The Transect Line – November 2009
  Newsletter Highlights
First EcoExpedition to Isla Natividad, Mexico Rare Sea Cucumber Found on Avalon, CA Survey
Diving into the Port of LA in the Name of Science Reef Check California Update
Do Your Holiday Shopping With Reef Check Reef Check Malibu Interns Dive in to Phuket
Vote For RC in the Chase Community Giving Contest Biosphere Expeditions Teams Up With RC For Musandam EcoExpedition
First EcoExpedition to Isla Natividad, Mexico
By Mary Luna, Reef Check Program Manager, Mexico & Outreach
Reef Check teamed up with two other organizations, the fishing Cooperativa Buzos y Pescadores and the Mexico based environmental group Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI), to run the first recreational dive trip to Isla Natividad from October 30 – November 5, 2009. This small Pacific island located on the west coast of northern Baja California Sur, Mexico, is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The trip is part of a project to use non-fishing activities to earn income for the fishing Cooperativa and pay part of the cost of operating the two marine reserves. Every year since their establishment in 2006, Reef Check California (RCCA), COBI and RCCA certified divers from the Cooperativa monitor the effect inside and outside these no-take zones.

Our first group of adventure lovers was composed of Dirk Burcham, Sue Chen, Todd Walker, Andrew Wiens, and John Rothman. They flew out of Brownfield Airport in San Diego in the company of RCCA’s Director of Science Cyndi Dawson. After a short stop at the Ensenada airport to clear customs, the group landed on Natividad’s 3600ft long dirt landing strip. Cameras in hand, and waiting for their arrival were members of the Cooperativa and visiting scientists currently working on the island.

After a delicious meal, the group was invited to attend a welcome reception. Introductions were made among the visiting divers and all those who would be involved in making their stay a pleasant and safe adventure. Ashley Greenley from Hopkins Marine Lab introduced us to her work with abalone larvae collectors. Antonio, the Island’s biologist, provided a short history of the island’s biogeography, fisheries, and highlighted several of the projects the Coop has undertaken to ensure the long term health of the island's terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The next morning we set out to dive Piedra Maria, a deeper reef on the north side of the island, but a lingering swell encouraged us to go back and dive a more sheltered site called La Vela. Abraham Mayoral and Alonzo Ramirez, both RCCA certified divers from the Cooperativa, were our dive guides for the rest of the trip. Their extensive knowledge of the local reefs helped make the dives exciting. The trip included four days of diving at reserve and non-reserve sites; most with two morning dives, lunch at local chef Mari’s, followed by two afternoon dives. Day two was “science day;” in the morning divers helped Ashley and Leo from COBI change the collectors where abalone larvae settle – be sure to check out the video. This is part of an investigation about larval settlement at different sites in and outside the reserves. In the afternoon we conducted a survey at Punta Prieta.

The night after Halloween and under a full moon, we went “trick-or-treating” in Poseidon’s neighborhood. The dive took place at Las Cuevas reserve, and in spite of a little surge, we witnessed the incredible number and large size of the lobsters that came out to greet us. This also became a memorable first experience in night diving for some of us.

Diving into the Port of Los Angeles in the Name of Science

By Reef Check California's Southern California Regional Manager Colleen Wisniewski

Over the past year, Reef Check had the opportunity to work with members of the Port of Los Angeles Police Dive Team in a unique partnership, training them to become Reef Check California divers so they can collect data on their local rocky reefs. The class had eight well-trained divers that are more accustomed to diving in the very challenging waters of the Port and the surrounding area, with their usual goal of maintaining security for a very busy harbor instead of counting rockfish. However, they were all eager to hone some new skills and learn a bit more about the fish and invertebrates found along our coastline.

We did the training in several chunks – the classroom, pool and aquarium sessions took place in October 2008 on Terminal Island and in San Pedro, with a trip to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. The field training occurred at the west end of Catalina Island over two days in November 2008, with a refresher in the spring of 2009. We took the police boat to the island and were able to take advantage of some amazing conditions. We observed lots of healthy kelp, schooling fish, invertebrates and even horn sharks. It was very beautiful underwater and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. And, it was very interesting to see the difference at Cherry Cove from November to April – a Sargassum filicinum seaweed forest sprung up between our field sessions and completely changed the site, much to the dismay of our budding citizen scientists.

On November 12, 2009 we finally got to perform our first survey in the harbor at Pier 400 – it’s a site full of cranes and trucks, surrounded by giant chunks of quarry rock from Catalina. I’m somewhat familiar with the port and wasn’t expecting much in the way of clear water or marine life – honestly, I was preparing for some very unpleasant diving conditions. However, we were met with 15-25 foot visibility (if you didn’t stir up the very fine sediment on the bottom) and loads of invertebrates including red gorgonians, a variety of sea star species, giant keyhole limpets, warty sea cucumbers and an octopus, to name just a few. I was even more impressed with the abundance of fish I counted on transect – several species of bass and perch, blacksmith, senoritas, a garibaldi or two, a large cabezon and perhaps most impressive, a quick glimpse at a school of barracuda. I was pleasantly surprised! Of course it was a bit different from our usual sites in that there was a fair bit of noise underwater any time a tugboat or a container ship passed by. It was also a bit eerie with virtually no seaweed of any type, except two species of invasive Sargassum and the odd one or two strands of kelp. But it was very interesting to get a glimpse at what goes on underwater in the port. 

We are excited about this collaboration with the Port of Los Angeles and we are happy to welcome these divers to the Reef Check team. We look forward to seeing the results of future surveys at the other potential Reef Check sites in the Port of Los Angeles in 2010.

Do Your Holiday Shopping With Reef Check

Let Reef Check help with your holiday shopping! You can save reefs as you shop the Sea Store, give the gift of membership, or purchase a unique work of art at our Artists for Reefs Gallery.

Also, remember to use Reef Check's Yellow Brick Mall site for your other online purchases. When you link to a store through Yellow Brick Mall and make a purchase, a portion of your sale goes to Reef Check. No login is required and your purchase is directly with the online merchant.

Vote For Reef Check in the Chase Community Giving Contest

Through Facebook, Chase has organized the Chase Community Giving contest in which $5 million will be given to the non-profits who receive the most votes. Be sure to vote for Reef Check before December 11th. All you need to do is become a fan of Chase Community Giving, search for Reef Check Foundation (Pacific Palisades CA), and submit your vote!

Rare Sea Cucumber Found on Avalon, California Survey

By Reef Check California's Southern California Regional Manager Colleen Wisniewski

It’s always exciting when you encounter a different species on a dive, especially after many dives in the same region. Such was the case on November 7th while we were performing our fall Reef Check California (RCCA) survey at the Avalon Dive Park on Catalina Island. I had just entered the water for my second dive with my buddy George and we were swimming over to our assigned transect area. I looked at the rocks below me and saw a large sea cucumber. I kept swimming for a few seconds when it finally hit me – “that’s not our usual warty sea cucumber!” I went back and took a closer look and was a bit puzzled. To my knowledge, I’d never seen this species before so I snapped a few quick photos to see if I could identify it later. It was much longer than our warty sea cucumbers (approximately 14 inches) and the coloring was a bit different, as well.

Once back at the office, after a bit of research, we determined it was Holothuria zacae, a tropical/sub-tropical sea cucumber usually found along the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos and Mexico. Its extreme northernmost range has been listed as Ship Rock at the west end of Catalina Island, just a few miles north of where we were diving. Needless to say, I was a bit excited!  Not many California divers run across this species on their dives, so I felt pretty lucky. I’m reminded once again why RCCA is so interesting – aside from monitoring our indicator species, we can track rarely seen species and potentially notice trends in their ranges. I look forward to hopefully seeing some other rare species on survey dives in 2010!

Reef Check California Update
By Reef Check California Director of Science Cyndi Dawson

November marks the official end of the survey season. As I write this, we still have Humboldt State University out completing surveys during Thanksgiving week but we are on track to complete 70 sites statewide. This is an especially noteworthy accomplishment given the challenging fundraising climate we faced this year. Our staff and volunteers really stepped up and went the extra mile to once again show continued growth of the program, adding an additional 10 sites which increase our ability to improve marine management in California.

This month saw some firsts for the California Program. Our partnership with the LA Port Police came to fruition with the completion of a site just inside the LA Harbor Breakwall. We also began work in a new location in Baja at Bahía Magdalena. This is an incredibly interesting place that is located in a transitional area between temperate and tropical oceanic zones. I joined Director of Science Andrea Sánez-Arroyo (Communidad y Biodiversidad, COBI) and Mary Luna (RC Program Manager, Mexico & Outreach) on a trip to the southern end of the Baja Peninsula to start work with a Cooperative of Fishermen located on Isla Magdalena which is a large barrier island (314 km2) in front of Bahía Magdalena.

The Isla Magdalena Cooperative had heard of COBI and RC’s work with the Coop on Isla Natividad and invited us to come start a similar marine reserve project in their fishing grounds. Unlike the Natividad Coop that have exclusive rights to the area around their island, the situation is much more complex in Bahía Magdalena with literally tens of different Coops with fishing concessions in overlapping areas. However, COBI successfully negotiated a new marine reserve that was unanimously approved by the Coop in June as well as securing funds for the purchase of a vessel to help with enforcement of the new reserve. The goal of our trip was to continue to develop a relationship with the community and make dives to determine the species assemblages and adjust the monitoring protocol accordingly. We found a system dominated by tropical species such angelfish and butterflyfish swimming among a sub-canopy of often dense Southern sea palm (Eisenia arborea). We also were lucky enough to see several Gulf grouper (Mycteroperca jordani).

We are making the final adjustments to the protocol and the training of the local Coop members will begin next May with their certification as scuba divers. We are looking forward to another successful project involving marine reserves and providing the community with data that will help them make the best decisions for the long-term sustainability of their resources.

If you want the inside scoop on what is happening with RCCA you can follow me on Twitter. I will continue “tweeting” throughout the season to keep everyone updated on the RCCA program and my exploits as RCCA’s Director of Science. All relevant updates will also be posted on the Forum including daily blogs when I am on the road spreading the word about Reef Check.

As you all know, this has been a challenging year financially for most of us and RCCA is no exception. Please consider making an end-of-the-year donation to help us finish 2009 in a healthy financial condition. We continue to be on the front lines of improving marine management in California and we need your continued support! Your donations to RCCA go directly to supporting the collection of the critical data needed to sustainably manage California’s marine resources. Please join us and help ensure the sustainability of reefs worldwide!

Reef Check Teams in Action
Reef Check Malibu Interns Dive in to Phuket
By Reef Check Executive Director Dr. Gregor Hodgson

Applicants from across the United States and from all walks of life applied for the opportunity to become a Reef Check Intern in Phuket, Thailand. After a rigorous screening, ten interns were selected to participate in a 10 day training and survey Expedition, organized by RC Thailand Coordinators, Kim Obermeyer and Awe, and sponsored by Malibu. They came from all over the US – from New York to Chicago to San Diego. Several had never tried to snorkel before, but had always wanted to learn more about the ocean.  Others were avid scuba divers who were interested in learning more about coral reef conservation.

After a cultural orientation and jet-lag reduction in Bangkok, the group arrived at the Baan Krating Resort, on the south coast of Phuket, on November 3 and almost immediately jumped into the warm, blue Andaman Sea to try out their snorkels, masks and fins. After some defogging practice and fin adjustments, everyone began to enjoy the parrotfish, very large coral “bommies” and learned how to avoid the stinging fire coral.

What the group lacked in experience they made up for in spirit and enthusiasm. Three days of EcoDiver training followed – these mornings were spent in the classroom learning survey methods and how to identify RC indicators for the Indo-Pacific, such as the Humphead Wrasse and the Triton Seasnail. Then the afternoons were spent learning how to lay a transect line and practicing survey methods for each of the three surveys – fish, invertebrates and substrate. Just learning the metric system was another challenge for Americans used to working in inches and feet!

A presentation by Kim, who also runs an Ecolodge at Koh Ra, was an eye-opening opportunity to learn about the problems facing the reefs of Thailand. Poaching in parks, general overfishing and destructive fishing are serious threats, not to mention the tsunami of 2004 and local sewage and sedimentation problems. Most Americans are not aware that fishermen in many parts of the world use bombs to catch fish!

The interns trained on the reefs off Baan Krating, and after the new divers completed scuba training, they carried out two practice surveys on the reefs of the offshore islands – Koh Phi Phi and Raja Yai. Aaron, an intern from San Diego, California, was able to document the underwater work using a very cool Scuba Series HD Mask Cam donated by This is a scuba mask with an integrated HD camera that takes both stills and video (see video). 

The group noted the high number of fishing nets caught on the reef and Angela, a TV reporter from Los Angeles, California, removed some. On the other hand, the interns were excited to see large individuals of the Giant Clam – an important Reef Check indicator, harvested both for the decorative shells and for food. The size and number of giant clams that are now found on the reefs are partly the result of aquaculture, seeding and also good conservation practices in that area. Sadly, some of the dive operators in Phuket complained of an increasing level of poaching at more remote sites further offshore. Reef Check has been lucky over the years to have the support of Thai marine biologists, such as Dr. Suchana Chavanich of Chulalongkorn University, who are working hard not only to carry out intensive scientific research on reefs, but also to spread the word about the importance of coral reef conservation to the Thai public through books and the media.

For many of the interns, like Ryan, a college student from Lincoln, Nebraska, diving in tropical waters was the best form of  “immersion learning” and was a life changing experience. Drew, a nonprofit manager from Westport, Connecticut, said, “My experience in Thailand will stay with me and has made me want to explore reefs forever.” Other interns such as Karla, a school teacher from Richmond, Virginia, commented that she had a new found appreciation for marine scientists –  “Doing a survey can be hard work when the wind is blowing and the sea is rough!”

For those who want to experience the magic of Thailand’s reefs and become certified EcoDivers, several expeditions will be offered in 2010. From Reef Check’s perspective, the very real educational process, generated by the 2009 Malibu Intern program, has been a great success and shows a strong commitment to corporate socialresponsibility by Malibu/Pernod Ricard and their PR team, The Thomas Collective.

Biosphere Expeditions Teams Up With Reef Check For Musandam EcoExpedition
By Biosphere Expeditions' Matthias Hammer

Biosphere Expeditions recently concluded its inaugural study of the Musandam peninsula’s unique coral reefs in Oman. Biosphere Expeditions, a Reef Check partner since 2006, teamed up with Six Senses Zighy Bay, HSBC Oman, the Emirates Diving Association, and Sultan Qaboos University to examine reef health and the effects of human activity in the region. The results will be made available to the government for it to support sustainable eco-tourism and conservation policies.

The expedition included scientists and volunteers from three continents, including Oman, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and Brazil. The trip included a Reef Check EcoDiver training in which 23 divers were certified as Reef Check EcoDivers.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and managing director of Biosphere Expeditions, says of the reefs, “The Musandam peninsula is a place of international importance that deserves our attention. Our expedition has found that siltation (for example from construction) and coral bleaching are not a problem and that hard coral cover is slightly above the global average. This is good news. More worryingly, however, fish numbers and general biodiversity were low probably due to overfishing, the 2008/2009 red tide, and category 5 cyclones such as Gonu in June 2007 which added further stresses to the fragile reef ecosystem. Other stresses are coral damage due to boat anchors, as well as trash and fish nets. Despite these stresses, the reef life of Musandam is really quite amazing and definitely deserves further study and protection for future generations and local livelihoods.”

“Because of the relatively low impact situation we find here, we have a unique chance to come in now and help preserve these reefs”, says Rita Bento, the expedition’s chief scientist and Reef Check coordinator for the United Arab Emirates. “There is an opportunity to prevent the decline that has happened elsewhere.” “The reefs also show an ability to thrive in the harsh local conditions”, she adds. “These corals are surviving in water temperature and salinity conditions which would kill corals elsewhere.”

With the support of Six Senses Zighy Bay and HSBC Oman, the study also ran an outreach and education program aimed at local children and fishermen about the value of marine resources and how to protect them and local livelihoods. The expedition visited children and local fishermen in remote villages of the peninsula, distributed educational materials and held talks about the importance of the reefs for sustaining local livelihoods. The expedition also built relationships with the Ministry of Education of the Musandam peninsula and hundreds of educational books will now be distributed across the peninsula’s schools. In addition, Zighy Bay and HSBC staff were also involved in the study itself, thereby building further capacity and involving people in conservation on a one-to-one level.

Biosphere Expeditions and Reef Check are now offering two more trips to Musandam in October 2010 as well as two trips to Honduras in March 2010. Please visit for more information.