Category Archives: 2013 REEF Marine Conservation


REEF keeps myself and the other interns pretty busy with office work, diving, lionfish derbies, and fish identification presentations. But on top of all that, this summer we have been preparing for REEF Fest. REEF Fest is a weekend full of diving, free educational seminars, and nightly social events in celebration of REEF”S 20th Anniversary! The volunteer fish survey project, REEF’s first and main project, was started in 1993. What started as small groups of people doing fish surveys has now led to the world’s largest marine sightings database. REEF offers free membership, and this membership allows divers and snorkelers to enter their surveys into a database, which has been referenced in many publications. The surveys are a way of monitoring fish populations over time, which is very important currently as we are facing climate change, pollution, and of course, in the Caribbean, the invasive lionfish. Currently, there are over 170,000 surveys entered in the database!

So 20 years of success is definitely worth celebrating! The REEF board and founders would be not only attending REEF Fest, but also leading dives and seminars for other guests. It was an absolute privilege to meet Paul Humann and Ned and Anna DeLoach, who are not only the founders of REEF, but also the authors of Reef Fish and Coral Identification Books. I assure you, if you have ever taken a marine ecology or identification class, these are the textbooks you used! REEF Fest also attracted divers from across the country, including REEF members from the very beginning, and new members who have just started to get their feet wet.


REEF Fest guests at Bayside Grille on Thursday Evening 

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Enjoying the sunset on the Island Time Dinner Cruise 

The weekend kicked off on a Thursday afternoon with Caribbean fish identification seminars led by Jonathan Lavan and Janna Nichols. Unfortunately the first dive of the weekend had to be cancelled due to weather, but the party continued at a local bayside restaurant. Friday was filled with more seminars and diving, despite the rough weather.  That evening we hosted a party at the REEF headquarters, and we were absolutely thrilled to have over 200 guests attend! The next day I was set to lead an Artificial Reef dive with Lad Akins on the Spiegel Grove. The wind was blowing strong and we were facing 6 to 7 foot seas, but we were still joined by 16 determined REEF members. It was the roughest weather I had experienced all summer, so the boat ride was not easy. However, one quickly forgets the weather and overcomes nausea once underwater on a 510 ft. wreck! The visibility was not the best, but I was able to see some amazing fish including one of my favorites, the goliath grouper!

The final celebration of the weekend was held that evening on a dinner cruise boat called “Island Time”. About 120 REEF members boarded the “Island Time” and cruised through the bay at sunset enjoying good music, great food, and the best company. There was even a conch blowing competition and a limbo contest. I am proud to say I was the limbo champion that night.

The night ended with a speech from Ned DeLoach and recognition of 16 REEF members, who have submitted over 1,000 fish surveys, an astonishing achievement. REEF Fest was one of the most enjoyable weekends I have had in Key Largo, and I hope that I don’t have to wait 10 years for the next celebration. It was a pleasure to be a part of such an exciting time at REEF and an even greater pleasure to know that I helped make it happen!


My Life is a Beach Boys Song

Living in Key Largo, I find myself occasionally singing “Bermuda, Bahamas, Come on Pretty Mama. Key Largo, Montego, Baby why Don’t We Go”. And while I already live in paradise, it is hard not to dream of those other beautiful Caribbean Islands. So I could barely contain my excitement when I got a call from my boss, Lad Akins, asking if I wanted to join him at the 5th Annual Green Turtle Cay Lionfish Derby in Abaco, Bahamas. For those of you who don’t know, the Green Turtle Cay Lionfish Derby was the first ever lionfish derby, which began 5 years ago.


I immediately jumped at the chance to be apart of the derby, but the next 24 hours would be a crazy rollercoaster ride. I guess I should mention that I got this call on Friday and the derby was Saturday; kind of short notice. I had to find just the right flight to get there in time, and when I found it, I was ecstatic. And then came the bad news…. I didn’t bring my passport to Florida. It was sitting at home in Illinois, locked away in a safe. For the next hour I had pretty much given up hope, but then I had an idea. I called my mom, and after a bit of research we located a UPS store that was within 5 minutes of the Miami airport. She quickly sent my passport, which would hopefully make it from Illinois to Miami in less than 24 hours.

So I packed my bags and the next morning headed north to Miami. After a very nervous 45-minute wait in the UPS parking lot, the package finally arrived! One plane, one taxi, and one ferry was all it took to get me to Green Turtle Cay about one hour before all of the lionfish would come in; just in time for the craziest part of the day. I grabbed a scoring sheet, joined Stephanie Green, and we measured each lionfish that came in. In total: 1,204 LIONFISH! This year’s derby was very successful, and was a great way to prepare for other derbies we would have later in the summer.


However the real work came after the derby. Over the next 3 days myself, along with 4 others (Lad, REEF intern Catie, previous intern Elizabeth, and Stephanie), would go out and survey about 75 sites. As part of REEF’s research a series of sites are surveyed before and after the derby, in order to measure the benefits a derby can have. At each site, 90 meters of transect is laid out, and then one person swims up and down each side of transect looking for lionfish, lobster, and grouper. The relative sizes, habitat, and activity of each are noted.  Some sights previously had 10 or more lionfish, but after the derby were clear of them. However, we also visited a few sights that were not hit during the derby, and what I saw confirmed everything I had learned about lionfish. One small artificial structure was home to about 30 lionfish! The only good thing about that site was target practice. We grabbed a few pole spears and after a few tries I was able to spear my first lionfish!


The long days of snorkeling yielded a few scrapes and bruises from strong surges, a few awesome marine life sightings including my first flying gurnard, and some pretty funky sunburns. The obnoxious tan lines around our ankles from our dive boots gave way to the new name of our boat: The Booty Tan.  My trip to the Bahamas turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. It not only confirmed my love of research and fieldwork, but also allowed me to see first hand the difference REEF makes. Every lionfish removed counts and seeing the difference after removing 1,204 was incredible.


Florida Lionfish Derby Series

I think that the greatest part of the REEF summer internship is the lionfish derby series. Since I was lucky enough to attend the derby in Green Turtle Cay in June, I had an idea of what to expect at the derbies held in the U.S. First came the derby in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The other REEF interns and I were able to convince many of our friends to volunteer at the derby, which is absolutely necessary for it to be a success. On Friday afternoon we headed north for the captains meeting. Attendance to this is required if a team wants to participate at the derby, because the meeting discusses rules as well as lionfish collecting and handling tips.



REEF Staff and volunteers at Ft. Lauderdale Derby



2 of the biggest lionfish at the Ft. Lauderdale Derby 

13 teams set out at sunrise on Saturday and would have all day to collect as many lionfish as they could. However, all fish had to be back at the dock by 5pm to qualify for the cash prizes. When teams arrive at the dock they come directly to me to check in. I note the time of their arrival, which is very important because in the event of a tie, the team that came in the earliest will win. Next, teams go to our scoring station, where each and every lionfish is measured. The results then come back to me to be entered into our database.

Once all of the fish are in and measured, the party does not stop. Myself along with other REEF interns, employees, and volunteers fillet lionfish so that it can be immediately cooked up and served to derby participants and the general public. Filleting the fish is my absolute favorite part of the derby, because the people who just happen to be at the dock or restaurant, but don’t know anything about lionfish, come to you to ask questions. “But I thought lionfish were poisonous?”, “Wait they don’t really belong in the Caribbean?”, or even “What’s that?” are some of the most common questions. Educating the public is the most fulfilling part of my job so I happily answer their questions:  “Lionfish are native to the indo-pacific and as one of the most common aquarium fishes, they often get dumped in the Caribbean when people no longer want to care for them. They are not poisonous but venomous so you can eat them. The difference is that poison is ingested while venom is injected. They have 18 venomous spines, 13 on their dorsal fin, 3 on their anal fin, and one on each pelvic fin.” Sometimes you even attract a few children who are absolutely fascinated by the fish. While teaching one boy about them, I came across a lionfish that was about to release her eggs…. potentially 20,000 of them!

