October 7, 2013

Reef Check California Expands its Baja Program

By Colleen Wisniewski, Reef Check California’s SoCal Regional Manager

2013 graduating class, mentors and instructors from the July Isla Natividad training

This past summer was a busy one as I spent 17 days in Baja California, Mexico working with two fishing cooperatives along the Pacific coast during their annual Reef Check California (RCCA) training and recertification. I was joined by Dan Abbott, a long-time RCCA volunteer diver and instructor. We worked with our long-time Mexican non-profit partner organization, Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) as well as with two fishing cooperatives, Buzos Y Pescadores De La Baja California S.C.L.at Isla Natividad and Sociedad Cooperativa de Produccion Pesquera Pescadores Ensenada in El Rosario. It was a long but successful couple of weeks and both Dan and I had a great time working with all of the divers.

This was my fourth year working with the team at Isla Natividad. We spent about a week working with this large group, which gave us plenty of time to do our classroom and field training. We’d previously been working with a core group of about eight divers but this year was a bit different. This summer, we promoted the very experienced team of five returning divers to mentors and these divers took their roles quite seriously. They did an excellent job of guiding their protégées both in the classroom and in the field. With the help of our mentors, we were able to add 16 divers – both younger fishermen and a group of island women – to the team. These newer divers had completed their open water scuba certification with one of the COBI scuba instructors in the last year and they all did a spectacular job during the RCCA training. It was awesome to see each mentor walking around with their team of two or three divers, explaining the dive plan in exact detail or keeping an eye on their buddies underwater. And the new Reef Checkers were very keen to learn and could be found studying their species identification cards during breaks from the class and quizzing one another. And for the first time on the island, we had a representative from CONAP (Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas), who works specifically in the local El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, join our training and he was very excited to be part of the effort. We were lucky to have stellar diving conditions and warm topside weather to make our training very comfortable as we explored the beautiful underwater world around the island. All in all it was a very successful week!

The new trainees at El Rosario

Immediately following our time at Isla Natividad, we traveled several hours north to work with the divers from Sociedad Cooperativa de Produccion Pesquera Pescadores Ensenada in El Rosario. This is a new group for us but we felt very welcomed as everyone there was looking forward to working with us. When we arrived, we got a tour of their very impressive new processing facility that is currently under construction. During this inaugural training, we taught six very determined divers from the cooperative how to perform invertebrate, seaweed, substrate and fish surveys. Days were long – during a typical day, we’d meet at the office at 6:30am and we would arrive back at the cooperative office at around 4pm after doing two very chilly dives and driving to and from the harbor. We’d typically need to fit in a late lunch before returning to the cooperative office to have evening lecture and fill scuba tanks for the next day. Despite the lengthy days, it was fun to work with a different cooperative and to explore new areas along the Baja coastline. Our last dive site, in particular, was amazing, with the ocean floor jam packed with seaweed and invertebrates and rockfish I’ve never seen in all my days diving in Southern California. On the last evening, we had a little ‘graduation’ ceremony at the cooperative office and the divers grilled up some carne asada for us to celebrate our successes. It was so wonderful to meet a brand new team and see them progress from novice divers to citizen scientists in just a week. It was quite rewarding for me and Dan and I know we very much enjoyed working with the team.

Following the training events, COBI led the data collection efforts in both locations with the newly trained citizen scientists. 2013 is the 8th year of data collection at Natividad and the 1st in El Rosario. Training in our third Baja location, Magdalena Bay, takes place in October. I want to send a huge thanks to both fishing cooperatives, COBI, Leo Vasquez and Arturo Hernandez (both from COBI) and Natalie Low (a graduate student at Stanford, doing field work in Baja). And I can’t imagine how it would have been possible without Dan Abbott, who took considerable time off his full-time job and from his family to help me in Baja this year. I know we both had a very rewarding trip and I’m already looking forward to next year!

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Isla Natividad mentor (center) explaining the dive plan to his two protégées Gearing up for a training dive in Isla Natividad