii) that Christy Pattengill-Semmens (REEF Director of Science ) helped my swimming buddies and me identify from some very poor photos.

Where do you do most of your surveying?

I used to do most of my surveys at the outer reef in Hanauma Bay and still go there occasionally, however my favorite place to survey on Oahu is Kaiona Beach Park. You really need to look to find the fish and if one has the patience, there are ample rewards. I've seen so many species that one does not see at Hanauma Bay (knifefish, bigeyes and several types of scorpionfish). Because I snorkel, the fish are also much closer at Kaiona as it's more shallow.

What do you enjoy most about doing REEF surveys?

The most exciting thing for me when doing surveys is when I encounter a species I haven't seen before. After my snorkel, I go home and look it up in one of my fish books or online and enjoy learning about it. My biggest challenge is staying warm as I like to stay in the ocean until my fingers get numb (not recommended), which is usually around three hours even with a full wet suit.

Do you have a memorable story from a survey?

Just the other day, I had gone out for a snorkel survey (which ended up not happening). A little while into our swim, my buddy and I found an entangled green sea turtle. I saw it on the bottom in about ten feet of water. We first asked its permission, then dove down to bring it to the surface. We saw that it had fishing line wrapped around its neck and two front flippers. We were really far out on the reef and swam it in to shore. We recruited two fishermen to cut off the line and they also built a pen out of rocks for the turtle. I went to my car and called our local NOAA turtle stranding office. When NOAA staff arrived, we loaded the turtle in a carrier and the turtle was taken to a surgeon. It needs to have the front right flipper amputated, but it is going to survive and should eventually be released back in the wild. What an amazing and cooperative experience!!!!

The Faces of REEF: Roger Skillman

A great find, especially for a first dive - the Striated Frogfish. Photo (c) Ned DeLoach.
Roger with some students at the Blue Heron Bridge.
The majestic Sand Tiger Shark. Photo by Jeff Haines.

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 Roger Skillman. Roger has been a REEF member since 2009, and has conducted 45 surveys. Despite being landlocked in the Smoky Mountains, he is an active surveyor in the Carolinas and Florida. He also teaches SCUBA and incorporates REEF in to his classes! Here's what Roger had to say about REEF:

What’s your favorite part of REEF surveying?

I like completing REEF surveys to document what was seen on any given day at a particular dive site. Completing surveys helps establish baseline data for a site. REEF members are “Citizen Scientists” with their eyes in the water and we provide valuable data for researchers that can’t be everywhere. The most interesting thing I have found about completing surveys is the importance of an underwater camera and a variety of good fish ID books to help with identification after the dive.

Do you have a favorite place to do surveys?

I have two favorite places that I like to dive. Most of my 34 years of diving have been on the shipwrecks offshore of Beaufort, North Carolina. The historical shipwrecks and abundant marine life that can be found rivals diving anywhere around the world! During the last 5 years, I have discovered the great diving around Jupiter, Florida, to include the world famous Blue Heron Bridge. BHB, with its unusual creatures and the ledges offshore, provide as many different species of fish as many tropical locales.

What is your favorite fish find?

My most fascinating fish encounter has to be diving with the Sand Tiger Sharks on the shipwreck “Caribsea” offshore Cape Lookout, NC. Diving while surrounded by 50 of these magnificent creatures was a marvelous experience. A most memorable fish find occurred at Blue Heron Bridge in 2013. I was completing open water evaluations with two of my students when we found not one, but two, Striated Frogfish. I had never seen a frogfish and these “neophyte” divers saw TWO on their first ever open water dives! Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair!

What advice do you have for other REEF members?

The best way to benefit from REEF is to get INVOLVED! I belong to inland-based REEF Field Station (Smoky Mountain Divers-Carolinas) but that doesn’t stop us from conducting surveys. Contact our field station or a field station near you and participate in their fish ID programs. Sign up and participate in the numerous webinars and classes offered by REEF to expand your knowledge. It’s not hard, just FUN!

Be On The Lookout - Indo-Pacific Damsel Reported in Gulf of Mexico

Regal Demoiselle, a new non-native species seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Paul Humann.

