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.

Join REEF in Palau and Yap this Fall

Join REEF's Director of Science, Dr. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, aboard the Palau Aggressor II in October.
Hundreds of islands await us in Micronesia.

We kicked off our 2016 REEF Trip schedule this month with two great trips - a Lionfish Research Expedition in Dominica and a Field Survey Trip to Barbados. And those are just the beginning. We have a great lineup of destinations for 2016 and we recently announced several exciting destinations for 2017, including the Galapagos and the Solomon Islands. The complete 2017 schedule will be released next month. For complete details and schedule of REEF Trips, visit www.REEF.org/trips.

One of the new exciting destinations for 2016 is Micronesia in October, exploring land and sea in Palau and Yap at Manta Ray Bay Resort and the Palau Aggressor II Liveaboard. Four spaces are left so don't delay in making your plans. This exciting 12-day adventure, October 4-16, begins land-based at the world-renowned Manta Ray Bay Resort in Yap, featuring three days of diving Yap's rich coral walls, channels, and lagoon sites, all while observing creatures including manta rays, reef sharks, and maybe even mating mandarinfish. After diving Yap, recharge with a night at the Palau Royal Resort. Then the excursion continues with a 7-night charter aboard the Palau Aggressor II, with the opportunity for up to 5 dives exploring the rich tropical waters. Surveyors can look forward to discovering Napoleon wrasses, titan triggerfish, crocodile fish, and many different species of gobies tucked among an abundance of hard and soft corals. Participants will also have the unique chance to snorkel Palau's Jellyfish Lake and then dive the Chandelier Caves. Visit the trip page for all the details.

Unusual Fish Sightings from our Members

Chile Roberts with batfish. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks.Chile Roberts with batfish. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks. Batfish sighting in Bonaire. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks.Batfish sighting in Bonaire. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks. Pipefish sighting in Bonaire. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks.Pipefish sighting in Bonaire. Photo courtesy of Todd Fulks.

Thanks for some REEF HQ Assistance

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Jessica error checking scanforms
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Dog Snapper Eating Trumpetfish, See REEF Forum for more, Photo by Jessica Morris
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Red-tipped Sea Goddess, by Jessica Morris
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Octopus Eye, by Jessica Morris

As you can imagine, on any given day there is a lot that needs to get done at REEF HQ to keep all of our programs running. I want to take a moment to thank Jessica Morris for helping us out during October with miscellaneous,yet crucial tasks in the office.  Jessica is a local SCUBA instructor and is eager to help REEF and learn what we're all about.  She has already achieved her level 3 experience level and is ready to start surveying when she's not instructing. If any of our REEF members are down in the Key Largo area and in need of a SCUBA instructor or just want to dive with someone who is knowledgable about fish ID, you can reach Jessica at jessm82@hotmail.com.  She is also a budding photographer and took the pics of the Dog snapper eating the trumpetfish that is posted on our online forum page at http://www.reef.org/forum.  In the future, REEF hopes to provide opportunities for our members to assist us on various projects from their homes.  But for now, if you're in the area and want to help out, just let us know and/or stop into REEF HQ for a visit.  Meanwhile, we'll look for more surveys and great pics from Jessica this winter.

REEF Volunteers Honored for Their Service to the Florida Keys Community

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CFFK President Dianna Sutton, Audrey and Ken Smith and Leda Cunningham honor the Smiths' contributions to REEF and the Florida Keys community.

On Friday, February 1, the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys honored REEF HQ volunteers Audrey and Ken Smith at the 2008 Volunteer of the Year/Unsung Heroes Awards Luncheon in Key West, Florida. Ken and Audrey have been the backbone of REEF HQ in Key Largo for ten years. Their quiet, constant and cheerful help with the unglamorous tasks of building maintenance, data management and administrative work has consistently supported REEF in its mission to actively engage divers and snorkelers in marine conservation. The Ken (“Smitty”) and Audrey team focus on outdoor upkeep and office assistance respectively, contributing their sense of humor and selfless giving to the REEF family and making REEF HQ an inspiring place to work. REEF is grateful and honored to have the Smiths working at REEF HQ. If your travels bring you to the Keys, please drop by and say hi to these important members of the REEF team.

Two REEFers Survey the Galapagos Islands

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Whale Shark encounter
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True poetry in motion, squadron of Spotted Eagle Rays

My dive partner and I, both celebrating significant birthdays this year, decided to give ourselves the best gift of all, a dive trip to the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the world's largest, covers approximately 138,000 square kilometers (53,282 square miles). On May 8, 2008, supplied with Paul Humann's Galapagos Fish Identification book and REEF fish survey forms, we set off aboard the Aggressor II for an eleven-day adventure. Our itinerary included diving seven islands (among them Wolf and Darwin), as well as four land excursions, one of them a visit to the famed Darwin Research Station.  Fifty-three surveys later, we had identified well over a hundred species, will have to wait for the data report to know just how many species we surveyed. We were lucky enough to see four whale sharks, and an Ocean sunfish.  Appearing almost daily were schools of Hammerhead sharks, as well as Galapagos, White-tip, Silky and Reef sharks. Green turtles, three to four feet in diameter often accompanied us and allowed the divers to swim alongside them. In addition, Manta Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Mobula, Devil and Golden Cowrays, would suddenly appear from the deep blue below us. We had to be careful when holding onto the rocks in the strong currents not to grab onto one of the well-camouflaged Stone Scorpionfish. A special 110-feet deep dive was made to a cave to find three Red Lipped Batfish, thought to be endemic to the area. Schools of Bottlenose dolphins followed our boat and dove with us often, as did the playful Fur Sealions which would pull on the fins, swim circles around us and come right up to our masks to say “hello!” Flightless cormorants, penguins or marine iguanas would occasionally startle us when least expected under water. We were surprised by the abundances and larger sizes of several fish species. At times, it seemed like we were behind a moving curtain of fish.

Since both of us were fairly new to Pacific diving, we were thrilled even to watch commonly seen fish, such as King Angelfish, Leather Bass, Moorish Idols, Giant Damselfish, Barberfish, Burrito Grunts and the most common of all, the ubiquitous Pacific Creole Fish. The parrotfish and wrasses were also a treat to see; Blue-chins and Bicolor Parrotfish were common and the Harlequin Wrasses, with their distinctive bump on the forehead, seemed to compete for the award in the most original in “pattern and color” combination category. Even though Galapagos diving is best suited for large fish observation, it is also home to many smaller species, among them the endemic Galapagos Triplefin Blennies, Marbled Gobies and Galapagos Pike Blennies, as well as Blue-banded Gobies, Bravo Clinids. Nooks and crannies in the rock walls hid colorful seahorses and even a frogfish. Yellowfin tuna, while not abundant, were seen on many dives and averaged about 3-4 feet long. Unfortunately, their size and market value encourage illegal fishing, since they fetch a high price on some Pacific Rim markets. The land and sea environment of Galapagos is unique, consisting of volcanic islands of varying sizes; consequently, the ocean floor is made up of lava boulders with very little coral. Black coral (golden green in color) was found on some sites. Near shore, most islands had a good amount of green algae, a good source of food for the marine iguanas and green turtles. Galapagos diving is truly unique; its strong, converging currents bring abundant and rich nutrients, providing a perfect environment for the pelagics. We urge you to go see this wonder for yourselves!  The Galapagos Islands are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Located approximately 1,000 kilometres off the Ecuadorian coast, within the confluence of three ocean currents, most of the marine and terrestrial fauna is truly unique. Recent efforts at education and outreach to the Ecuadorian community are in direct response to increased illegal poaching within the Marine Reserve that has included shark finning, increased squatting from migrants from the mainland, and an increase in non-indigenous species. such as goats.   A recent response from the Ecuadorian Government has enacted a Special Law for protection of the Galapagos Islands.  This Special Law provides stricter control over immigration, a quarantine system for combating invasive species, extending the boundary of protection around the islands, limiting property rights and economic activity, and increased national funding for conservation and enforcement - all of which are needed to maintain this unique biosphere for our collective future.  Photo credits for this article -  Dusan Richtarik and Barbara Anderson

REEF Fish Academy

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Participants of the first ever REEF Fish Academy.

Where people get fish smarts! Over the weekend of October 12, six REEF Level 1 & 2 surveyors got a chance to become Level 3 Advanced surveyors and increase our fish smarts with Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach and Lad Akins. I personally became a REEF customer for this event and participated in the classroom, the fun, hanging out with Paul, Ned and Anna at the cookout, diving with Lad as he found new (for us) exciting additions to our life list and took the 100 Fish - Level 3 test (good thing I passed).

As part of the event, the first of its kind, we invited surveyors who had submitted 25 or more surveys but were still rated Introductory/Novice. Linda Crouse, Kelly Drinnen, Lureen Ferretti, Karen Hausheer and Dawn Vigo were the very fist participants in REEF Fish Academy. The weekend included classroom sessions, survey dives, and evening socials. Anna DeLoach shared REEF’s vision for this new training program with our participants, “We are looking to provide our enthusiastic REEF members with a way to share their passion and knowledge for Fish Watching. REEF Fish Academy is designed to tap into this enthusiasm and provide our members a way to become mentors for others, spreading the word about fish watching and surveying. REEF Fish Academy graduates are ready share the fun and excitement of fish ID and show people what fish surveying and contributing to REEF’s database is all about - making dives that count”.

The diving and a cookout were provided by Horizon Divers, one of REEF’s valued partners here in the local community. We had two great days of diving and over 80 species of fish sighted during the intensively fish orientated weekend. We are already planning for our next REEF Fish Academy, so keep an eye out for your invitation – coming soon.

Congratulation to Lureen Ferretti – who even passed her Level 4 Fish Test during the weekend and is now an Expert Surveyor. Special thanks to the participants for their support, coming to Key Largo to dive with us, their enthusiasm and all the great feedback and suggestions. It was a fantastic weekend.  Click here to find out more about REEF's Experience Levels.

Design by Joanne Kidd, development by Ben Weintraub