The other question many people ask is how we can fillet them without getting stuck by a venomous spine. Filleting takes a lot of finesse and attention, but it can be done quite easily. It is important to be aware of where you are placing your hands at all times, and to go slow if you need to. Rushing won’t do any good if a spine sticks you! But of course, it is fun to impress the general public with what they consider to be “bravery and skill”.



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Learning to fillet lionfish earlier this summer! 

At the Ft. Lauderdale derby, the winning team brought in 58 lionfish; the largest lionfish was 400mm, while the smallest lionfish was only 62mm! In total 256 lionfish were brought in! The Palm Beach County Derby is set up in a very similar way. This year we had 8 teams bring in a total of 612 lionfish! The Palm Beach Derby ends a bit different, as it is followed by a banquet. It is a great opportunity to hang out with all of the teams and learn about their experiences and thoughts on lionfish. This years Palm Beach Derby was just 3 days before I would leave the Keys, so it was a bittersweet ending to my summer. But the derby series isn’t over! On September 14th, REEF will host a lionfish derby at John Pennekamp State Park. There will also be a one-day only exception to the usual spear ban within the State Park limits. This will hopefully draw in more lionfish hunters, especially those who prefer to use a spear over nets. So if you live in the area and want to be a part of an amazing event, get a team together and go out and hunt lionfish! More information can be found at the following link:

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The smallest lionfish at the Ft. Lauderdale derby, and a very small filefish found in the stomach of another lionfish



Ft. Lauderdale Derby Catch! 


Now Entering Paradise

I have always preferred warm weather over cold, salt water over fresh, and diving over just about everything else. So I could barely contain my excitement as I headed from Central Illinois to Key Largo for the summer. After just a few weeks of interning with Reef Environmental Education Foundation, I felt I had found my niche. It’s not just the location, weather, and diving that suit me, but also the passionate people I have met and the valuable work I have been doing.


My fellow REEF interns Alex, Alexis, and Catie 


My weeks are split between the field and the office. While the field definitely creates more excitement, the office work is just as important. I have been dedicating large amounts of my time in the office prepping for REEF Fest! REEF fest is our 20th Anniversary Celebration held August 8th-11th filled with diving, free seminars, and nightly social events that will attract divers from across the country. I am so proud to be a part of such an exciting time in REEF history, and with this on top of the lionfish derby series, things do not get boring around the office.

Days in the field are just as productive, but in a very different way. As a REEF intern we have the amazing opportunity of diving with local dive shops at no cost, in order to conduct fish surveys and teach as many divers as possible about REEF. When I head out on a boat for the day, I find myself surrounded by others who are passionate about the underwater world and interested in the knowledge I can share with them. I gladly point out some common species from my underwater fish ID booklet, and love to discuss all of the fish sighted after the dive. It quickly becomes a game, as people describe the fish they saw and I try to ID it from memory or my handy ID book. Many divers on the boat may have never heard of REEF before, so each day out usually means a handful of new REEF members!



A beautiful French Angelfish 

I have also had the privilege in assisting with lionfish research! We visit different dive sights in the area, and using transects, record and measure the lionfish, grouper, and lobster found at each location. Now this may not sound too tricky, but most of these sights are only marked by a small pole in about 60ft of water. Add a strong current and poor visibility, and your day of research diving may be a loss. One site, the notorious W-8, had not been found during the previous round of surveys. The search took time, and many attempts, but W-8 was found and we couldn’t have been happier…. especially because the sea got the best of us that day. Lets just say our big breakfast wasn’t the best idea.


The “We Found W-8″ Celebration 


A lionfish Speared during research 

Finally, through the amazing opportunities I get with REEF, I have been able to obtain my rescue diver certification and enriched air certification. I am so glad that I can continue my dive education, and can’t wait for the next step: Dive Master!