The Faces of REEF: Alex Brett

Alex braving the snow to go diving!
The lovable Lumpfish. Photo by Jason Feick.

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 Alex Brett, a REEF member since 2014. Since joining last year, Alex has conducted 27 surveys, almost all in the Northeast (NE) region. Here's what he had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF?

I first heard about REEF at Boston Sea Rovers during a presentation where the invertebrate monitoring program was being unveiled for the New England area. I had been involved in a lot of benthic invertebrate survey work in college, so the idea of adding science to my normal dives was particularly appealing.

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

I feel that the REEF programs are valuable for two equally important reasons. First off, the data that are produced are invaluable for understanding trends in ocean ecosystems. Recreational volunteer divers can collect far more data than most researchers could hope to achieve. Second, I believe that citizen science programs like REEF are invaluable because of how they engage people in marine science. By inspiring divers to become involved in marine science, REEF helps people form a stronger connection to the ocean and makes them more likely to speak up and take action on marine environmental issues.

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

I live on the coast of Maine, and I dive there year-round. I’ve dove many places around the world and it’s still one of my favorite areas to dive. The rugged rocky coast makes for some wonderfully dramatic topography underwater and our high tidal currents bring an awesome diversity of invertebrate life. One of my favorite places to dive in Maine is a spot, about 20 miles offshore, called Mount Desert Rock. The visibility is usually spectacular and a breeding colony of grey seals make for some entertaining dive companions.

What is your favorite fish or marine invertebrate?

Too many possibilities! I definitely can’t pick just one. I love all nudibranchs, particularly those in the genus Flabellina, like the Red-gilled Nudibranch. Lumpfish (Cyclopterus lumpus) are also pretty incredible, with their goofy face and fins modified into a suction disc.

Is there a fish or marine invertebrate you haven’t seen yet diving, but would like to?

I would love to see an Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) while diving. I’ve seen them at the surface many times, but they are such a unique critter I can’t quite imagine encountering one underwater. One of the things I love about diving is that you never quite know what you’re going to run into while you’re out there.

REEF's 2016 Lionfish Derby Series

REEF is continuing to lead the charge on combating invasive lionfish! The 2016 Lionfish Derby Series is just around the corner and it’s going to be bigger than ever.

For those who are not familiar with REEF’s Lionfish Derbies, they are competitions where divers and snorkelers compete to bring in the most lionfish in a single day. There are cash prizes for the teams who land the most lionfish, the largest lionfish and the smallest. REEF hosted the first Lionfish Derby in 2009, making this our 8th year of derbies. Last year over 1,000 lionfish were brought in as part of the series and over 16 thousand lionfish have been removed by participants since the first derby in 2009.

The annual derbies are planned in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Key Largo. This year, we are excited to be adding a fourth derby to the series in Sarasota, partnering with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and ZooKeeper LLC.

To learn more about lionfish, visit, and to see all the details and register for the Derby Series, visit We also have a REEF Sanctioned Derby program in which REEF helps others organize and conduct safe and effective derbies by providing tools, templates and promotion. Find out more at

Putting It To Work: New Study Documents Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease

A healthy Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important predator in the kelp forests of the US and Canadian west coast. Photo by Janna Nichols.
A Sunflower Sea Star that has succumbed to wasting disease. Photo by Janna Nichols.
Green Sea Urchin populations have increased in areas where Sunflower Sea Stars have declined. Photo by Janna Nichols.

Sea star wasting disease has devastated sea star populations on the West coast from Mexico to Alaska. The disease broke out in 2013, causing massive death of several species of sea stars. Infected animals develop lesions that eat away tissue, with limbs dropping off as the animals die. The disease has been linked to a virus, although environmental factors may also be involved.

A new study, published last week in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE, presents an analysis of REEF survey data on several asteroid species collected by divers in the Salish Sea over the last 10 years. The Salish Sea is a Canadian / United States transboundary marine ecosystem, and world-wide hotspot for temperate asteroid species diversity with a high degree of endemism.

The results showed that some species were hit hard, while others increased in number. Populations of Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an important keystone predator in the region, dropped dramatically after the beginning of the epidemic. Several other sea star species, including the Spiny Pink Star (Pisaster brevispinus) also declined. Numbers of the less-common Leather Star (Dermasterias imbricata) and two species of sea urchin, which are prey for sea stars, increased after 2013.