We are encouraging all REEF surveyors in the Tropical Western Atlantic region to be on the lookout for a new non-native fish! Researchers from the University of Veracruz have documented a new non-native species in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico with the potential to spread throughout the region. Sightings of the Regal Demoiselle (Neopomacentrus cyanamos) have recently come from the nearshore reef systems south of Veracruz, Mexico. The species is native to a broad region of the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea. The damselfish was documented at depths from 2-21 meters, though it was more common on deeper reefs. Similar in appearance to the native Brown Chromis, the Regal Damsel can reach sizes of up to 9 cm (3.5 inches) in length and is distinguished by a yellow or white spot at the rear base of the dorsal fin, a dark spot behind the gill, and yellow rear margins of the tail, dorsal and anal fins. In contrast, the native Brown Chromis is identified by dark margins on the tail and a dark spot at the base of the pectoral fin. Observations from Dr. Ross Robertson indicate the Regal Demoiselle can be a bit more cryptic than the native Chromis, tending to hide under ledges and in crevices between corals, rather than swimming in the open. Experts in Mexico believe that this damsel has the potential to disrupt natural systems around Caribbean reefs, as they have witnessed displacement of the native Brown Chromis on heavily-invaded sites.

If you see this fish while doing a REEF survey, be sure to report it on your form in the unlisted fish section. Please also report detailed information on the sighting to REEF through the invasive species reporting page.

Putting It To Work: REEF Data Used to Evaluate Species in the Northeast US

A Radiated Shanny, one of two species in the Northeast US whose populations are possibly being impacted by temperature changes. Photo by Jerry Shine.

We are proud to share a story from the East Coast that is a perfect example of how REEF data are put to work to address our changing seas. Dr. Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut and Mystic Aquarium, recently submitted a petition to add the Radiated Shanny and Atlantic Seasnail to the list of Species of Concern under the State of Connecticut's Endangered Species Act. Dr. Auster used REEF data as his primary source of information for the petition.

Both species are considered "cold-adapted," with their distribution largely north of Cape Cod with rare sightings in Long Island Sound. Data show that these species may be the first climate-change casualties in Connecticut waters as Long Island Sound continues to warm. These species occur in rocky habitats, and the best population data come from diver surveys, such as those from the REEF Volunteer Fish Survey Project. If you are a REEF surveyor in the northeast region, please keep an eye out and report these species on your surveys! Dr. Auster will continue to track their abundance through the REEF database and assess the effect of changing seas on their populations.

2008 Field Surveys: Sign Up Now!

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Anna Deloach surveys a reef. Photo courtesy of Ned Deloach
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REEF St. Croix Field Survey Team.

REEF announces the release of the 2008 Field Survey schedule. Click here to see the flyer and read more information on these unique eco-expeditions, including contact information for each trip.

We kick off the season with a special expedition to Little Cayman Island January 20-27. Participants will join REEF Science Director Dr. Christy Semmens on the seventh consecutive year of studying reproductive behavior of the endangered Nassau grouper. Contact Southern Cross Club directly to sign up at (800) 899 CLUB (2582). This is a high-demand trip so please reserve your spot soon.

Field Surveys offer participants a fun and educational way to contribute to marine conservation. Led by expert underwater naturalists, scuba divers and snorkelers will learn to identify marine life and conduct fish population surveys that assist scientists in making informed resource management decisions. A unique combination of classroom presentations, group discussion and survey dives make Field Surveys the ideal choice for people just getting started with diving or "fish watching." We invite you to join a REEF Field Survey team of like-minded divers and snorkelers who want to make a difference for the future of our oceans. 2008 destinations include the Akumal, Mexico, St. Vincent, the Sea of Cortez, and many others-sign up today!

Five-Year Wellwood Restoration Assessment Completed

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The M/V Wellwood aground on Molasses Reef. Photo courtesy of the FKNMS.
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A REEF diver conducts an RDT survey at the Restoration Site in October 2002, with several restoration modules in view.
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Location map showing areas of fish monitoring effort.
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Transplanted specimens of Sstaghorn coral on one of the restoration modules (colonies were transplanted in 2004, photo taken August 2007). Photo by Ken Nedimyer.
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Wellwood AAT Team, Summer 2007

REEF has just completed our final assessment report for our five-year Wellwood Restoration Site monitoring project. Before I share some results from our study, let me give you a little background information and please visit our website to view our full report http://www.reef.org/programs/monitoring/wellwood. The M/V Wellwood, a 122-meter Cypriot-registered freighter, ran aground on August 4, 1984, on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The ship impacted the reef’s upper fore reef and subsequently remained aground for 12 days. The grounding destroyed 1,285 square meters of living coral reef and injured 644 square meters of coral reef framework. Prior to the grounding, the area was a transition zone with high relief coral formations. The grounding transformed the area into a flattened, barren pavement covered with coral rubble. 

The study area of this project included a portion of the grounding area that is being restored and two adjacent reference sites. The Restoration site surveyed included restoration modules and contiguous low profile hardbottom areas adjacent to and in between the restoration modules. Nearby high profile reef, ledges, and undamaged/unrestored reef were not included as part of the Restoration Site. A north and south undamaged reef area were both used as two control sites to compare fish sighting data between the Restoration area and the natural (control) reefs.

REEF’s study focused on fish assemblages and not the coral and invertebrate communities. A team of Advanced Assessment Team REEF Experts conducted Roving Diver Technique (RDT) surveys in addition to belt transect surveys on the Wellwood restoration site and two adjacent natural reef sites seven times during Year 1. The team visited the sites once prior to restoration (May 2002) and 13 times after restoration was completed, monthly for the first three months, quarterly for the following year and semi-annually thereafter. An average of 12 surveys of each survey type was conducted during each survey effort. While REEF surveyors used the RDT surveys to collect sighting frequency and abundance data on fishes over all three reef areas, the belt-transect method was used to collect density and biomass data on fish taxa. These two methods used together give us a snapshot of how the restoration site is recovering in terms of fish assemblages as compared to the two non-impacted, adjacent reef areas.

Obviously, the most notable observation a diver makes when diving on the Restoration site is one of just how long it takes coral reefs to recover after devastating ship impacts. The Restoration site shows little resemblance to the surrounding non-impacted reef sites. The areas surrounding the Restoration site are high relief reef areas dominated by reef building corals with some very old colonies of Star coral (Monastrea annularis) and Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), old to the tune of thousands, not hundreds of years old. Age is important here since it takes a long time for coral colonies to rebuild structure and relief that attract different fishes over time. The smaller overall fish populations and absence of many species of fish on the damaged site are both conspicuous and the lack of coral structure makes it easy to destinguish the Restoration area from the surrounding reefs even 23 years after the initial ship grounding. However, there are signs that fishes are very slowly recruiting onto the Restoration site.

During the monitoring period (2002 - 2007), a total of 165 species were recorded at the Restoration site, 189 species at the North reference site and 207 species at the South reference site. The Restoration site recovery is clearly aided by the addition of restoration modules (2002), increasing the amount of available habitat suitable for reef fish communities, think vertical habitat here, and recessed areas underneath these modules for fish to shelter. At the Wellwood grounding site, the overall fish diversity as well as density and biomass of most key fish families continue to be less than that of the two nearby, non-impacted reefs that were selected as monitoring reference sites. Parrotfish and surgeonfish appear to be responding the quickest to the restoration efforts, grazing along a recovering hard coral landscape currently dominated by soft corals (Gorgonians). Nearly absent today on the damaged area are sightings of grunts and snappers, both of which are seen in high frequency and abundance on surrounding reef sites with plenty of relief for them to take cover. Residency of fish, movement patterns and habitat usage are all important indicators of reef recovery. So are linking coral, invertebrate, and fish studies to see a more complete picture of how the Restoration site is improving. There are signs outside of the slowly improving trends the data show such as a little Redspotted hawkfish that has taken residence on one of the modules with lots of Ken's Staghorn coral affixed.

Many more studies are necessary to properly evaluate recovery dynamics for reefs and since most reef recoveries worldwide are hampered by other anthropogenic impacts such as overfishing, excessive nutrient loading from human pollutants, and global warming stresses, these case studies are critically important in developing mitigation strategies for damaged reefs. For the full report on our Wellwood findings, please visit our website http://www.reef.org/programs/monitoring/wellwood. REEF would like to thank the many individual REEF members who dived on this project over the past 5 years, as well as Quiesscence Dive Shop in Key Largo for dive support, and Ken Nedimyer for photos and his ongoing coral replenishment work. And finally, our thanks to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for contracting REEF for this project. We hope that this work will continue in order to monitor the long term changes in fish assemblages on the Restoration site.

 

REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures and Previews 2009 Field Survey Season

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REEF Partners with Caradonna Dive Adventures
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Kayla Serotte Conducting REEF Survey
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Linda Schillinger Surveying in Turks and Caicos Islands
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Joe Cavanaugh Surveying Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

REEF is happy to announce our new partnership with Caradonna Dive Adventures as our travel provider, beginning with our 2009 Field Survey Season.  As many of you already know, Caradonna brings years of dive travel acumen and great vendor partnerships, both of which will undoubtedly assist REEF in making our Field Survey Program once again our signature Citizen Science program.  

After all, it is each of you that make all that REEF does in and out of the water possible.  We are closing in on 120,000 Fish Surveys in our world-renowned fish sightings database.  Christy Semmens (REEF Director of Science) and I individually review all of the 1,000 plus surveys entered into the database every month.  We know all of you by name but it is only on our Field Programs that REEF Staff and Board members have the opportunity to put the names to the faces and share the fish surveying exhilaration with you. 

Many of you who use dive travel services have probably used Caradonna in the past and know how good they are at setting up exhilarating dive trips. With Caradonna, you'll almost have a third dive buddy right there with you, wherever you might be! We are previewing our 2009 Season (below) and will be posting additional details and more trips to the website in the coming weeks.   Doris Pfister at Caradonna will serve as our REEF liaison. Doris and I have worked hard these past couple of months to coordinate this exciting schedule.

So without further ado, a preview -

2009 Field Survey Schedule Preview

  • St. Lucia - February 21-28, 2009 with Anse Chastanet Resort, 12-dive all-inclusive package, led by Lisa Mitchell, REEF Executive Director
  • Grenada - July 11-18, 2009 aboard Peter Hughes Wind Dancer, led by Paul Humann
  • St. Croix May 9-16, 2009, with Cane Bay Dive Shop and Carambola Resorts
  • Curacao - October 17-24, 2009 with Sunset Waters Beach Resort
  • Cozumel - December 5-12, 2009 with Aqua Safari and Safari Inn, led by Sheryl Shea

Additional destinations that we are working on include St. Vincent, Maui (Hawaii), Bermuda with Ned DeLoach, and Cancun.  Stay tuned to the REEF Trips webpage.

For all bookings, please contact Doris Pfister, our REEF Dedicated Sales Consultant at REEF@caradonna.com or by phone at 1-877-295-REEF(7333). Details and more trips will be added in the next few weeks and months, so please check the REEF Trips webpage often.

Have you ever wondered how trip locations are decided?  There is a suite of considerations for Field Survey locations, including REEF data needs, diving and tourist infrastructure, costs (evermore important with rising travel costs), partnership and outreach opportunities, fish abundance and diversity, invasive species, educational value, resource management needs, and yes, fun too!  In 2009, REEF staff are planning improvements to our Field Survey program including increased capacity building while the REEF group is onsite and after the trip is over, and increasing the opportunities for resource managers to partner with REEF and utilize the valuable data you collect.  By fostering regional capacity building efforts wherein local stakeholders begin to carry the surveying efforts beyond single events, there is increased likelihood these data will be used for ongoing management decisions. 

120,000! And Counting

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A REEF surveyor records a school of grunts. Photo by Paul Humann.
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REEF volunteer, Dana Haggarty, reviews her data after a survey dive in Monterey Bay.
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REEF data have been used in the stock assessment of Goliath grouper. Photo by Paul Humann.

REEF eclipsed a milestone this week when the REEF Volunteer Survey Project Database passed the 120,000 survey mark.  This represents over 150,000 hours of underwater survey time from our volunteers.  The achievement comes almost 15 years to the day when the first REEF fish survey was conducted off Key Largo, Florida, on July 17, 1993.  Today, the program is going strong throughout the coastal areas of North and Central America, the Caribbean, Bahamas, Galapagos Islands and Hawaii. In the tropical western Atlantic region alone, 96,469 surveys have been conducted at 6,085 sites and 795 fish species have been recorded.  Of course, improving your marine life identification skills, building your lifelist of sighted species, and conducting surveys are a lot of fun.  But have you ever wondered what good are all of these data?  

Volunteer data collection, or citizen science, provides a valuable alternative for scientists and resource agencies needing information but lacking sufficient resources to gather it. In addition, involvement in data collection leads to greater awareness about marine resources and creates a stewardship ethic among key user groups.

In addition to providing data summaries on the REEF Website, REEF staff provide raw data to scientists and resource agencies.  REEF data have been used in the development of stock assessments (Kingsley 2004), in the evaluation of trends of fish species (Semmens et al. 2000), to measure the effect of marine protected areas on kelp forest fish communities (Semmens et al. in prep) and coral reefs (REEF 2003), as an indicator of population pressure on natural resources (Burke and Maidens 2004), to evaluate interactions between species and species-habitat relationships (Auster et al. 2005), to asses the effect of restoration efforts in areas of damaged reef (REEF 2008), and to asses the status of a group of reef fish species that is experiencing significant declines (Ward-Paige et al., in prep A and B).  REEF volunteers have been instrumental in the identification and removal of exotic species (Semmens et al. 2004), in the identification of new species (Taylor and Akins 2007; Weaver and Rocha 2007) and morphological variants of known species (Pattengill-Semmens 1999), and in the documentation of previously unrecorded range extensions (M. Taylor and J. Van Tassel, Pers. Comm.). PDFs of most of these articles and a full listing of scientific papers and reports that have used REEF data are included in the Publications section of the REEF Website.

REEF extends a big thank you to the 10,000+ volunteers who have contributed to this database over the years and we are looking forward to the next 120,000 surveys!  Be sure to visit the Top 10 Stats page to see a quick rundown  of REEF survey activity.  You can also explore the data more in-depth by visiting the Database section of the REEF.org Website.

Peter Hughes Belize Lionfish Invasion Trip

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The upcoming Peter Hughes Belize Lionfish awareness/outreach trip turns to lionfish research/removal after the first lionfish was discovered in Central American waters. Join REEF aboard the Sun Dancer II from June 13-20 for this exciting and fun diving adventures. Following eye opening presentations by REEF staff and partners at the recent DEMA dive show in October, long-time supporter Peter Hughes took on a new mission - to support REEF's efforts in addressing the lionfish invasion in the Caribbean. With his world-renowned fleet of liveaboard dive vessels and concern for the marine environment, Peter became an instant supporter after hearing details of the invasion. In stepping up to the plate, he offered his Belize-based liveaboard, Sun Dancer II, as a platform to raise funds and increase awareness of the issue during a June 13-20 expedition. Little did he know that within 2 short months, lionfish would actually show up in Belize in advance of our planned project.

Sun Dancer II instructors, leading a group of divers on Turneffe Reef, spotted a juvenile lionfish on December 11, 2008. Subsequent dives provided images verifying the sighting and Sun Dancer Captain Ryan Barnett, who had previously worked with REEF during Bahamas lionfish projects, put the early warning system into action through his report to REEF HQ. While the fish has yet to be recovered, Sun Dancer staff now have divers on the lookout and are stocking the vessel with collecting supplies.

While the fundraising efforts of the June project remain, the focus of the June project has now shifted to include more detailed data gathering and collection of any lionfish specimens found. Additional workshops are being organized with Belizean authorities to assist in development and implementation of their lionfish response plan. For those interested in joining the June 13-20 project aboard the Sun Dancer, please view the project webpage or contact Peter Hughes Diving directly at (800) 9-DANCER.  For more information on the lionfish issue and to support REEF's efforts, go to www.reef.org/lionfish or contact Lad Akins (Lad@REEF.org) (305) 852-0030.

Exciting Schedule of REEF Trips Planned For 2010

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REEF Field Survey Participants at the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman in 2006.
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REEF trip participants enjoy hanging out and diving with like-minded individuals, while learning more about ocean life.

We are excited to announce a great line-up of destinations for REEF's 2010 Field Survey Travel Schedule. These fun and educational eco-dive trips are part of REEF's Volunteer Survey Project and they are the perfect way to "Make a Dive That Counts". The week-long trips are a great introduction to fish identification for novice fishwatchers, and a fun way for experienced surveyors to build their life list while interacting with fellow fishwatchers. Trips are led by REEF staff and other REEF instructors and feature daily classroom seminars and a full diving schedule. We are featuring several new destinations, including the northern Baja Peninsula and Roatan, as well as returning to some of our member's favorites like Dominica and Grand Cayman. Several specialty trips are also being offered in 2010, including invasive lionfish research projects and reef fish behavior tours.

REEF Trip Schedule 2010 -- Prices, package details and more available soon.

  • Dominica with Dive Dominica and Ft. Young Hotel -- April 17-24, 2010. Led by Heather George.
  • Belize with Sun Dancer II Liveaboard -- May 1-8, 2010. Lionfish Research Expedition, Led by Lad Akins and Peter Hughes.
  • Bahamas with Aqua Cat Liveaboard -- June 12-19, 2010. Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach.
  • Roatan with Turquoise Bay Resort -- July 17-24, 2010. Led by Paul Humann.
  • Cozumel with Aqua Safari and Safari Inn -- August 14-21, 2010. Led by Sheryl Shea.
  • Key Largo with Amoray Dive Center -- August 26 - September 2, 2010. Sea Critter Seminar, Led by Ned and Anna DeLoach.
  • Bonaire with Buddy Dive Resort -- September 26 - October 2, 2010. Field Survey and Coral Spawning Expedition, Led by Jessie Armacost.
  • Sea of Cortez/Baja Mexico with Rocio del Mar Liveaboard -- October 9-16, 2010. Led by Drs. Christy and Brice Semmens.
  • Grand Cayman with Dive Tech and Colbalt Coast -- November 6-13, 2010. Led by Lad Akins.
  • To inquire about a trip and to book your space, please contact our REEF Dedicated Sales Consultant at REEF@caradonna.com or by phone at 1-877-295-REEF(7333). Additional details will be added to the REEF Trips webpage soon, so check back often. Book early, trips often fill up!

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