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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.