The virus outbreak continues, and will have lasting effects on the ecosystem. Sunflower Sea Stars have effectively disappeared from the Salish Sea, the study concludes. Likely as a result, numbers of urchins have increased, which in turn will lead to more browsing on kelp. As a result, study co-author, Dr. Joe Gaydos, and his colleagues are currently in discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service to get the Sunflower Sea Star listed as a “species of concern.”

The paper, titled "Devastating Transboundary Impacts of Sea Star Wasting Disease on Subtidal Asteroids", is available online here. Another study published earlier this year in the journal, PeerJ, used the REEF data to evaluate the potential trophic impacts of the seastar decline, as seen in the increase in sea urchins. That paper is availble here. View the entire list of all scientific publications that have included REEF data and projects at

The Faces of REEF: Dennis Bensen

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 Dennis Bensen, member since 2001. Dennis has conducted just over 600 surveys, and is active in several of REEF's surveying regions, including his now home of Hawaii, the western tropical Pacific, and the Tropical Western Atlantic. He is also one of our most active REEF Trip participants, having been on 19 Field Surveys (so far, with more to come!). Here's what Dennis had to say about REEF:

How did you first hear about REEF? I learned to dive when I was 47 years old in 1997. Soon afterward I knew I would pursue the PADI master diver certification. In doing so one needs five specialty courses and one of them that I choose was fish ID. I took it in Bonaire and I was taught by an American marine biologist dive master, who being pregnant at the time, could only snorkel. After a slide show on fish ID we went on a snorkel. She pointed to the fish and I dove down for closer look then back up to her to give her my answer. For the second dive she gave me paper to use. After we finished the second dive she told me we could submit the results to REEF. I didn't feel ready. After that trip I went home with the REEF packet, read up on the organization, and signed up for my first REEF field survey taught by Paul Human in Puerto Rico. And that was it, I never looked back. I actually feel like I am missing something when I dive and do not survey.

Have you been on a REEF survey trip, what was your trip highlight? I could fill up a book with the answer to this one. To date, I have been on 19 REEF Field Survey Trips! Most of them in either Cozumel or Hawaii, where I now live. My most recent REEF Trip was on the Palau Aggressor. This trip was a real eye opener! The Central Indo Pacific region has a huge numbers of species. The ID paper is three times the size what we use here in Hawaii. You are busy, busy, busy from the minute you enter the water. There are fish in this region that are also in Hawaii, but nowhere near the majority of what there is to see, so you are learning, learning, learning. I owe a lot to my dive buddy Pam Wade, and trip leader Christy Semmens, who taught me a lot.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member? This is an easy one. It is the people – whether they are Board members or office staff and volunteers or divers on Field Survey Trips. I have done surveys with many of the Board members and original members of the staff: Lad, Paul, Ned and Anna, Christy and Brice, and Janet (Camp) as well as staff Jane, Nancy, Amy, and Janna. I miss not working the REEF booth at “Beneath the Sea” with Martha or Lad (before moving to Hawaii I lived in New York). Beyond this, there is a host of divers too numerous to mention that have taught me so much and with whom I share a love of diving and recording the fish we see on those dives. Not to mention all those great trip farewell dinners.

In you opinion, what is the most important aspect of REEF’s projects and programs? The data that is collected, the integrity of that data, and the usefulness and research that this data will be used in. It is my own small way of giving back to the preservation and conservation of the oceans we dive in. Diving is such a huge part of my enjoyment of life and to think I can give something back, however small that might be, is very fulfilling and satisfying to me.

Do I dive close to where I live and what is the best part of diving there? As I said I now live in Hawaii. I moved here about 2 years ago to the Big Island of Hawaii, mainly because the best diving in the state is on the west coast of the big island. Honokohau harbor is only 10 minutes from my house and I try to dive out of that marina at least once per month, but I prefer to dive up north on the Kohala Coast. The Kohala Divers dive shop up there often runs a one tank afternoon dive. This is perfect for me. I do not need to get up early, I am, after all, in retirement. And with only one tank I am not too tired afterward. The dive finishes near dinner time so I often stop in Waiklloa and have dinner and a glass of wine at one of the fancy restaurants.

But besides that, and this is true of all diving in Hawaii, I can do it almost any day I want year round, something I for obvious reason did not do while living on Long Island, NY. On average, 25% of all fish here in our state are found only in Hawaii. And grey whale are around in the winter. The whales can be seen on all islands but the Kohala Coast of the big island and the South Shore of Maui form a bottle neck through which the whales must pass to move southward, often allowing for greater sightings and definitely more soundings (hearing them under water, always a thrill for me). I’d like to think of this as my own little corner of the worldwide oceans where my data will have an impact.

