The international non-profit Reef Check Foundation is dedicated to conserving two ecosystems: tropical coral reefs and California rocky reefs. With headquarters in Los Angeles and volunteer teams in more than 90 countries, Reef Check works to create partnerships among community volunteers, government agencies, businesses, universities and other non-profits.
Reef Check’s goals include educating the public about the value of reef ecosystems and the current crisis affecting marine life. The agency also facilitates collaboration to produce ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions and stimulates local community action to protect remaining pristine reefs and rehabilitate damaged reefs worldwide.
To those ends, the foundation has created a global network of volunteer teams trained in Reef Check’s scientific methods. Volunteers regularly monitor and report on reef health, and the program welcomes anyone with an interest in the ocean, from children to adults. Divers will learn to identify marine life, conduct surveys, and record the data. The 3-day program includes classroom and fieldwork sessions, starting with an introduction on the importance of coral reefs and the threats they face, survey methods, and target species. The other three sections of the Reef Check EcoDiver program are substrate identification, fish identification and invertebrate identification, each detailed below.
After completing the substrate identification component of the course, divers will look at coral reefs like never before. Divers will learn how to identify what’s under each point along a transect line, as well as how to recognize disease and coral bleaching.
ID points include:
- Hard coral
- Nutrient-indicator algae
- Soft coral
- Recently killed coral
Divers will learn how to differentiate target fish species from non-target fish species, dependent on the location, as well as how to estimate fish size underwater. This section of the course is key, as many of the world’s reefs are heavily overfished. Reef Check tallies certain fish because they are popular food or aquarium fish. Consequently, some reefs may be home to very few of these target species. In the Caribbean, EcoDivers will learn to identify:
- Nassau grouper
- Moray eel
Searching for invertebrates on a reef takes a good eye. Divers will learn not only how to identify invertebrates, but also why Reef Check uses them as indicators for various things. They will also learn how to recognize reef damage and what caused it, and note other human impacts, such as trash and pollution. Divers will learn to identify the following invertebrates in the Caribbean:
- Banded coral shrimp
- Long-spined black sea urchin
- Pencil urchins
- Collector urchin/sea egg
- Flamingo tongue
The Reef Check protocol requires divers to perform simple tasks underwater. These include hovering motionless near the reef, often in an upside-down or horizontal position, identifying and counting target organisms, and writing these observations on a slate. Multiple tasks often require extra concentration underwater and buoyancy control can easily disappear, even for experienced divers. Good buoyancy is therefore essential for collecting high-quality data. As part of your training, your instructor will help you practice buoyancy skills if required and offer useful tips and techniques. Practice will lead to good buoyancy control, which will not only enhance your skills as a Reef Checker, but will also enhance your recreational diving experience in general.
With teams established in more than 90 countries and territories, a multitude of reefs require surveys at nearly every diving destination worldwide. After the dives, divers will enter their data with the instructor’s assistance. Everyone from local marine-park managers, to national fisheries and environment managers and international organizations, including United Nations agencies, will use the data you’ve helped collect to care for coral reefs.
For more information on becoming a Reef Check volunteer, check the website. If you would like to become an EcoDiver at Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, send an email to [email protected] for more information.
Photos courtesy of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas