April 26, 2023

2022 Dirk Burcham Golden Slate Award Recipients Named

Top: Zack Schultz, Jonah Rubash, Michelle Halpin
Bottom: Kellie Long, Laura Allen

Each year, Reef Check’s Kelp Forest Program celebrates the exceptional dedication and commitment of its most active surveyors in each region with the Dirk Burcham Golden Slate Award. Last year, we were honored to commemorate the inspiring legacy of the late Dirk Burcham, a multi-year recipient of this prestigious award, by renaming it the “Dirk Burcham Golden Slate Award.” Dirk truly embodied the meaning of ‘diving with purpose,’ showcasing an unwavering passion for the conservation of marine ecosystems and a tireless dedication to citizen science. An honorable figure in the Reef Check community, Dirk leaves behind a lasting impact that will continue to inspire us all.

Congratulations to the 2022 Dirk Burcham Golden Slate Award honorees: Michelle Halpin (Washington), Zack Schultz (Oregon), Kellie Long (Northern California), Laura Allen (Central California), and Jonah Rubash (Southern California).

Read more about each honoree below.

Washington – Michelle Halpin

Michelle Halpin started out with Reef Check in Southern California while working for a medical device startup. For three years she volunteered with both the SoCal and Central Coast teams. Her experience furthering the Reef Check mission and her background in bioengineering inspired her to start her own sustainable cosmetic business, Silt. She returned to Washington living the van life while launching her business. Between all of that, she joined the Reef Check Washington team. Our crew was all new in 2022 so her experience helped grow our team. She drove her van all over Puget Sound to join us for a total of 17 days from shore, kayak, and boats!

Oregon – Zack Schultz

Zackery Schultz started volunteering with Reef Check in 2008 during his scientific diving program at Humboldt State University. He enjoys being a citizen scientific diver because he has learned to identify what he is looking at underwater, which gives him a better understanding of the underwater ecosystem. He enjoys doing surveys and gathering data that is used to help manage our kelp forests. Being involved with Reef Check has granted him the experience of surveying dive sites from Catalina and Fort Bragg, California to Brookings and Port Orford, Oregon. He is excited to explore new sites in northern Oregon and hopefully into Washington.  The reward of being involved with ocean conservation and helping the greater good of our oceans motivates him to continue active participation and volunteer work for Reef Check. Additionally, the opportunity to be out on a boat with a bunch of awesome divers is a bonus to volunteering.

Northern California – Kellie Long

Kellie Long transferred to Humboldt State University (HSU) in 2015 in pursuit of a Marine Biology degree. While there, she found the HSU scientific diving minor which she was very excited about! She started her journey in scuba diving and in her scientific diving class she discovered Reef Check and started to volunteer for the organization. 

Kellie shares her experience: “A memorable experience I had while volunteering was doing a boat dive and getting the site done in one morning while surveying beautiful rocky terrain. We saw some beautiful kelp and abalone shells all without getting seasick.

Diving with Reef Check has shown me how a small change in the ocean ecosystem can dramatically affect the rest of the ocean.

I volunteered for Reef Check at first because of my love of scientific diving and I wanted to make a difference. I continue to volunteer for Reef Check because of the people. [Reef Check Staff] Morgan, Ian, and the volunteers are so nice, kind, welcoming and badass ocean nerds. I look forward to the dive weekends when they happen and I honestly couldn’t ask for anyone better to dive with. I love volunteering for Reef Check.”

Central California – Laura Allen

Laura Allen became a Reef Check diver to find nerdy dive buddies and get better at distinguishing rockfish species. With that accomplished, she now appreciates the way Reef Check enhances her understanding of the underwater world.

Laura’s first experience with the kelp forest was snorkeling at Catalina Island Camp as a child. Back then, it was a mysterious (and slimy) jungle full of leopard sharks and far too bold garibaldi. After years of study in fisheries economics and law of the sea, she started to consider ecosystems services, management plans, and regulatory policy – a place to be protected, but still mysterious until Reef Check came along.

Laura shares, “The great gift of being a Reef Check diver is the opportunity to observe first-hand ecosystem change and the impact of human activities. Identifying what you see is the first step to observing species behavior and learning trends; for example, how turning on a dive light summons blue rockfish like a bat signal. Diving the same sites year after year lets you experience how they change, such as the amazing transformation of Tanker’s Reef from barren shell to thriving kelp forest. Surveying off the bubbled path lets you see how steep cliffs or legal restrictions affect the species composition and behavior. If you want to feel like a rock star to rockfish and sea lions alike, dive isolated sites in Morro Bay…you may even see a juvenile humpback whale rolling around in kelp like a dog scratching its back on grass.”

Diving for Reef Check also showed Laura that we don’t have to wait for an invitation to lead on things we’re passionate about. She has been able to use that experience to guide guests at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and join the board of the Sunflower Star Laboratory. This sorely missed keystone kelp forest predator has not been seen on Central Coast transects in years, but Laura will keep reeling out the tape in hopes of seeing them.

Southern California – Jonah Rubash

Jonah shares what Reef Check means to him:

“We started hearing about Reef Check as soon as we moved to California, but didn’t really look into it. While I was doing my Rescue Diver course with Chuck Mcilvain he really talked up Reef Check and the more we got involved in the diving community the more good things we heard about Reef Check, so [my wife] Julie and I signed up.

The other volunteers and Reef Check staff are what is regularly inspiring to me. I don’t have any profound stories, but the people never disappoint, are always interesting people and come from very different walks of life. Seeing how dedicated and engaged the new volunteers are during the training has been very rewarding. It gives me a lot of joy to see a diver that I helped train start to become a regular still eager to learn and improve.

Before Reef Check, I knew that marine conservation was important and certainly supported efforts to improve the marine environment in a changing climate, but like a lot of people I kind of thought about it in terms of direct action and I took it for granted that the scientific community had an organized methodology and pooled information and resources. Once I started learning more about what Reef Check does I started seeing first hand just how important long term monitoring is and how profound access to the data can be for not just understanding what is happening in our oceans and creating awareness, but also testing the efficacy of conservation efforts and building on that knowledge to create effective long term policies. Cooperation and the sharing of knowledge is going to be vital as more change comes our way, so I’ve really come to see Reef Check as an indispensable resource.

At first I kept signing up for dives for the challenge. I was slow and made a lot of mistakes, but the staff and other volunteers were very encouraging and seeing the level that they were at gave me something to aspire too. It pretty quickly became about all the people that I enjoyed being around and being a part of their team. It really has made me a much better diver and gave me a door into the scientific community that I thought was closed to non-scientists. I also really enjoy the behaviors and witnessing interactions at depth that I would likely have never seen or appreciated otherwise. Through Reef Check I’ve completely fallen in love with kelp forests.  Algae doesn’t seem as sexy as coral to most people, but it certainly does to me now. Reef Check has given me a more purposeful life in providing an opportunity to directly contribute to a better world and protect a part of our world that I’ve come to love.”