Plan Your 2018 Field Survey Trip

Don't miss out - book your 2018 REEF Trip space today.
Dive the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba.
Explore the oceans and mountains of Costa Rica.

Are you a diver or snorkeler looking to make a difference in the health of our oceans? If you haven't already, we hope you will make plans to join us on a REEF Trip in 2018. We have a great lineup of trips and a few spaces remain. You will participate in our citizen science programs, dive with like-minded individuals, and learn about the marine life around you. The full 2018 schedule is online (and keep an eye out for the 2019 schedule to be released this spring).

Here are 2018 trips that still have space:

Grenada, May 12-19, 2018 - More details

Bahamas Lionfish Research Trip, May 26 - June 2, 2018 - More details

Key Largo for REEF's 25th Anniversary, June 23-30, 2018 - More details

Costa Rica Land and Sea Eco-tour, July 14-21, 2018 - More details

Belize Research Expedition, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

Cuba Gardens of the Queen, August 18-25, 2018 - More details

St. Lucia, September 23-30, 2018 - More details

Eastern Caribbean, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

Cozumel, December 1-8, 2018 - More details

We maintain wait lists for full trips, so be sure to let us know if your desired destination is full. 2018 Trips that are already full: Hawaii, Thailand, Fiji, Brazil, Philippines, Cayman Brac, and Maldives.

REEF Lionfish Expeditions Lead to New Information

Pterois volitans AKA lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo
August Blackbeard's Lionfish Project.
Hesperis dissection by Everton Joseph (College of the Bahamas), Tim Schwab (Nassau Guardian) and Marcian Tucker (College of the Bahamas)
Juvenile lionfish. Photo by Tom DeMayo

Working with leading scientists, REEF's lionfish field work is paying off in valuable information needed to address this key issue. Information from the five Bahamas projects conducted thus far this year is being used to help determine the range and extent of the lionfish invasion, as well as to address key questions on age/ growth, reproduction, genetics, parasites and habitat preference.

To date, more than 400 fish have been collected and shipped to the NOAA research lab in Beaufort NC and more than 500 sightings have been documented in the Bahamas. Data on length, plumage and stomach content have been gathered in the field, and samples for genetics and age/growth studies have been shipped to researchers.  REEF has worked in close partnership with the College of the Bahamas, researchers at UNCW, and Salisbury University, and local dive operators Bruce Purdy and Stuart Cove in gathering and analyzing the data.

Interesting data to date include:

  • Average size:188mm
  • Most species: Pterois volitans (though there are some Pterois miles present also)
  • Stomach content: about 70 % fish and 30 % crustacean with the most prevalent prey families including basslets, gobies and shrimp. Also found in stomachs: whole crab, whole sand diver, jawfish with eggs still in its mouth, and juvenile grouper (including Nassau)
  • Genetics: It appears that there were at least 11 females involved in the original founding population. This number is up from previous indications of four fish.
  • Reproduction: Fish are reproducing year-round with age at reproduction as young as 1-2 years.
  • Habitat preference: Lionfish have been found in almost all habitat types including artificial sites, canals, deep reefs, shallow reefs, small ledges and sand bottom.
  • Parasites: Compared to native fish, lionfish have almost no parasites, leaving more energy and time for growth and reproduction.
  • Growth: Lionfish appear to grow faster than similar sized native fish species like the graysby and the red hind.

REEF to Host "For the Love of the Sea" Benefit Dinner and Auction

cropped diver.jpg

On Saturday, February 9, REEF will host an ocean-themed dinner and auction at Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort to raise awareness about REEF in the Florida Keys community and help conserve local coral reef ecosystems. Underwater photographers Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach will present new images of sea life taken on their worldwide dive travels. A silent and live auction will offer prizes from local businesses and travel to destinations including Bonaire and Papua New Guinea. Tickets are $75 each and include buffet dinner, open bar and dancing.

For more information, including how to purchase tickets, become an event sponsor or donate auction items, please visit If you are in the area, please join REEF for this unique opportunity to celebrate the Valentines season and kick off 2008 as the International Year of the Reef.


