REEF members are the heart of our grassroots marine conservation programs. A diverse community of divers, snorkelers, and ocean enthusiasts support our mission to conserve marine environments worldwide.

This month we highlight Kristi Draper, a REEF member who loves diving so much, she and her husband Larre (also a REEF surveyor) relocated to Mexico to dive there on a regular basis! She became a REEF member in 2004, and has submitted more than 380 surveys in both the Tropical Western Atlantic and the Pacific Coast regions. Kristi frequently attends REEF Field Survey Trips and even assists on our annual Cozumel Field Survey by working as a divemaster with Chili Charters. We loved hearing Kristi's incredible story of how she first become involved with REEF, and how conducting REEF surveys with her husband brought them even closer.

When and how did you first volunteer with REEF or become a REEF member? How did you first hear about REEF?
REEF saved my marriage - my “SCUBA marriage”! Not until after I became a grandmother did I muster the courage to conquer my fear of deep water and get SCUBA certified. Conversely, my husband idolized the 60’s action hero Mike Nelson (played by Lloyd Bridges) on the popular TV series Sea Hunt and, like many adventurous young teenage men of his generation, beat a path to the nearest dive shop in search of his own Sea Hunt-style exploits. He dove frequently until we married and then for most of the next 25 years his gear sat in the garage, covered in cobwebs. When I earned my certification card he enthusiastically got back into diving.

As the diving honeymoon waned, I realized we were not at all compatible dive partners. His idea of an enjoyable dive was born of months of military Special Forces scuba training: “shoot an azimuth”, swim briskly until reaching 1500 psi, then head directly back to the boat. “But I want to stop and look at fish!”, I’d protest. The result was learning to become a “same ocean, same day” dive buddy when he’d get bored with my slow pace or low on air and ditch me for the boat. I was unhappy that I had a dive buddy who didn’t stay with me. He was frustrated that I wouldn’t keep up with him. We were both miserable and diving with each other was no longer enjoyable.

Then I heard about REEF from a woman I met at our local dive shop as she was preparing for an upcoming REEF Field Survey Trip to Cozumel. A few months later, slates in hand and heads filled with memory clues for “button-on-the-mutton” snappers, “Black (rock) Beauties”, and “Bridal party Gobies”, hubby and I were giant-striding off a dive boat in Utila determined to survey every fish we could recognize from our REEF beginners’ classes at the end of each dive day.

That’s when the miracle happened. He slowed down. He searched for fish. His air consumption improved. We stayed together. My husband had a mission. Since that life-changing REEF Trip to Utila fifteen years ago, we’ve hardly seen a year without at least one REEF adventure. Even when giant-striding on our own, our slates come with us. And after 42 years of marriage, seventeen as dive buddies, thanks to REEF, we still enjoy diving -- and surveying – together.

If you have been on a REEF Field Survey Trip, where and what was your trip highlight?
Little Cayman in 2006. I saw my first (and only!) Greenbanded Goby.

What is your favorite part about being a REEF member?
REEF Field Survey Trips and the people who participate on these trips are my favorite part of being a REEF member. Many of the REEF regulars find themselves on trips with friends they’ve met on other REEF Trips. For me, every REEF trip is like a family reunion. I’ve also found REEF to be a great social equalizer and unifier. REEF folk, or “fish geeks” I call us, are generally oblivious to the normal socio-economic detritus that tends to stratify society and separate people from one another. On REEF Trips participants are so devoted to our love of the sport, the marine environment, and the quest for improving our fish ID skills no one much notices what anyone else does for a living, their religion, politics, or education. On Field Survey Trips, expert fish watchers are always happy to buddy up with novices to help them learn their fish. I’ve had the privilege of being on the receiving and giving end of mentoring. Both are hugely satisfying and make diving that much more fun.

Do you dive close to where you live, and if so, what is the best part about diving there? If you don’t dive nearby, where do you most often dive? Where is your favorite place to dive and why?
My husband and I moved to Mexico four years ago because I’m a cave diver and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – specifically the Maya Riviera – is the heart of world-class cave diving. The cenotes, the windows to these stunning caves, are everywhere. Two are less than 100 steps from my front door! When I need to flavor my diving with a little salt, I get on the ferry from Playa del Carmen and head over to Cozumel to dive with Chili Charters, my favorite dive operator. The travel time from my house to splashing on the Great Mesoamerican barrier reef is less than three hours – all without the hassle of TSA, flying after diving, or baggage weight limits!

What is the most fascinating fish encounter you’ve experienced?
During a wreck dive on the U-352 in North Carolina’s “Graveyard of the Atlantic” I was relaxing on the anchor line during a deep safety stop when I was cocooned by a school of hundreds of Atlantic Spadefish. For many minutes all I saw was an undulating wall of silver and black bars above, below and on every side, not a sliver of blue ocean anywhere. The fish came in incredibly close and just stayed there, yet always kept tantalizingly just beyond my outstretched fingers. A diver magic moment - I remember grinning behind my regulator and thinking, “THIS is why I dive!”