Thursday, June 30, 2005
The midmorning sun burns off the last of the clouds left in the once overcast sky. A group of divers stands on a small strip of sand—Pacific Grove’s Coral Street Beach. Soon they will enter the water and record the fish they see on their dive. It’s part of the Great Annual Fish Count, sponsored by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
Through the fish count, diving expert John Wolfe hopes to promote fish watching as a hobby, similar to bird watching.
“[Scuba divers] are the eyes under the water,” he says.
On the beach, Wolfe gives instructions.
“Everyone can get suited up and grab an underwater slate,” he says, referring to a clipboard with waterproof paper and pencil for keeping track of the fish divers encounter underwater. “We’ll meet back here for introductions.”
Wolfe, an engineer, drives from his Berkeley home to dive the waters of Monterey and Carmel on a regular basis. “Monterey is the best place to dive between Santa Barbara and Central Washington,” he says.
It’s also a great place to spot fish. In the past 10 years, 146 species of fish have been reported. Today, a handful of divers taking part in the Beginners Group Fish Count Dive and Seminar are hoping to add to that list.
Divers Aaron Olson, Naomi Wooten, Sherri Kefalas, Peter Laux, and Mike Coles reconvene, now wearing wetsuits and equipped with weight belts, buoyancy control vests, tanks, snorkels, and fins. Everyone pairs off and makes quick safety checks of their partner’s straps, weight belt, air supply, and gauge. After the equipment check, they walk toward the shoreline and trudge through the initial plethora of hermit crabs, anemones, and purple-ringed top shells.
The entry point of shallow, kelp infested water and an ocean floor of slick rock causes Laux to lose his balance, as well as his fins, before he has a chance to put them on his feet. After 10 minutes of probing the area, both fins are recovered and the expedition begins.
The divers use what is known as the Roving Diver Fish Survey Technique: a method of surveying fish used by recreational divers to identify and record the fish species and the fish quantity spotted in particular areas. The goal is to find as many species as possible, so divers are encouraged to look under ledges and upward in the water column.
Coles spots a senorita, a cigar-shaped fish that is part of the wrasse group and resembles the kelp it lives amongst. Wolfe spots an abundance of perch, including pile perch, rainbow surfperch and black perch.
The six divers progress into the ocean’s depths, and for 45 minutes they almost disappear, except for the sleek upper half of capped heads bobbing above the water’s surface every once and a while.
After the early morning dive, the seminar continues in a Monterey Bay Aquarium classroom complete with lab stations and fish tanks containing creatures such as sea urchin and gumboot chiton.
“I think the fish identified me,” jokes Laux, who made six fish identifications after he recovered his fins.
Wooten and Kefalas identified several species, including a Juvenile Rockfish, a reddish orange rarity in the particular area.
Gil Falcone, dive safety officer and volunteer coordinator of the dive program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, begins a PowerPoint presentation, explaining some of the main identification features of fish: bars, line markings, stripes, bands, and blotches.
He points out all the different parts of a fish anatomy: pelvic fin, pectoral fin, anal fin, caudal fin, and lateral line.
Falcone outlines REEF’s fish identification groups, from the Cryptic Elongated Bottom Dwellers to Sculpin, Scorpionfish, and Poacher. The diver makes a rough estimate on the amount of each species seen on each dive using a four-choice scale: single, few (2-10), many (11-100), and abundant (more than 100).
The volunteer divers will now send their collected data to REEF. The organization grants membership and keeps track of all the divers’ identified fish records, free of charge.
Falcone encourages all scuba divers to start conducting fish surveys, not only to contribute to the protection of our underwater habitat, but also as a way for divers to spot things on dives that have always been present but usually go unnoticed.
“The divers who participate in fish counting learn about the environment they are diving in while collecting helpful data used by scientists and marine park staff to determine the overall health of the marine environment,” he says.
<>For more information about the Great Annual Fish Count, >visit www.reef.org.