REEF Survey Tips

Joe Cavanaugh searching wall for Cave Basslets
Check for the Witness Protection Program Fish, here - the Yellowtail amongst Horse-Eyes
Look closely at sharksuckers, 3 species seen on this one Nurse Shark
Look for Exotics amongst the native species, here a Red Lionfish
turtle survey.jpg
Report your Sea Turtle sightings on survey - linked to
Surveyors conferring on a sighting ID
Large sponge "smoking," releasing gametes

Once again, it is that time of year when many of you are getting out on the water and conducting REEF Fish Surveys.  I have put together a few bullet points based on my experiences surveying with members and answering questions on techniques and things to watch out for when filling out your data sheets. Here are a few tips:


  • Roving Diver Surveys mean you are not restricted to a transect line while surveying and you can roam about within 100m of dive boat, mooring buoy, or shore during your survey, drift dives count, of course, and often cover a larger area. The area surveyed does not correlate to your fish sightings, in terms of sighting frequency and abundances, but rather,  your time surveying is directly correlated to your sightings data.  This is why it is important to fill in the time box on your scanform or on the dataentry page to reflect the time you actually spend surveying, not your total dive time.  If you spend 5 minutes prepping to survey and you stop surveying on your safety stop, for instance, than your survey time will not equal your total dive time.  Also, as you get better at identifying your fish, try and spend more time looking and searching for fish, and less time looking at your survey slate.
  • Set up your slate so that it is easy to get to but not necessarily in your hand throughout your dive.  I clip mine with a retractable clip to my BCD and use surgical tubing to hold a graphite pencil, the kind artists use.  You can get these at any art supply store and you'll get hundreds of surveys from one pencil providing someone doesn't smoosh it with their dive cylynder!  I typically census every couple of minutes or when I see something unique that I don't want to forget.  I periodically update my survey so that I really don't have much to add at the end of the dive and I can go through and make revisions while the dive is fresh in my mind.  I write in code such as LU (look up) for any fish I need to consult a book about later in the day.  I also carry a magnifying glass and a small flashlight to search under ledges and inside sponges for peppermint basslets and sponge cardinalfishes, for instance.


  • Use your time wisely when diving deeper profiles on wall dives.  As your dive profile changes depending on the site, you can adjust your survey strategy accordingly, to maximize your survey time and the scope of what you see.  For wall dives, I personally keep navigation simple, pick an unusual coral head or sponge and mark it in your mind and take a compass heading back to the boat.  Make your descent but while you do, search for the type of habitat you are likely to find the fish you are looking for.  On a recent trip to Turks I found that at around 100' depth, the Fairy basslets transitioned into Blackcap basslets, at this imaginary line I was likely to find some Cave basslets, or three-line basslets.   Then, knowing the dimensions of the cave openings they prefer, you can be choosy about which hiding spots you want to check out.  Checking the deeper tube sponges had rewards too in not just finding Sponge cardinals, but also Black brotulas (two for the trip).


  • Decide how much time you want to search for different species or families ahead of time.  Mike Phelan found with statistical analysis of his personal surveys that he would find 90% of his species in the first 10 minutes of his survey effort on coral reef dives.  If you have the luxury of diving a site twice, you can more easily survey the big picture and concentrate on finding cryptic species such as triplefins and other blennies and gobies on the second dive. Or you can focus on abundances for some of those cryptics, seeing how many of one species you can find, increasing Secretary blennies from Few on your first dive to Many on your second dive at the same site.


  • Can I count a fish I did not see in the water? The answer is no but here are a couple of examples where I or others have surveyed fish in an atypical manner.  Recently, on our Turks Field Survey, I was climbing onto the boat after a night dive when a flyingfish leapt from the water, bouncing off my knee onto the boat deck.  I picked him up, identified him as a Mirrorwing flyingfish and threw him back in the water.  Did I add him to my survey?  Yes, since he was in the water with me during the time of my dive and he was a new survey species for me.  I also added a Tripletail to a survey I did last year as I was gearing up on the boat, I saw this Tripletail and snorkeled over to it just before starting my dive.  One other quick example came two years ago with our Biscayne Bay AAT project where the group saw a Whale Shark but not on the survey site itself.  Some people filled out a species-only survey for this sighting as it was a first for many and a fortuitous sighting as the first time Biscayne Park recorded the species.  We created a dive site based on the coordinates.  But in general, you can only survey what you are seeing at the time you are actively engaged in your survey.  Feel free to email me at with questions about this or any other questions you might have about surveying techniques.


