By Morgan Murphy-Cannella, Reef Check Kelp Restoration Coordinator

DIS students and staff after a day of diving at Russian Gulch State Park

Reef Check’s Dive into Science program (DIS) has completed its first round of scuba training on the North Coast of California. With generous support from the CA State Coastal Conservancy Explore the Coast program, Reef Check’s staff instructors trained 11 participants in the NAUI scuba diver curriculum. Participants hailed from both the Sherwood Valley and Kashia Bands of Pomo Indians based in Sonoma and Mendocino County.

Dive into Science was specifically developed to increase diversity and reduce barriers to participating in Marine Science. Our goal is to guide participants through beginning, advanced, rescue and scientific diver training to position them for careers in marine resource management and empower them to participate in marine conservation efforts statewide. 

The class started with online learning from the NAUI curriculum where students learned about the gear, science, physiology, planning, and skills necessary to complete the field portion of the course. Additionally, students learned about oceanography, kelp forest ecology, kelp forest species and marine resource management. 

Once familiar with the basics of the NAUI scuba course, students were ready for the practical portion of this course which consisted of 3 weekends: one weekend at CV Starr Center pool in Fort Bragg for confined water practice, and two weekends in the ocean at Van Damme State Park and Caspar Cove. In the ocean, students practiced scuba skills, buoyancy, dive planning, and rescue skills. There were some challenges for each student, but with guidance from staff instructors each student was able to complete the required skills and build their confidence underwater.

DIS students Arella La Rose and Kimberly Carver and Reef Check staff instructor Morgan Murphy-Cannella pose pre-dive at Caspar Cove.

This newfound confidence afforded students the opportunity to observe sea life in its natural habitat, connect with the natural world in a way not previously possible, and witness first hand the intricacies of the ecosystem they have depended on for generations. This course has given each student the opportunity to explore the marine environment while increasing their knowledge about kelp forest ecosystems and marine science. Some students have plans to use these skills to expand the Environmental Departments within their tribe.

One student shared that she was very excited to be learning how to scuba dive because her grandmother taught her how to harvest abalone many years ago, and the ocean is a bonding place for her family. She explained that people in her family and community are unfamiliar with marine research and are largely unaware of the status of the marine ecosystem and of abalone fisheries. She is looking forward to being able to observe abalone in their habitat and get a first hand look at the status of the ecosystem where her family once used to spend a lot of time. She wants to be able to dive to share her thoughts, observations and experience with her community and family.

Another student shared with us that scuba diving has been an amazing support for them emotionally. They feel that when they are underwater that all their stresses and worries “wash away with the bubbles” and they feel renewed after a day of diving.

We are excited to continue working with this cohort to advance their diving skills, and to start new courses in 2024.

We would like to extend a special thank you to Seals Watersports and Sonoma Coast Divers for gear rentals and tanks, to the Kashia and Sherwood Valley Bands of Pomo Indians for their enthusiasm and dedication to this endeavor, and to the Coastal Conservancy for creating this opportunity for the North Coast community.

By Annie Bauer-Civiello, Reef Check Restoration Program Director

What is all the hoopla about this El Niño & what do the predictions mean for kelp?

You may have heard in the news lately about predictions of an intense El Niño event heading our way this winter. If you don’t know what this is, it is easy to go into an internet rabbit hole; we will keep this short and sweet. 

What is El Niño? A Super Quick Summary

El Niño Southern Oscillation Cycle (ENSO) has two opposing patterns — the El Niño and La Niña. These patterns are natural weather phenomena where the Pacific Ocean gets warmer (or colder) due to a combination of many different things. Since oceans are enormous bodies of water, it takes a long time for change to happen, but when it does, they have significant influences on different weather patterns. ENSO changes the wind, rain, and temperature on land and coastal water. This cycle typically occurs every 2-7 years. However, climate change is influencing the frequency of these events. Note that the impact of El Niño changes depending on where you are in the world. So, keep this in mind if you end up digging deeper.

On the West Coast of the United States, ocean water is cold and nutrient-rich, primarily due to upwelling. Upwelling is why you don’t want to get into the ocean without at least a wetsuit. It occurs when offshore winds pull warm surface winds off the coast and bring deep, cold, nutrient-rich water to the surface. El Niño weakens these winds, affecting the upwelling process resulting in warmer water temperatures.

What does this mean for kelp?

Kelp, such as bull kelp and giant kelp, thrive in cold, nutrient-rich water. Like plants on land, they like to grow in specific conditions. They don’t have roots, so instead, they rely on the ambient water conditions to thrive.

What kelp needs to grow: 

  • Nutrients
  • Sunlight
  • Cold water
  • A good balance of herbivores and predators

Over the last few years, we have been experiencing a La Niña period. This means that ocean waters are colder than average. Despite the recent challenges for kelp forest communities, this has been relatively good for kelp sporophyte survival and growth. However, several years of warmer waters will mean that it will be more challenging for kelp to grow. We saw signs of this in the 2015 El Niño event and the drastic impacts of the ‘blob.’

Moreover, changes in wind and temperatures can cause more intense storms. These storms can rip up kelp from the ecosystem. Increased rain events bring other problems, such as sedimentation and pollution from land.

If the El Niño event occurs at the severity level it is predicted, it means that the kelp needs our help more than ever. 

For the latest news on the ENSO forecast, check out this link.

We need YOU to help the kelp! Here are some steps you can take:

  • Learn about the importance of kelp forest ecosystems
  • Donate to support research and restoration
  • Participate in restoration activities

Read more about kelp forests, the effects of El Niño, and our restoration efforts here.

By Reef Check EcoDiver Kramer Wimberley of DWP-CARES

paling APAL

Reef Check EcoDivers Riane Tyler and Kramer Wimberley created “Diving With a Purpose Collective Approach to Restoring our EcoSystem” (DWP-CARES) as a community science-based program that teaches key indicator species identification and the documentation and assessment of coral reef health in conjunction with outplanting hard corals in an attempt to regenerate and restore reef structure. We work with traditionally disenfranchised youths and communities, and this year partnered with Key Dives in Islamorada, Florida, home of I.CARE (Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education). 

DWP-CARES brought together youth from around the US, Costa Rica and the Caribbean with the goal to become Reef Check EcoDiver Trainers to offer the EcoDiver program to coastal communities throughout Florida and the Caribbean. While we were conducting our surveys in Key Largo, there were times when we had to pause data collection because it was too emotionally overwhelming to witness the declining rugosity, the increase in gorgonian coverage as well as the proliferation of Palythoa. We were literally ascending in tears. For us, this is an indication of the transition from a hard coral to a soft coral ecosystem. We felt exposing participants to the trauma of data collection without offering hope was not a sustainable model for success, so we incorporated coral outplanting into our model to give us hope and a reason to continue the work. We were also in the middle of the SCTLD (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) outbreak and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary marine biologist asked if we could look for the presence of 8 boulder corals critically impacted by the disease.  

DWP-CARES & Key Dives participants

This year’s program really brought home the impact of climate change and what it’s doing to our oceans. Less than a week before the program was scheduled to begin in July, we received a call from Key Dives to say that water temperatures rose to 91 degrees Fahrenheit and that all coral outplanting in the Florida Keys had been halted. We were forced to come face to face with the reality of climate change and tell our 20 participants that the thing that they were most excited about engaging in this year would not happen because the water temperature was causing corals to bleach. Not only was Mote Marine Laboratory not outplanting, organizations were panicked attempting to remove recent outplants to preserve them and/or move the nurseries to deeper waters and potentially cooler water temperatures. 

Confronted with the reality of the situation, my team of youth proved to be extremely resilient as they focused on coral outplant maintenance and documenting. 

What we observed in the first instance was Millepora (fire coral) appeared to be the first and most prevalent species to bleach along with Palythoa, both of which are abundant on the reef. Subsequent to that, we began to see the branching corals Acropora cervicornis and Acropora palmata paling and bleaching, along with many of the boulder corals. We also observed what appeared to be an increase in algae proliferation. Students had the opportunity to witness healthy corals right next to corals that were paling and other corals that were bleaching, as well as recently killed coral. The tragedy of the situation is that this area was recovering from the SCTLD outbreak, only to be hit by this bleaching event. We are not seeing SCTLD ravage the waters where we are conducting surveys as actively as we have in previous years; the disease has decimated these waters since 2014. I don’t know if the impact seems less because of all that it has already been destroyed or whether it has run its course here. What I can say is that we are seeing small coral fragments and colonies that we thought were gone from these waters, appear again. We haven’t seen zipper coral (Meandrina meandrites) of any size or frequency in recent years. This past month we witnessed one 22 cm in diameter completely bleached. 

