How to Become a Fish: Surveying with REEF

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How to Become a Fish: Surveying with REEF

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Jan 08, 2014

"The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish."   Jacques Cousteau

cornet fish hovering over honu turtleUnder blue skies and calm seas, a couple days after the New Year, I stood knee deep in water at Hanaka`ape Bay, also known as Koloa Landing, on Kauai's South Shore. This was once the third largest harbor in all of Hawaii, first for whaling purposes and, later, no doubt, due to the abundant sugar cane that once covered the plains for miles around. Hawaii's very first sugar plantation, known then as the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa, was established in 1835 a stone's throw as the crow flies from this spot. These days, the comings and goings here come in the form of water sports enthusiasts--snorkelers, scuba divers, and paddlers.

I went to Koloa Landing to snorkel. More specifically, to survey the fish. 

It's one thing to go snorkeling. It's another to do a REEF survey. The experience is akin to reading your favorite book in a foreign language you don't know versus reading it in your mother tongue. Or, like sliding a macro lens on your camera and discovering the wispy hair-like bits covering the pistol and stamen.

The winds in Hawaii have been strange of late. And when the winds are strange, the weather is, too. Just like everywhere. 

Last week, the winds switched around the nearly circular island of Kauai as regular as hands sweeping around the face of a clock. On Tuesday, our usual tradewinds made living easy--and normal. On Wednesday, the winds shifted to the south. Thursday found the winds blowing out of the southwest, mucking up ocean conditions on the South Shore. I hoped those unusual winds would keep swinging around the island before my afternoon snorkel date the next day.

snorkelers kim and heather conducting reef surveyComing out of the northeast, tradewinds blow through Hawaii 50 - 95 percent of the time, depending on the month. These winds are so regular that our lives revolve around them. When we were building our house, my husband angled the foundation just so, and because our house sits behind a slight incline, he also reversed the traditional layout, putting the living room and kitchen on the second floor--both decisions strategically made to catch the wind. The existence of trade winds mean we don't have to waste electricity on air conditioning. 

When the winds shifted to the south--we call these Kona winds--and plants and chairs and cushions blew off my lanai, I was reminded, again, how much I live a tradewind-oriented life. Even my lanai is compatibly set up with the trades in mind.

My friends Heather and Scott recently introduced me to REEF, which stands for Reef Environmental Education Foundation. The non-profit, grassroots organization's mission "seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists."

Their main program consists of volunteers conducting fish surveys. It's sort of like birdwatching. Using a standardized method developed by scientists, regular people like you and me go snorkeling and/or diving and record the different species of fish seen and in what quantity--single, few (2-10), many (11-100), and abundant (100+). Then, once dry and back on shore, you update your data to It's really quite simple.

The project was developed in 1990 with support and guidance from The Nature Conservancy and the Southeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service and has generated the world's largest reef fish sighting database containing more than 178,000 surveys in coastal areas from the Bahamas and Caribbean, North and Central America, to Hawaii and the South Pacific. Data from the nearly 25 years of surveys has been cited in more than 60 scientific papers and reports.

convict gang tang photo credit heather georgeAll you need to complete the surveys are an underwater slate and pencil. (Oh, yes, and your choice of snorkel or dive gear.) That's it. You don't have to go with an organized group or at a set time. You just swim around--this part is called the Roving Diver Technique--and place checks next to fish species you see on a pre-printed, region-specific sheet that already has the fish listed on it. You also circle S, F, M or A to indicate the number of said fish. If you wear reading glasses like me, the hardest part is reading the small print. Thankfully, water is a natural magnifier.

By the time Pau Hana Friday rolled around last week, the winds had shifted again and were blowing out of the north-northwest, providing good ocean conditions for snorkeling on Kauai's South Shore where I met up with Heather and Scott, standing knee-deep in water with a waterproof camera hanging off one wrist and a slate hanging off the other. I spit inside my mask and swished it clean in the water and slid it over my face. By the time I could get my fins on my feet, Scott, who was first in the water, had already surfaced to report a turtle. Auspicious start.

Once I got myself organized and put my face in the water, I immediately started checking fish off my slate--Blackfin chromis, Raccoon butterflyfish, Fourspot butterfly fish, Bullethead parrotfish, Yellow tang, Moorish idol, Achilles tang. And I could feel the excitment of a new hobby--er, addiction--rising.

Already I could tell this was going to be a rewarding experience, more so than *just* snorkeling. I couldn't help but wonder, as I checked fish species off my list, why this business of surveying fish thrilled me so. And, now, as I reflect on it, I realize it had everything to do with the Pearl wrasse.

The Pearl wrasse grows to 14 inches, but the one I saw, a youngster, was less than half that with a light colored body and barely-discernible lines of white dots running down its side like strings of pearls. It was a "life lister" for me. 

snorkeler-kim-342Chances are I've swam right by one or even a dozen before, but I wasn't paying close enough attention. Last week, I was paying close enough attention, and I saw things I'd never seen before. I also started to identify what species were common. What swam in schools in the water column. What darted in and out of hiding places in coral. What hung out in pairs. What chased what other fish. In short, I was getting to know my fish. And what isn't more interesting the more you get to know it?

"White-spotted toby," I mumbled to Heather through my snorkel. She pointed at the Sailfin tang line on her survey sheet. We mumbled through our snorkels and pointed here here and there at different fish species. It went on like this for a good hour, before the cold forced us out of the water. That's when I ran into my own turtle--not literally--and checked off a cornetfish that was hovering over the marine critter.

"That was fun," I said to Heather before we'd barely removed our masks. "Let's go again next week."

I tallied 40-some species on my first REEF survey. Not that I knew that many when we started. I had help from Heather, who checked off more than 60 different fish during our hour's survey. 

I'll be doing this on a monthly, possibly more. You can, too. Visit to learn how to order the starter kit, which includes a slate, survey sheets and a waterproof fish ID card. The website also has "fishinars," a species gallery, and quizzes. In the mean time, if you have a recommendation on where you'd like me to survey fish in Hawaii, please let me know. I'll go on your behalf;-)


Scott Valor | Jan 09, 2014 12:09 PM

Great article Kim. Glad you could come out and join us! You captured the adventure perfectly and I hope this encourages more people to go out and enjoy Underwater Kauai. There is so much to see (and plenty of friendly turtles to bump into you)! Scott Valor

Sherilyn | Jan 14, 2014 12:56 PM

I am the person who regularly visits Hawaii and I have respect for the ocean but your experience makes me want to try this out. I see snorkel gear and a bathing suit in my future! :-)

Mary | Jan 14, 2014 03:48 PM

I can just imagine the array of color on the fish. Love this story. Thanks for sharing.

P. Kesling-Wood | Jan 14, 2014 07:12 PM

I had forgotten about REEF...with the internet now it makes it much easier- will try to make this my New Year's resolution to do! Thanks for a really informative blog post!

Ron | Jan 15, 2014 07:29 AM

there is another group trying to protect the green turtles and there spawning grounds on Oahu's north shore around Laniikea beach. When, if ever, can we get to see the turtles at night when they come ashore to lay their eggs?

Kim | Feb 19, 2014 10:37 AM

Hi Ron, yes, wouldn't that be something to see! Turtles coming ashore and laying their eggs. It happens throughout the early summer months and is very much tied to the cycle of the moon. As far as exactly when, hard to say! Thanks for your comment.

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