  • Share what you're seeing with other divers, especially your buddy.  Surveying is not a competition and its good practice to corroborate your unusual and cryptic sightings with other divers, share your findings with them in the water when you can. This really becomes important when you are with a REEF group and you are trying to get the "lay of the land," sort of speak.  Are those Dusky Damselfish I'm seeing everywhere?  And are those Secretary or Roughhead blennies I'm seeing.  How do I find a Candy basslet, people keep seeing them, can you show me?"  Ask questions of your fellow surveyors and take advantage of the unique fish identification and fish finding akumen others have; I sure do on AAT projects.  And lastly, feel free to take notes on interesting events such as coral and sponge spawning, rarely seen or odd behaviors of fish, etc.  You can post these on one of our REEF forums accessible from our homepage. Photos for this article, courtesy Aggressor II, Turks and Caicos.

REEF News Tidbits for August

REEF Hats!  Just Added to the REEF Store.  Check them out and get yours today.

The 2009 Field Survey Schedule has been updated with several new trips, including a second trip to Cozumel this December and Bermuda with Ned and Anna DeLoach in October 2009.

- REEF researchers and collaborators have been busy in the field this month on the Grouper Moon Project.  Watch for an update in next month's REEF-in-Brief.

- REEF's Lionfish Research was featured on the National Geographic News earlier this week.  This follows extensive coverage by the Associated Press earlier this month.  Also this month, Anna DeLoach produced this 5 minute video for Scuba Diving Magazine that looks at the the recent lionfish population explosion, the reasons lionfish are the perfect invader, how they got to the wrong sea, what REEF is doing about it, and how divers can help. Watch this informative video here. Read more about this project in this recent press release

REEF Fish and Friends Lecture Series

The invasive lionfish will be the topic of next month's Fish and Friends lecture, April 14th. Photo by Ned DeLoach.
REEF Executive Director, Lisa Mitchell, introduces Paul Humann, at the first Fish and Friends lecture in March.
Capt. Joanie Follmer and REEF Volunteers Jane Bixby, Nancy Perez and Julie Schneeberger attended Paul's Fish and Friends lecture earlier this month.

REEF has been around for over 15 years and we felt it was time to give back to the community that has housed and supported us since REEF’s inception. So we came up with REEF Fish & Friends, a monthly meeting/seminar in Key Largo that gathers snorkelers, divers and armchair naturalists to learn more about fish and have some fun. Our first REEF Fish & Friends was held March 10 at the James E. Lockwood REEF Headquarters. Paul Humann, the opening night speaker, shared the history of REEF and highlighted milestones over the last decade and half.

Paul visited with guests and signed books and then spoke for about an hour. The room was packed and people were even standing in the hall to listen. As most of you know, Paul is the consummate story teller and we had some laughs, learned some new things about REEF and got to hear firsthand how the organization came to be.

REEF Fish & Friends will be held the second Tuesday of each month from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM at the James E. Lockwood REEF Headquarters at MM 98.3 Key Largo. We invite everyone to stop in and share some food, drink, good conversation and hear a relevant topic about REEF’s projects or a mini fish ID seminar. We are planning a line-up of interesting guest speakers as well as REEF staff in the coming months.

In conjunction with the lecture series, we will also be working with local dive operators to arrange a monthly REEF survey dive/snorkel trip. No experience necessary. REEF Fish & Friends is all about learning how to survey and teaching others – its fun, easy and you will reap immediate results – making a dive that counts.

Upcoming Fish & Friends -- On Tuesday April 14, Lad Akins, REEF’s Director of Special Projects and the recognized lionfish expert, will present Born in the Wrong Sea – a presentation about the invasion of the Pacific lionfish in Atlantic and Caribbean waters. He will present the latest information on sightings and the important marine conservation work that REEF is doing to manage this huge environmental problem.

Tuesday May 12, Lad will return to present Parrotfish and Wrasse. This will be a shortened version of the presentations that are done on REEF Field Surveys. Even if you think you know your Parrotfish and Wrasse come and listen as Lad presents ID techniques, habitat and behavior. These hermaphrodites are fascinating and are sure to provide fodder for an interesting presentation.

Keep an eye on our REEF Fish and Friends webpage ( as we post info about presentations, trips, photos and more. So see you Tuesday April 14 at the James E Lockwood REEF House, MM 98.3 from 6 PM to 7:30 PM.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub