February 28, 2019

An EcoDiver in Kelp Forests: My Experience at the Annual Reef Check California Retreat

RCCA Staff and Instructors pose for a photo after their Dive at Big Creek. 
Pictured: Bill Field, Avrey Parsons-Field, Thomas Arklie, Chris Honeyman, Selena McMillan, Dawn Bailey, Jan Freiwald, Shelby Penn, Stephanie Abbott, Stephen Ames, Katie Kozma, Keith Rootsaert, David Wentworth, Dan Abbott, Kate Vylet, Tristin McHugh, Kevin Stolzenbach

By Dania Trespalacios, Tropical Program Director

This past week, Reef Check held its annual Reef Check California (RCCA) Retreat. It was the first time that I participated as the Tropical Director. I came away with a tremendous sense of pride at what Reef Check has accomplished and new excitement for the potential for all Reef Check teams worldwide. I want to share my stories and ideas from the retreat with the whole Reef Check Family.

We met at Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. If you search for it on Google Maps, you will see about five roof tops, surrounded by vast forests and an undeveloped coastline, about 80 kilometers away from the nearest town. Big Creek Reserve is owned by the University of California Santa Cruz in the middle of Big Sur, a massive stretch of the central California coast blessed with rugged forested cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean, with a single paved highway meandering between beaches and cliffs. Big Creek Reserve is closed to the public, accessible only to educators and researchers. Directly offshore of the Big Creek Reserve lays the Big Creek State Marine Reserve as part of California's Marine Protected Area (MPA) network. RCCA, together with University of California Santa Cruz, University of California Santa Barbara, and Humboldt State University, is monitoring this MPA network for the State of California and has surveyed the Big Creek MPA for over a decade. Big Creek is remote, rugged, beautiful and special, and I was happy to be invited.

The cabins at Big Creek Reserve

The RCCA staff traveled to Big Creek from both ends of the California Coast. The three Regional Managers are the equivalent of Tropical Course Directors: they recruit and train volunteer divers (their EcoDivers), train Instructors (their Trainers), lead surveys and represent Reef Check at management meetings and all sorts of events. Tristin McHugh heads the North Coast, Dan Abbott heads the Central Coast, and Selena McMillan heads the South Coast. They are joined by Katie Kozma, the Southern California Training Coordinator, and Kate Vylet, the Climate Change Research Coordinator. In addition to leading trainings and surveys, Katie runs RCCA’s Youth Education EMBARC Program (more info here), and Kate runs RCCA’s climate change research program (more info here). Together with our Executive Director Jan Freiwald, and Reef Check’s supporting rock Jenny Mihaly, this crew works with more than 350 trained volunteers to survey more than 100 sites a year throughout a state with 1,350 km of coast line. It is very impressive that this seemingly skeleton crew continues to grow the number of sites and volunteers yearly.

RCCA Staff and Instructors taking a sunset break and the entrance of the Reserve, with the Big Sur Coast in the background

At the retreat, this crew meets in person to improve RCCA’s survey program, discuss ongoing projects, and prepare for this year’s new monitoring season. The group discussed new species that would be added to the protocol, new monitoring sites approved by the State of California, and even a future expansion into neighboring states. The RCCA staff had a great deal of questions for me, too: How many fish species do you count in the Tropics? Who trains the Trainers, and how do you make sure that EcoDivers keep up their monitoring and identification skills? How is the data collected shared with headquarters, and who uses it? How can we bring the California and Tropical programs groups together? The RCCA staff had great ideas- there is much that the Tropical program can learn from California, and I am excited to work more closely with them in the future.

After two days of staff strategizing, it was time to greet the Instructors. They have been chosen by RCCA staff to lead surveys and teach volunteer divers on their own. They, too, came from all over state- the prize for the longest commute goes to Dawn Bailey and Kevin Stolzenbach, who each traveled about 725 kilometers from San Diego. The Instructors had varied backgrounds- construction, farming, theatre, engineering- but all shared a fierce love of diving, California’s marine habitats, and Reef Check. During the classroom sessions, there were lengthy discussions about how to instruct volunteer divers to count abalone accurately, and how to best mentor divers that need improvement in their survey skills. And there were discussions on the state of California’s kelp forests, and what Reef Check is doing to help protect them. Tristin McHugh gave a presentation on how kelp forests are under threat from exploding sea urchin populations, and how Reef Check data has helped to monitor and track these ecosystem shifts. Keith Rootsaert, a volunteer Instructor from Aromas, gave a presentation on a new research project that he is leading with Reef Check in Monterey Bay to understand how urchin populations can be kept in check. And Janina Larenas, a volunteer diver that served as head chef for all 20 participants, gave a presentation on graphic design to help us all better communicate visually.

The RCCA Staff prepare for this year’s monitoring season Instructor Keith Rootsaert speaks about his research with sea urchins in Monterey Bay RCCA Staff and Instructors discuss how to best train new volunteers


Southern California Training Coordinator Katie Kozma, Southern California Regional Manager Selena McMillan, Climate Change Research Coordinator Kate Vylet and Northern California Regional Manager Tristin McHugh prepare to lead the Instructors on a survey dive

And there were connections with the Tropical Program. Volunteer Stephanie “Stevie” Abbott, who travelled 670 kilometers from Fortuna, was trained as an EcoDiver last year by Nikole Ordway Heath based with Force-E Dive Shop in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She shared her Caribbean EcoDiver Kit with the California divers, and had much to say about the differences between the Tropical and California Fish Surveys: the first has an unimaginably large sampling window, the second requires identification of more than 30 distinct species in habitats where 5m of visibility is considered very good! Instructor Dawn Bailey was proud to announce that data from her research dives in Palau had been accepted by our Reef Check database. The Instructors had questions for me, too- was it true that wetsuits were always optional in the tropics?

On Saturday, everybody went diving – except the chef, the beach support, and your tropical correspondent. Even with these experienced divers, there were some challenges: possible high swells and currents, a tricky surf break at the beach, a swelled river mouth next to the beach entrance, a broken seal on a dry suit, and even a bloody nose. But within two hours, all divers were back on the beach, clothed, and comparing their survey numbers. All the talk was about the 3m long Great White Shark spotted on the transect- was it safe to get in the water again? Kate Vylet needed to switch out one of the climate

Katie Kozma gives a dive briefing to RCCA Instructors on the Big Creek beach

change sensors RCCA is deploying along the California coast to measure pH, oxygen levels and temperature, and many folks wanted to check out the remote kelp forest of Big Creek without the constraints of a survey. The divers chose to wait a day. On Sunday, divers reported no shark, many more big fish (Of course! The large predator was gone!), and the absence of that eerie feeling that many felt on Saturday. There were plenty of stories to share during dinner, when the whole group gathered in one not-so-big cabin to relax and bond.

My experience at the Retreat reinforced three ideas. The first idea is that a small and dedicated group of people can have a big impact. Since its beginnings in 2005, RCCA has become a trusted partner for California’s MPA network, often regarded as the best example of a well-designed and well-managed MPA network. RCCA is providing the data needed for informed management, thus helping to protect and conserve the marine environment on which we all depend. The second idea is that engaging citizen scientists in management and conservation is a powerful and effective strategy. The RCCA Instructors begin as volunteers and grow to become partners in conservation and research projects, taking the lead in teaching their own communities, engaging in the management process, ensuring that our oceans are cared for by a wide network of stewards. The third idea is the importance of community. An important part of the retreat happened while sharing meals, walks, and cups of coffee. We humans are a social species: we thrive when we connect with others who share our passions and have something to teach us. By facilitating these connections, from the local to the global level, Reef Check generates a powerful resource. You may be sitting in Malaysia, or Reunion, or the Dominican Republic, and you may be thinking this all sounds familiar. This is because, whether you prefer kelp forests or coral reefs, these three ideas are at the heart of Reef Check.

Instructors Bill, Avrey, Chris and David ready for their second dive at Big Creek on Sunday

Even well experienced divers have troubles some times. Executive Director Jan Freiwald shows off his broken dive suit seal.

I was very happy to join the RCCA retreat at Big Sur this year, and I am excited to explore how the RCCA team and the Tropical team can strengthen each other. Now, let’s see if I can organize a Tropical Retreat…

Click here to see more photos from the retreat


Retreat participants connect over dinner at the Big Creek Cabin Selena McMillan and Kate Vylet begin a dive to swap the pH and oxygen sensor at Big Creek on Sunday Volunteer and head Chef Janina Larenas has help from Kate Vylet and Tristin McHugh