What was also apparent was the unified approach everyone in the area took to addressing this immediate and catastrophic event affecting the corals and the reef. There was a recognition that if something wasn’t done to address the harm, everything would be lost. In that moment, there were no politics, no blame, no egos; just a recognition that we all needed to work together around a common goal, saving the corals and documenting the event. We are feverishly working to convert a team of recreational scuba divers into community scientists to document this crisis and work towards resolution using CARES and Reef Check as a vehicle. The more we educate divers about their relationship with the coral ecosystem, the greater the chance of creating another ocean and coral advocate.

bleached dsto elliptical star coral
bleached acer and palythoa

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The Binational Resilience Initiative, a partnership between San Diego Foundation and the International Community Foundation, has awarded more than $1 million in grants to U.S.- and Mexico-based nonprofit organizations to preserve, study and strengthen the resiliency of the Cali-Baja coastline. Reef Check Foundation and partner ECOCIMATI were one of 12 projects selected and received $64,277 to preserve and protect kelp forests along the California-Baja coastline.

“Now, more than ever, local leaders are recognizing that we need to address coastal resiliency in the Cali-Baja region,” said Mark Stuart, President & CEO of San Diego Foundation. “Through the Binational Resilience Initiative, we can make a lasting impact on our cross-border region’s climate vulnerabilities by empowering collaborations between civil organizations, scientists, community leaders and other stakeholders.”

San Diego Foundation manages the Binational Resilience Initiative in partnership with the International Community Foundation, which will work directly with Mexico-based grantees to administer funding and coordinate projects.

“The Cali-Baja region is home to incredible climate leaders who have long been working to make our shared region more resilient,” said Marisa Aurora Quiroz, President & CEO of the International Community Foundation. “Investing in their research, their ideas, and their creativity strengthens us and helps us prepare for the future. These grants represent an impressive body of work that will benefit us all.”

Projects selected for funding through the Binational Resilience Initiative demonstrate effective cross-border collaboration and contribute to coastal preservation or resilience in two or more of the following areas: climate relevance, economic prosperity, knowledge sharing, organizational resilience and/or research. All funded projects include a U.S.- and a Mexico-based nonprofit partner.

The Cali-Baja region encompasses a diverse region spanning San Diego County in the U.S. to the Pacific side of Northern Baja California, Mexico, between Tijuana and Ensenada. In spite of the U.S.-Mexico border, communities of the Cali-Baja region are uniquely connected through environmental, economic, cultural and other interdependencies. To expand the region’s capacity to adapt to climate change, manage and conserve shared resources, and thrive together, the Binational Resilience Initiative creates a shared regional approach to manage and plan for the best future as a region.

Funders for the Binational Resilience Initiative include The Builders Initiative (BI) and Alumbra Innovations Foundation, which together seeded the initiative with $1,975,000 in combined funding. Other project partners include Resilient Cities Catalyst and the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative housed at the Nonprofit Institute of the University of San Diego.

Corals bleaching as the water temperature reaches 32°C

Submitted by Reef Check Malaysia

Reef Check Malaysia’s team is busy on the ground as we enter the peak time of the season. However, Malaysia is experiencing a heatwave that is expected to last until August 2023, according to the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Malaysia.

The temperature has recently gone as high as 37°C (98.6°F) during the day and our team has reported that the underwater temperature reached as high as 32°C (89.6°F). This is a cause of concern as our team has observed signs of bleaching in the corals.

Due to this, our team is actively monitoring the situation and activating our bleaching response plan to mitigate the situation.

100kg of ghost nets in Mantanani Island

In addition, ghost nets (fishing nets that have been abandoned, lost or discarded) are still haunting our ocean. Teams at each of our bases have had their hands full with removing ghost nets from damaging the reefs and trapping marine life to their death.

In Sabah, our team removed 100 kg of ghost nets in Mantanani Island. It took seven people to remove the 20 to 30 m-long net. In Tioman, ghost net removal is almost done weekly. In May, our team, along with the Tioman Marine Conservation Group (TMCG), removed 440 kg of ghost nets in one session.

2,181 COTs from a four-day COT cleanup session in Sabah

On top of that, our team has also been responding to the Crown-of-Thorns (COT) starfish outbreak. In Darvel Bay, off Sabah’s east coast in Lahad Datu district, our team, with the help of Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry and divers from Sabah Parks, Lahad Datu Fisheries Department, Darvel Bay Diving Group and the NGO Larapan Youth, held a cleanup to remove this predator. The team managed to remove 2,181 COTs from the four-day COT cleanup session.